December 30, 2010
My wife and I were eating lunch during our holiday vacation, and she asked me, in a suspiciously casual tone of voice, if I were aware of the proper etiquette for using a fork. I responded with a blank stare, which was my way of saying that her yammering was distracting me from shoveling a respectable percentage of the resort’s entire buffet from my plate into my maw.
Undaunted, Shelly went on to demonstrate her point, holding a knife in her right hand, and a fork in her left hand with the tines pointed inexplicably downward. Her index finger was on the back of each utensil, and she explained that you should continue holding the knife even while you’re not sawing on a dead animal.
Against all odds, Shelly’s words penetrated the fog of my feeding frenzy. As her explanation sunk in, I started to go into traumatic etiquette shock. That’s the feeling you get when you realize that for several decades people have watched you eat and probably compared you unfavorably to a stoned raccoon on garbage day.
The world started moving in slow motion as I looked around the dining room to verify this stunning revelation. Sure enough, every adult diner was using the method Shelly described. How could I have gone my entire life without noticing? I was shocked and ashamed.
I quickly tried to imitate the proper forking method. That turned out to be problematic because I’m a vegetarian. I didn’t have anything on my plate that needed cutting, and the upside down fork method was a disaster for eating rice. I could only balance a few grains at a time on the back of my fork, and half of those ended up on my lap, where I have been told a napkin should have been.
I knew there was something missing in Shelly’s explanation of proper fork use, but she wasn’t giving me any more clues. The other diners all seemed to be eating meat; they were no help. I briefly considered a catapult solution, which would have involved pushing some rice onto the back of the fork, glancing furtively around the room to make sure no one was looking, and launching the payload toward my face. That probably sounds stupid to you, but keep in mind that I had already bought into the notion of using a fork upside down. I couldn’t rule out anything.
I was determined to fork properly from this moment on, and not add to a lifetime of humiliation. It took me an hour to finish my rice, averaging three grains per fork. The buffet had soup, but I couldn’t imagine how long it would take to consume it with my spoon turned upside down, or backwards, or using just the edge; Shelly hadn’t covered spoon etiquette, so I was mostly guessing.
By the end of the meal I was still wondering if this whole episode had been an elaborate practical joke, with everyone else in on it. I pulled out my iPhone and Googled “fork etiquette.” A dried branch of a lady with an upper class accent appeared on video demonstrating the technique Shelly had described. My mortification was complete.
In my defense, I grew up in a small town, in a farming environment. We valued efficiency over ritual. Inefficiency was synonymous with stupidity. If there had been a way to eat faster by somehow involving your ass cheeks, that’s how I would have learned to do it. If someone sneezed where I grew up, there was no reason to say “God Bless you,” because either God was already handling it or he didn’t exist. God didn’t need a middle man to handle a simple sneezing transaction.
Anyway, back to my story, I was horrified and humiliated by my lack of forking knowledge. I started to panic, wondering what other rules of etiquette had somehow escaped my notice. Was I supposed to open doors using nothing but my elbows? Should I dial my phone with a single knuckle? Should I salute anyone wearing a hat and ask, “How’s the war going, Captain?” My point is that there’s no way to deduce etiquette from logic.
Recently I did more research and discovered that Shelly’s forking technique is called the Continental method. It’s the method used in Europe as well as anywhere else that the British have killed the locals. I also learned that you’re allowed to turn your fork right-side-up for scooping anything can’t be stabbed. Fair enough.
Best of all, there is an American forking method too, and that is what I had always used. That involves holding the fork in your right hand, like a pen, with the tines pointing up. But I have been informed that cutting food with the edge of my fork is bad form, no matter how efficient it is. Bah! I reject that tyranny.
Last night at a local restaurant I observed a boy, about ten years old, at a nearby table who took the principle of dining efficiency to such a high level that I wept tears of admiration. The restaurant provided a fork and spoon rolled up in a paper napkin. They expect you to break the paper seal and free the utensils from the napkin. But the boy realized he could use the entire sealed unit as a fork-spoon with a napkin surround. He would grab the entire bundle, stab some food with the fork and wipe his mouth on the wrapped bundle. I don’t use the “genius” label too often, but I think it applies in this case, even though he was just kidding around. I believe I witnessed the invention of the napkinforkspoon. And someday, God willing, when efficiency replaces etiquette, we will all be using it.