Merry and Gay, and Often Both
Reflections on the past two weeks in Japan.

Cutlery and Treachery


As you might expect, I attend dinner parties where both Europeans and Americans gather.  Guests often remark on the manner in which the natives of both continents use cutlery. 

Here's the drill.  A European stabs his meat with a fork in the left hand, slices off a piece with a knife held in the right, and raises the left hand to his mouth.  An American stabs his meat with a fork in the left hand, cuts it with a knife held in his right, transfers the fork to his right hand, and spoons up the meat with it. 

Europeans think Americans are infantile, because a toddler eats the American way after a parent cuts the meal into bite-size bits.  Americans think that Europeans are stupid because the European way makes it much harder to deal with peas and mashed potatoes and stuff.  It becomes an issue of cultural superiority.  The dinner conversation grows tense as each team sneers at the other side, until the Americans remind the Europeans about World War Two, and the Europeans remind the Americans about German cars and universal health care. 

One of the things which sustains this meme is that no-one knows how the difference came about.  If there were a logical explanation, one could judge what makes more sense. 

Then the wrong side must change.  Because wrong sides always change when you point out how wrong they are. 

En Garde!

Thinking that it would tell me about chopstick etiquette, I bought a book called From Hand to Mouth, Or, How We Invented Knives, Forks, Spoons, and Chopsticks, & the Table Manners to Go with Them, by James Giblin.  The author had little to say about chopsticks, but dug deep into the cutlery issue. 

He tells the story like this.

Many years ago, a knife served as both weapon and eating implement.  You took your dagger from its scabard, sliced a chunk from the joint, and speared the food to bring it to your mouth.  Any actor who plays Henry the Eighth has to get this move down pat.

Understandably, Henry and his fellow monarchs felt nervous when every feast at court involved guests who waved around murder weapons. 

In the 1600s, European nobility introduced an Arabic invention; a device with two prongs, designed to help eat chopped fruit.  Since it resembled  the way one road splits into two, they called it a fork

With the arrival of the fork, knife tips could be blunted, making them useless for a stabbing.  As a bonus, you could eat faster, two handed.  Since the royal court determined manners, it wasn't long before well-to-do subjects all ate this way. 

Nobody sent America the memo. 

Colonists innocently bought knives and spoons, not thinking to add these mysterious new items called forks that appeared on the order form.  When knives arrived with a round end, they improvised.  They cut the meat with a knife, as before, but had to use spoons to shovel the pieces in to their mouths. 

By the time Americans caught on, the fork had evolved. It grew a couple more prongs, so each tine could be blunter and less threatening.  Habits being what they are, Americans simply substituted the fork for the spoon, and continued to scoop up their meat.  They have done so ever since.

Proved right, for what it's worth.

See?  There's a logical explanation. 

Not that it matters.  When I tell this story at a dinner party, people sometimes fall asleep, face down in the dessert.  It does take some telling, after all.

More often, they scoff in disbelief.  The story makes too much sense. They long for these cultural differences to have an exotic source.  They want to believe that George Washington ordered his troops to eat with their right hands in honour of Benjamin Franklin, who lost his left arm in a guillotine during the Spanish Inquisition, or something.

You can imagine the smug pride I felt on a recent trip to the Salzburg Fortress, where I found evidence that corroborates the historical account.

The picture above shows a museum exhibit from the seventeeth century.  The table setting contains a knife with a blunted tip, and a two-pronged fork.  Exactly as the theory would predict.

The next time I'm invited to a dinner party, I'll email everyone this story first.   It will save time.

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