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Americans' Dining Technique Was Long-Abandoned By French


Now, a story about table etiquette from our friends at Slate.com. They ask this question: Do you cut and switch? Meaning, do you hold your fork in your left hand and cut with your right and then put down your knife so you can switch your fork to your right hand before you take a bite? Contributing writer Mark Vanhoenacker writes that while the practice has origins in France, they and other Europeans long ago abandoned it.

Now it's only Americans who, as he puts it, waste time pointlessly handing utensils back and forth. In exploring why we might be holding on to this European pretension, Mark Vanhoenacker found some clues on how the tradition got started in the first place.

MARK VANHOENACKER, BYLINE: Anna Post, who's the great-granddaughter of Emily Post, suggested that there was a cultural memory of sort of dinnertime violence, where a knife at a table was kind of a threat. So knives had a sort of vulgar association, and that to lower it down as soon as possible was considered polite.

CORNISH: And a gesture of trust, right?

VANHOENACKER: Yes, exactly. It's also possible that, you know, it was considered more delicate to eat with your dominant hand, which, for most people, of course, is your right hand.

CORNISH: Now, when did Americans pick up the habit of the switch?

VANHOENACKER: Well, Americans got it from France in the 19th century even as France was giving it up, and no one knows why France gave it up. Maybe just convenience or another change of fashion.

CORNISH: So the argument you seem to be making in your article is that this American style of conveying food is basically inefficient. But, I mean, do Americans really need help eating more efficiently? It seems like we've got that covered.

VANHOENACKER: Yeah, I mean, that's a great point. We probably need more sort of gastronomic speed bumps like this. And there's another argument that in the literal melting pot of American cuisine, there's so many foods now that don't use a fork or knife at all. You know, they're chopsticks or they're foods we eat with our hands.

CORNISH: So in the end, what's your manifesto? I mean, how should Americans use our knives and forks?

VANHOENACKER: Any way they want. Americans who are eating in a European style, especially if they keep their tines pointing up, which is a sort of an American interpretation of the European style, you know, they're not being un-American or un-European, really. They're just being themselves.

CORNISH: You mentioned tines up. I mean, what do you mean by that?

VANHOENACKER: Well, that's actually the most interesting change that the etiquette experts that I spoke with talk about. The Americans who are no longer swapping, they're not holding their fork in the European style, which is to have the tines down all the time, which is often quite awkward, especially if you're eating things like, you know, mashed potatoes or peas.

It's a common English thing to try to smush the peas onto the back. But Americans who are not swapping are using the fork any way they want and that's really like a hybrid style and, in fact, that's how Anna Post, the etiquette expert, that's how she herself eats. And that style doesn't have a name. It's neither American nor European. And for those people who do shop in the etiquette section of the bookshops, it would be good if it had name.

CORNISH: We should give it one.

VANHOENACKER: Well, I thought of calling it the Post-modern, after Anna Post, but that would be a little confusing...

CORNISH: Oh, that's nice.

VANHOENACKER: Yeah, we could call it the Post-modern or just American modern. And that's really in the sense that it's a fusion of old and new and it's more convenient than either the European or American style. And maybe that's the way forward.

CORNISH: Well, Mark Vanhoenacker, that was really fascinating. Thank you so much for talking with us.


CORNISH: I'm going to be totally anxious at dinner now, you realize.

VANHOENACKER: And Audie, what do you do?

CORNISH: I'm definitely the switch.

VANHOENACKER: You are the switch.


VANHOENACKER: Well, I actually, in the course of this article, I started switching for a couple of weeks and actually quite got to like it. It has a nice sort of Norman Rockwell formality to it, which is worth preserving, too. And I'm sure it will be around for a long time to come.

CORNISH: Mark Vanhoenacker is a contributor for Slate. Thank you so much for talking with us.

VANHOENACKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.