There it is, the object of your affection — a nice big juicy steak, ready for your wholehearted consumption and gustatory devotion. So you pick you your fork in your left hand, the knife in the right, cut a nice piece of it… and then you probably switch your fork to your right hand. Take a deep breath: That’s wrong.
This, all according to the Europeans, Slate relays in a very interesting and lengthy look at the cut-and-switch maneuver many Americans practice at the dinner table.
Europeans keep the fork in their left hands after sawing with the knife in their right, something I happen to also do and was once told by a friend made me look “quite Continental” (really she called me pretentious and laughed). But it turns out that it was the Europeans who first popularized this switcheroo, and we Americans only copied it to be, well, cool at eating.
Back when we were in the infancy of our Americanness, we wanted to be more like the French. And right around the early 18th century, it became popular in France to lay the knife down after cutting and move the fork to the right, in line with the medieval tradition of showing someone you weren’t about to stab someone with that knife.
The French were going against the established grain by doing so, it turns out. See, in the days of yore when forks and knives first came on the scene, diners emulated the kitchen staff who would use the fork to steady a large hank of whichever beast was being butchered and use the dominant (usually) right hand to cut the meat.
While it’s unclear why the French decided to go rogue, it could be that they had so much fancy food to eat at high society dinners that using the right hand was just easier for transporting delicacies. Fork-traveling move could also be seen as a prejudice against the left hand, as any lefty will tell you it’s a hard row to hoe when most everyone else is a righty.
In any case, France switched back to the no-switchbacks mode of dining somewhere in the mid-1800s while we Americans kept on shoveling food in the same way because that’s how we eat, and no one can tell us otherwise.
So what should we take away from this? Well, it is a free country — if you don’t mind the extra time it takes to cross that fork over, I say eat however you want. Whatever gets the food from the plate to your mouth sounds fine by me.
For more on intense history of knifing and forking, check out Slate’s investigation in the source link below.
Put a Fork in It [Slate]