This Side of the Pond
Notes from an Uprooted Englishwoman
May 21, 2020
I married into one of the kindest families in the county, but that doesn’t make them immune to the occasional gentle mockery. There’s one habit I brought to these shores that my loved ones find an endless source of amusement.
To me, it’s a perfectly normal thing to do, and not doing it makes no sense. To them, it’s an unnecessary amount of work.
I am speaking of dining etiquette; specifically, the fact that I cannot eat a meal without the aid of a knife. I’ve been eating this way since I was a child and there’s really no changing me now.
I watch as my husband wields his fork like a magic wand, coaxing his entree into neat mouthfuls, lifting them towards his lips without ever spilling a drop down the front of his shirt. I witness plates go from full to empty without any sign that people are finding this tricky.
It’s witchcraft, is what it is, and I simply don’t understand how you’re all doing it. I can’t fathom how you make it look so easy to eat in an organized fashion with insufficient implements.
How do you get peas onto a fork without bracing them against another surface? Why don’t your carrots travel away from you across the plate when there’s nothing to hinder their escape?
How are you manufacturing forkfuls that don’t lose their integrity on the way to your mouth when you’re not using a second tool to press them down, thus ensuring they’re stable? And what’s all this swapping your fork from hand to hand – why not have something useful in both of them right from the start?
I don’t know how you’re all coping without the assistance of a knife. I’ve tried, but the end result looks like a toddler has just been given permission to eat by themselves for the first time.
There’s gravy on the tablecloth, bits of meat in my hair and potato under my plate. My brother used to hide his vegetables in a potted plant so he didn’t have to finish them; I do the same thing when I’m not allowed a knife, except I really did want to eat those vegetables.
Because I still cannot seem to curb my cutlery usage, my long-suffering in-laws must remember to make concessions when fetching the silverware. There is always a moment when the flash of memory passes across someone’s face and they return to the drawer to fetch a single, lonely knife to sit with its three-pronged cousins.
I do have one advantage, though, which comes in handy when I’m served steak. Because I have a lifetime of experience using a butter knife to carve up my edibles, there’s no need to switch to a sharper blade.
I’ll admit to putting on as casual an air as possible while deftly slicing my steak into bite-size pieces using the bluntest knife available. For once, I’m the most sensible person at the table, and I want to be sure everyone knows it.
One piece of British dining etiquette that I no longer cave to is the positioning of my fork. If you’re doing things properly, you’re supposed to turn the fork over so that the trines are pointing downwards to create a hill, rather than upwards so they can act like a shovel.
I don’t know whose idea it was to take a tool that was designed to fit a purpose and use it in a more difficult way just to prove you are posh, but there you have it. It’s the correct etiquette in Britain to balance your dinner on the bump at the back of your fork, so it’s no wonder we need a knife to make that happen.
My poor mother cannot bear it when I turn my fork back over so that it actually functions like a thing that’s meant to pick stuff up. I try to point out that I can’t do it properly because I am left handed – a life-long excuse she’s never had much time for.
I attempt to placate her by finishing things off properly, which in Britain is achieved by placing your knife and fork together and laying them on the plate at the 6 o’clock position. The idea being that, if you are dining at a restaurant, you can signal the staff you are ready for them to take your plate with the simple positioning of cutlery. I’m assuming the same isn’t true over here, mainly because you don’t have two implements to put together.
In case you’re wondering, my inability to eat without a knife does tip over into the concept of eating things with my hands. Because I’m ultra modern (no sniggering from the cheap seats, thank you), I do deviate from the traditional in that I don’t find it necessary to cut pizza into bites using my knife and fork. My mum does though, and is appalled to hear that her daughter has been picking the slices up.
However, I’ve been having a debate with a friend this week as to whether it’s acceptable to pick up a strip of bacon with your fingers. It is not – this is a horrifying idea.
There is simply no need for mucky fingers. Like everything else, bacon should be cut into neat pieces and speared with a fork. I maintain that the only reason my friend thinks a slice of bacon needs to be picked up is that she has nothing to cut it with anyway.
Do you see how this knife-lessness has become a cascading problem? Just think how much you’d save on napkins if you added this handy tool to your dining table.
So please, come keep me company in my unusual cutlery habits – as you can see, there are all sorts of wonderful advantages. I’ll even let you keep your fork the wrong way up, if you’ll only help save my knife from the years of loneliness I’ve made it endure.