Oh, fork.


I’ve had several weird experiences eating in the States.  Don’t get me wrong, the food is generally great (and certainly more consistent than in the UK), no it’s not the food.  And it’s certainly not the service, because that’s probably the best in the world.  It’s…the staring.

It happened at a golf-club in Sonoma.  And again at a restaurant overlooking Pittsburgh.  And, actually, countless other times too.  There I am, eating my dinner and the place goes kind of quiet and I realise there are myriad eyes following my cutlery.

The truth is, we eat differently and it’s our fault (good Lord, can I not write a single flippin’ post without apologising on behalf of my country?).

The usual American way is to use the knife in the right hand for cutting food and then transfer the fork to the right hand for eating it.  The European way is to hold the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right hand throughout the meal.  So how did that happen, then?

Well as I said, it’s the Brits’ fault.  We actually kept forks a secret from you!  Anyway, let’s start at the very beginning for, as Julie Andrews once sang, “that’s a very good place to start”.

When the world was young and Henry VIII was busy with all that marrying, divorcing and beheading stuff, we all used to eat with a spoon and dagger.  You’d press down firmly on the meat with the spoon, slice a piece off and then spike it on the end of the dagger to eat it.  Afterwards, you’d transfer the spoon to the right hand to scoop up the gravy and remaining bits and bobs.  It’s worth noting that eating your peas politely was never a problem in this particular culinary setting, as we were all veg-dodgers at the time and peas didn’t become at all fashionable until around 1700.  Anyway, I digress..

Then (around 1600) those clever and sophisticated Italians made forks really fashionable and the French went wild for them.  They reached Britain about the same time The Mayflower was leaving, but British men regarded forks as being foppish and effeminate and refused to use them for decades (although they were declared a pretty present for a bride).  Eventually, they caught on in Britain too, and, having no further need to spike meat, as the fork was now used for that, we rounded off the ends of our knives to become the dinner knives we know and use today.

The problem was, the naughty cutlery manufacturers in Sheffield (who shipped cutlery to the States in the early days, before you made your own) ‘forgot’ to tell our good cousins across the pond about forks.  The first thing most Americans knew was that Sheffield was sending rubbish knives; they were no good for stabbing meat anymore!  So, they cut the meat with the knife but then ate it with the spoon.  About forty years later we finally started sending forks to the US (but they took a good long while to get out to the less populated areas), by which time the method of eating was pretty much ingrained and no-one saw any reason to change, as their current method was perfectly good.  Forks eventually got substituted for spoons because they were more efficient, but other than that the method of eating has stayed the same.

The net result of which is that I seem to bring any restaurant (in a non-tourist area) to a standstill by eating the European way!

Or maybe I just had gravy on my chin?  Yep – it was probably the gravy.  Oh well, I’ve expounded on the whole ‘fork’ theory now, so might as well leave this post up, eh?

Right, got to go and see if I can find anything to write about that doesn’t involve apologising for my ancestors!



Filed under English Quirks, Englishness, history

10 responses to “Oh, fork.

  1. Lovely write up.

    Apparently, I’ve been eating the British way and I never realized it.

    Go figure!

    • It’s rumoured the first person in the US to buy and use a fork was John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts colony. So using cutlery the European way tends to be more common in the North East and less common in areas that were, at the time, considered “Out West”.

      Or maybe you’re just REALLY posh!

  2. Brad

    Don’t apologize! I think the European method is a much easier way of eating and much more elegant. I discovered it when I went to Europe for the first time. Since then I’ve adopted the European method of using cutlery myself now. Yes, I get odd stares too sometimes in restaurants at home.

    I’ve since made a few friends in England and one night while traveling there I was invited to a friend’s dinner party. I caused a few comments when I set my knife and fork down to take a sip of wine. I placed my knife on the edge of the plate, instead of leaning the knife end on the plate with the handle resting on the table, or just placing the knife end in the center of the plate with the handle resting on the edge. Someone asked me “why do American’s do that?” I didn’t have an answer other than that it was taught to me by my mother as the polite thing to do. Someone else in the party volunteered that in past centuries people would often share a knife at table and so it was balanced on the edge of the plate so someone else could grab it when needed.
    I find cultural differences like this fascinating!

  3. giftedgirl94

    Wow, that’s weird! Weird in a good way, that is. I think it’s fun to find out about each country’s quirks, don’t you think? 😀

    • I do, that’s pretty much what prompted me to start The Anglofile; after years of travelling to the States, it makes you realise how strange Britain must seem to a non-Brit!

      Nice to hear from you,


  4. http://inventedbytheenglish.wordpress.com/
    you will ove this blog.
    its a friend of mine.

    let me know if you liked it :o)

  5. bluebicicletta

    That’s amazing–fascinating! How cool to know! I suppose I had never realized that we eat differently. I am actually a lefty, so I do what you described as the American custom, but backwards—perhaps I should pick up the European style!

  6. Hello from Russia!
    Can I quote a post in your blog with the link to you?

  7. I think they call the European way of handling the cutlery “Continental” here in the US. It is the way I’ve always eaten and I do get some stares at times.

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