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Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
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Friday, 4 April 2014

His tail's like that too

Years ago Tone Deaf, then Works Well, did the knife and then the spoon. Time now for the very symbolic fork.

It has, for instance, been a source of dissension between the Rs. In logistical terms the fork is inferior to the spoon. Used poshly (ie, upside down) the fork holds less tucker (ie, Oz for food; probably outmoded by now) and what it does hold is less secure. It is not the tool of choice for a hungry man since not everything is spearable.

In my youth and middle age I was always hungry and saw no reason why I had to eat, say, scrambled egg with a fork. VR disagreed and I gave in. Casseroles were another area of dispute.

The fork is, of course, associated with the Devil. I'm using an initial capital letter but will take advice on this from devout Christians.

The fork (used with the knife) divides transatlantic table habits. Or did, things may have changed. To a Brit it was all strangely unsettling. All that sawing with no eating, the food getting cold. Then the switchover - like getting off a horse and mounting a child's tricycle. By then my plate would be half-cleared. I never dared raise this point, I suspected it was written into the Constitution.

But Brits aren’t really more efficient. We deliberately insist on balancing food on the fork’s under edge, whence it falls off. Especially peas. Americans often point out this anomaly, unaware of their own practises.

Secretly, when no one's watching, I invert my fork and push with the knife. Lowering my head betimes.

A warning to untravelled Americans: forks are big etiquette in the UK.

No one I know uses a spoon to eat fish.


  1. Ah the fork. As a girl in Frankfurt, I was expected to eat with the utmost decorum, with the fork in my left hand and the knife in my right (pointing fingers extended along the top of both; no switchovers). Spoons were for soup. Then I moved to western Japan! No spoons (drink soup from bowl) and chopsticks doing the work of both knife and fork.

    Isn't there something like a fish fork? I think I have one somewhere. One prong flattened and wider than the others?

  2. Rouchswalwe beat me to it.
    One does not put a knife to fish, I was instructed.
    Talking about knives brings a post of yours to mind about your father cutting meat and sharpening knife often during the process. My knife sharpener sits beside me now whenever I cut meat and I do as your father did and think "if RR only knew that Ellena
    thinks of him whenever cutting raw meat and whenever her eyes meet the sharpener on the kitchen counter".

  3. 'I eat my peas with honey
    I've done it all my life
    It makes the peas taste funny
    But it keeps them on the knife.'

    Isn't there a bit in 'Cranford' about eating duck and peas with a round-bladed knife and a two pronged fork, and the older ladies forwent the delicious peas rather than scoop them up on the knife?

    I still turn the fork over and shovel too. In fact I didn't learn till quite late I wasn't supposed to do that.

    Germans seem to have even more precise notions of correctness in table etiquette than the British; our German friend once told us you could only lift a boned morsel from the plate with your hands and chew it if it belonged to something that once flew, so a chicken leg or wing is OK but a pork chop isn't.

    Rs's fork sounds more like a cake fork. I seem to remember fish forks having a kind of rounded base to the pronged bit, not for reasons of effectiveness but simply to distinguish them, I think, since when cutlery was all silver or plate the fishy smell could taint them. It was the knives that were flattened and with the little curvy point for taking the fish flesh off the bone, a satisfying action. We used to have some but they were too heavy, and anyway, life and space are too short to carry round too many cutlery variants.

  4. An underhand grip for spoon and fork was advised as proper in my youth, and is still widely recognized as such in these parts. Utensil rests across middle segment of ring and pinky fingers and is controlled by thumb, index and middle finger. Palm up or you're a cretin.

  5. RW (zS): I think we need a photograph but I bless you for "no switchovers". Sometimes a Brit will think an American has given up on the meal when switching occurs. Yes there is not only a fish fork but also a fish knife. Forget 'em both. They're out to complicate your life deliciously simplified in Japan.

    Ellena: The knife sharpener was my father-in-law, a chef. But here's the important bit. I said from the start - from the first comment I left with you - that you had hidden depths and so you are proving with each - alas, far too rare - comment. And don't give me all that merde about snow five feet deep. I don't expect you to blog buried in a snow-drift.

    Lucy: There's no doubt we moved closer in Tunbridge Wells but that was nothing compared with the revelation that you're a shoveller - bound together in life, in death we are destined to be represented by an agglomeration of stars said to resemble... oh, dear me, I find I cannot complete this sentence.

