The American Way of Using Fork and Knife Is Inefficient and Inelegant. We Need a New Way.

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June 26 2013 6:15 AM

Put a Fork in It

The American way of using fork and knife is inefficient and inelegant. We need a new way.

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The other reason to dump the cut-and-switch, of course, is that it’s a European pretension—one so weird that even Europe eventually abandoned it. And please, no “wherever it came from, it’s American now” business. Let’s be clear—this was a French norm swallowed whole by Americans who reflexively equated France with classiness. And we’re the ones who pride ourselves on our casual willingness to cast off the mooring lines of tradition. Clinging to a complicated and encumbering Old European mannerism whose purpose is utterly opaque? Is that why we had a revolution?

Luckily, change is afoot. Some Americans—those who have lived abroad, those with a foreign parent or two, particularly bewildered left-handers (check, check, and check)—have never cut-and-switched. But these days I encounter more and more Americans who’ve unshackled themselves from outdated cultural hegemonies.

The experts have noticed too. Anna Post stressed that while both methods remain equally acceptable, her “sense is that the American style is slowly becoming outdated.” Bethanne Patrick told me much the same. Cesar Caicedo is a captain at Tom Colicchio’s New York restaurant Craft, the home of what might be the world’s best roast chicken. He’s noticed a gradual but unmistakable change over his nine years there. As a typical example, he described a recent large graduation dinner he worked—Texans, not New Yorkers—at which only the grandmother ate American-style.

Why the change? One possibility is globalization. More Americans live, work, study, and do business abroad than ever. Patsy Rowe, the Sydney-based author of Business Etiquette, frequently works with American execs keen to “abandon the awkward cut-and-switch.”

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But Post adds another reason for the decline of the cut-and-switch, one that has nothing to do with Europe or globalization: our modern love affair with simplicity and informality. Post notes that at its best, American “dining etiquette should be minimalist.” So “fork-switching is an extra step that you don’t actually need to eat elegantly.”

A move toward relaxed simplicity, of course, isn’t just typically modern—it’s typically American. We’ve simplified global manners (dress, food, communication) again and again. So giving up the cut-and-switch is arguably more “American” than keeping it—it’s simpler, easier, more relaxed and less fussy. It’s telling that Caicedo, Patrick, and Post all attributed the decline of the cut-and-switch to a larger trend toward simplicity and ease—not a desire to seem more European.

The best evidence that Americans who eat Continental are riding an American, not a European wave? We’ve bastardized Euro-manners to make them still more convenient. Many Europeans stubbornly deploy their forks tines down—either as a spear, or, if the food isn’t stab-able, as a surface on which to awkwardly pile or smoosh food (awkward piling is particularly English—“How many peas can dance on the back of a fork?” asks Kate Fox, in Watching the English). But the pragmatic Americans who’ve abandoned the cut-and-switch almost always use the fork tines-up—i.e., as an efficient shovel—whenever it’s convenient to do so.

This hybrid style of eating is how Anna Post herself eats. But America’s lurch toward such modified Continental-style eating has been worryingly uneven. Nearly everyone I spoke with associated cutting-and-switching with older Americans and Midwesterners, and no-switching with younger and coastal diners.

Another culture war is just what we don’t need—especially one in which we’re all waving sharp implements, and both sides are open to plausible charges of unedifying Europhilia. Perhaps the best way to avoid open warfare is to formalize many Americans’ simplified take on Continental style (no fork-switching, but tines pointing any damn way you please) as itself an American creation—an efficient, relaxed blending of old and new worlds.

What we do need—especially if we’re hoping to add this version of table manners to our still-impressive list of cultural exports—is a good name. We could christen this mode of manners Post Modern, after Anna Post herself. But that might get confusing. How about American Modern. Simple and clean, like the style itself, and the perfect finish to what we started in 1776.

Mark Vanhoenacker is a writer in New York. Follow him on Twitter.

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