15 Aug 2022

The Curse of Cutlery

Many of us will have been confronted, at a formal dinner or in a renowned restaurant, with a daunting arrangement of cutlery. We all repeat the mantra that we have been told many times before – just work from the outside-in – and we do our best.

Yet, until as late as the 17th century, the British were used to food being served on large communal platters, and eating with their fingers or spoons. Forks, which had been used on the continent since the Middle Ages, were seen as effete and affected. Thomas Coryat, a 17th-century English travel writer commented: “The Italian…doe alwaies at their meales use a little forke when they cut their meat [and if] anyone 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 laws of good manners.”

The English eventually began to recognise the hygiene benefits of using one’s own cutlery in the aftermath of the Great Plague of the 1660s and gradually began to adopt the fork, though it was an expensive item, which only slowly filtered down from the dining tables of the upper classes. By the Victorian era, the British had embraced the fork with a vengeance: there were forks designed for every purpose, from eating sardines to spearing asparagus. It is scarcely surprising that many diners began to feel cowed by extravagant arrays of cutlery.

The practical guide to cutlery that follows is interleaved with quotations from Routledge’s Manual of Etiquette (1875). In essence, the precepts and proscriptions remain much the same, but it is clear that the Victorian diner was subjected to a much more rigorous implementation of the rules:

The Basic Tools

Cutlery that you will encounter on a day-to-day basis includes: large knives and forks, small knives and forks, teaspoons, dessert (pudding) spoons and forks, and tablespoons.

Extras include blunt knives for butter, fish knives, soup spoons, and extra small spoons for coffee, or for salt and mustard.

Special jam spoons, or alternatively dessert spoons, should be used for jam or honey (the jars should be placed on small plates where the spoon can rest), not teaspoons.

Teaspoons are also used for tea and coffee (if extra small spoons are not available), or for eating grapefruit or boiled eggs.

Using Cutlery

The fork and spoon are the only utensils that should go into the mouth. Soup should be tipped into the mouth from the side of the spoon, which should never be held at a 90° angle, and there should be no sucking or slurping. Never lick the knife or eat off it.

In eating soup, remember always to take it from the side of the spoon, and to make no sound in doing so.”

We presume that it is scarcely necessary to remind our fair reader that she is never, under any circumstances, to convey her knife to her mouth.”

If using a knife and fork together, always keep the tines of the fork pointing downwards, and push the food on to the fork. Try to avoid turning the fork over and using it as a scoop.

For foods that are eaten with just a fork, including some pasta and some fish, transfer the fork to the right hand and use it with the tines facing upwards, like a spoon.

Silver fish-knives will now always be met with at the best tables; but where there are none, a piece of crust should be taken in the left hand, and the fork in the right. There is no exception to this rule in eating fish.”

Peas are eaten with the fork; tarts, curry, and puddings of all kinds with the spoon.”

Do not hold your knife like a pen. The handle should lie in the palm of the hand and is secured by the thumb on the side and the index finger on top of the handle. It is permissible in a restaurant to ask for a steak knife if the meat is tough, but rude to ask for anything extra in a private house.

Always eat puddings with a spoon and fork (both should always be laid); the spoon should be a dessert spoon. Ice cream may be eaten with a teaspoon, or a long teaspoon if served in a tall glass. Sorbet, served between courses, is eaten with a teaspoon.

When eating, bring the fork or spoon to the mouth, rather than lowering the head towards the food. Bring the food promptly to the mouth and do not gesticulate with the knife and fork.

When finished, the knife and fork (with tines facing upwards) or spoon etc are placed on the plate in a six-thirty position.

When Cutlery is Dispensable

Bread is broken, and eaten, with the fingers, and it is quite acceptable to use fingers to eat soft fruit – the only fruit that requires a knife and fork is pineapple. It is considered quite acceptable to eat asparagus with the fingers:

Some very well-bred people eat it with the fingers; others cut off the heads, and convey them to the mouth upon the fork. It would be difficult to say which is the more correct.”

Stoned fruits, such as cherries and plums, are also eaten with the fingers, and we recommend that pips and stones are discreetly conveyed to the side plate with the fingers:

Some put the stones out from the mouth into a spoon, and so convey them to the plate. Others cover the lips with the hand, drop them unseen into the palm, and so deposit them on the side of the plate… the last is the better way, as it effectually conceals the return of the stones, which is certainly the point of highest importance. Of one thing we may be sure, and that is, that they must never be dropped from the mouth to the plate.”


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