    I bow to your superior knowledge of advanced table tools, just one of seventy-three areas where you're ahead of me. But your charm lies in the brisk dismissiveness at the end and especially the calculated misuse of "cutlery".

    MikeM: Too exhausted to make sense of these juxtapositions. I left you a massive re-comment back re. the 23 movies post. It had to be split, Google's law. Please read it or else I'll believe all the value has gone out of my life.

  6. Having eaten again, I now realize that the knife/spoon rests on the middle finger in the favored U.S. grip. Much of the talk here seems to be leaning toward sporks, known to me as an amalgamic load lightening device for campers.

  7. Here in the backwoods of the Colonies, we're still using the knife for pretty much everything.

  8. I thought my table etiquette was fine until I read this post. Now I see that I've been doing everything wrong all my life and nobody told me. I don't talk with my mouth full, I chew quietly and I know what a fish fork and knife are for. But I shovel with a fork, wouldn't dream of spearing peas, and will use a spoon for whatever I damn please if it's more convenient. Does that make persona non grata at the best tables?

  9. MikeM: Amalgamic, forsooth! Glad you've got your fingers sorted. Next step - the Waldstein.

    Stella: Including settling arguments?

    Natalie: Here's a simple answer: if you get asked back a second time... no, wait a minute, your hosts might be simply being polite. Only the English, actually only the English middle classes, can make politeness feel like a slap across the kisser.

  10. Since the mention of "The British" I am reminded of a lunch(eon) I was invited to several years ago by my Very British and exceedingly entertaining, dear neighbour. First course was asparagus spears and a variety of hardware, including a fish knife at the outer edge. I had never before encountered such an offering and tentatively, self-consciously, took the fish knife to the asparagus. "You see!!" my hostess instantly exclaimed to her visiting sister-in-law, "I told you the Canadians wouldn't know what to do with that." And I'm fairly sure who felt the bigger fool. (Me.) I went home, studied up and of course have never been offered asparagus as a starter again.

  11. Stella: I hope you have rediscovered finger-held asparagus in your own time, one of the greatest vegetable treats available. And dropped the "very British and exceedingly entertaining" assholes who turned your dinner into a Calvary. The start of any invited meal can often be awkward for entirely accidental reasons; to turn it into a laboratory experiment at the expense of a guest is unforgivable.

    Or perhaps invited them to a dinner at which there was no cutlery at all and where you kicked off proceedings with a modified version of Burns:

    For shining knives and napkins too,
    For spoons sae deep ye'll swim awa,
    For de'il's forks a curse on you,
    A man's a man for a' that.

    Just so there's no mistake: I made up those first three lines, not Burns. A Man's A Man is a great Scottish poem never so moving as when set to music and sung at the opening of the Scottish parliament. Me, touched by hearing polticians sing, tears even? I kid you not. It's on YouTube and if you've a teaspoonful of Scottish pride left, I urge you to seek it out.

  12. I must beg of all of you to consider the modern "solution" to some of these dilemmas; the spork combines the spikability of the fork with the scoopability of the spoon. At least that is the idea, in practice, it is much easier to eat with your fingers!

  13. Although I agree The breach in etiquette (mine) ought to have been overlooked, I suspected the triumph was more in trumping the sister-in-law than in disgracing me. In any case I learned the painful way never to lead with the fish knife.

  14. Blonde Two: I'm not sure about eating with one's fingers. Fingers deliver more food but there's a price to be paid. I have this theory that Darwinian evolution has left us with skin that is more sensitive than that of our forebears; skin that communicates a sense of unease when covered with gravy, HP sauce or custard. These signals work well when our etiquette is under scrutiny, protecting us from the obloquy of our peers, but unfortunately they continue to work when we're picking out the contents of a tuna tin in the middle of - guess where! - Dartmoor. Stickiness is often hard to bear. Or am I just a wimp?

    Stella: Perhaps it's because of your tendency to forgive, or your determination to interpret favourably, that I still find the need to be protective. I took the event at face value and was outraged - as if I'd been there. The scenario for a short story which will never be written arises, climaxing with some oaf stabbed to death very inefficiently (and thus very painfully) with a fish knife and afterwards smeared with beurre noir (excellent with skate). Well you get the idea.

  15. Delicious! Can we work Grandad and his bludgeon into this story?