A Journal for Western Man




The Irrational Exuberance of

American Dining Etiquette

Harry Roolaart

Issue IX- December 2, 2002


For years now I have stood by and watched many Americans cut their food with the edge of their fork, rather than use their knife, and I’ve quietly put it down to bad table manners. Over this same period, I’ve also observed the incredibly inefficient manner in which Americans attempt to use their utensils with just the right hand, leaving the left hand in their lap. Even more incredible, I’ve been admonished for “my” bad table manners by insisting on the use of both my hands – one eating utensil per hand – while eating my food when obviously this is the more efficient manner in which to dine. When dining in Europe, American dining etiquette is at best considered “savage”. When dining in America, it is the European who is accused of bad table manners. Whether you eat your food “European” style or “American” style…one thing is for sure: neither side is willing to budge in their respective views of dining etiquette. So, who’s right?


Prehistory is marked by sharp stones, found or chipped to desired sharpness to be used as cutting utensils. Vessels, or utensils for liquid were also found in prehistoric times, usually in the form of hollow horns of sheep and goats, or sea shells collected for this purpose.

The scramasax, a sharp pointed knife made of bronze or iron was found in use during the 5th century. By this time, spoons were carved from wood, as well as many other materials such as bone, shell and stone.

During the Middle Ages, most people ate with their hands. Only the wealthy ate using utensils, not because of their “utility” but more to impress the company kept. Spoons were highly decorative, rather than simple and utilitarian. In anticipation of the fork, which had not yet seen use in Europe, noble men often carried two personal knives, one to cut, the other to hold the meat still.

The 11th Century saw the Venetian Doge, Domenico Selvo marry a Greek princess who brought to his court the practice of eating with forks. At the time, her table manners were seen as scandalous and heretical affectations. It was said: “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks - his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them when eating. Her death shortly afterward was perceived as divine punishment. It is important to observe that the fork was, at the time, already in use in the Middle East.

During the reign of Charles V of France, forks could be found listed in his inventory of plate, but it was specified that they were only to be used when eating foods that might otherwise stain the fingers.

In 1533, Catherine de Medicis of Italy brought forks when she married Henry II of France. By 1560, different dining customs evolved in different European countries. Germans were known for using spoons, Italians for their use of forks. The German and Italians provided a knife for each dinner, while the French provided only two or three communal knives for the whole table. Then, in 1611, Thomas Coryat, an Englishman, observed the use of forks in Italy and resolved to use them as well. Back in his native England, he was given the name of “fork bearer” and was widely ridiculed and considered effeminate and affected. He describes what we now call the “Italian” dining etiquette as follows:

“The Italian, and also most strangers that are commorant in Italy, doe alwaies, at their meales use a little forke when they cut the meate; for while with their knife, which they hold in one hand, they cut the meate out of the dish, they fasten their forke which they hold in their other hande, upon the same dish, so that whatsoever he be that sitteth in the company of any others at meate, should unadvisedly touch the dish of meate with his fingers, from which all at the table doe cut he will give occasion of offence unto the company as having transgressed the lawes of good manners, insomuch for his error he shall be at least browbeaten, if not reprehended in words.”

A large assortment of forks was recovered from the wreck of La Girona that sank in 1588, during the time of the Armada, showing Spain’s use of the fork at the time.

As forks became more commonplace, however, both for holding food still and conveying food to the mouth, it became less necessary for knives to be made with pointed tips. They began to be made with blunt ends.

In 1630, Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony possesses what is said to be the first and only fork in colonial America. The fad for using forks had not yet reached the Americas.

During the early 18th century the four-tined fork has become the rule in Germany. In England, a country still scornful of its use, the fork remains as a two-tined utensil, one not so helpful for scooping up bites of food. Knives in England began to be fashioned with wide, almost spoon-shaped tips, the better to use them for conveying food to the mouth. Then, in the mid-18th century, the fork achieved the form with which we are now more familiar. But, it wasn’t until the early 19th century that forks became popular in the United States. At the time, they were frequently called “split-spoons”.


There are two ways to use a knife and fork to cut and eat your food. They are the American style and the European or Continental style. Either style, it is said, is considered appropriate. But are they? If you consider following “tradition” simply because it is tradition, then this constitutes one of the many forms of irrationality so prevalent today. It is this author’s contention that tradition ought to undergo the process of reason, as with all aspects of our lives.

In the American style, one cuts the food by holding the knife in the right hand and the fork in the left hand with the fork tines piercing the food to secure it on the plate. Cut a few bite-size pieces of food, then lay your knife across the top edge of your plate with the sharp edge of the blade facing in. Then change your fork from your left to your right hand to eat, fork tines facing up while dropping your left hand to your lap. (If you are left-handed, keep your fork in your left hand, tines facing up.) The European or Continental style is the same as the American style in that you cut your meat by holding your knife in your right hand while securing your food with your fork in your left hand. The difference is your fork remains in your left hand, tines facing down, and the knife in your right hand. Simply eat the cut pieces of food by picking them up with your fork still in your left hand.

Observe that at the time of the first American settlements arriving from England and other places, the use of the fork had not yet become widespread in Europe. In particular, England was one of the last countries to adopt its widespread use. For this reason, American colonies remained unfamiliar with the use of the fork and therefore adapted a method – in this author’s view, a decidedly ineffective method - that eventually came to be known as the zig-zag method.

The predominant theory pointing to the origin of the zig-zag method of eating is that many Americans, in the absence of forks, and because knives had come to be designed with blunted ends, began to use their spoons to steady food. They would then switch the spoon to the right hand to scoop up the bite of food because they were accustomed to wielding eating utensils with their dominant hand and because the blunt tip of the knife made this cumbersome. Finding their non-dominant hand (usually the left hand) largely neglected when eating in this manner, American table manners came to adopt the habit of dropping the neglected hand into one’s lap.

Yet another theory exist on why Americans place their non-dominant hand beneath the table while eating. This theory concerns itself with the Middle Eastern custom in which the left hand is used solely to wash one’s bottom in primitive washrooms (you know the ones, a hole in the ground with a pail of water to the side). Therefore, to this day, Middle Eastern cultures frown heavily on the use of the left hand during eating and cooking for purely hygienic reasons. Now, it is possible that through the Moorish and Arabian customs prevalent along many Mediterranean countries, that this Arab tradition somehow filtered itself into American immigrant populations…though this remains at best speculative as the first waves of immigrants into America were not from such countries at all. Still, it is an amusing theory that should cause Americans to reconsider their dining etiquette.

Many of our readers rightfully pride themselves on their rationality and objectivity. Certainly, they bristle at the thought of irrationality affecting their lives, or worse, being accused of irrationality by others. And yet, most every one of our readers persist in at least one form of irrationality: the mindless obeisance to a tradition: the American dining etiquette.

Clearly, human beings possess two hands. But, to place one hand aside and engage in the disturbing and hindering process of transferring one utensil from one hand to the other, over and over again, while neglecting a perfectly useful hand – smacks of irrationality. Two things are striking about this habit. It clearly violates European etiquette – brought to Europe by the Greeks - that tells you to keep both hands above the table wielding gracefully knife and fork. European etiquette is objective as it is well reasoned out to make the most effective use of hands and utensils at a table setting. Secondly all Americans eat the American way (black, yellow, red, white) which is amazing if you think of the different ethnic origins, cultures, and value systems.

To conclude: I began this article with a comment about Americans who cut their food with the edge of their fork rather than use a knife. For a long time, I blamed this habit on bad table manners. But, as of late, I’ve come to place such people one rung above those whose dining habit shuffles utensils from one hand to the other while ignoring a perfectly good hand. Why do they do this? Because colonial America was unaware of the existence, let alone the proper use of the fork. In their defense, it may be said that those who use the fork to cut their food do so because they realize the irrational exuberance of shuffling utensils. Now, if they would just look down, into their laps…and observe that they possess one more hand. Then, all would be well with American dining etiquette.

Harry Roolaart is the founder and creator of the harryroolaart.com website and is a writer and artist living and working in Charlotte, North Carolina.  You may contact him personally at hroolaart@harryroolaart.com.

This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA’s Statement of Policy.

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