PC 38 Cutlery & Etiquette?

This is a potential mine field, isn’t it? …… and I tread a path with care, although maybe I should have managed to find someone to clear it first! At the end of my last PC I said: “……but it stands in splendid silence, a memory to a different time and a different generation, and that silence is broken only by the bell being rung to summon the staff, to clear the dishes from the dining room table.” ….. and I am reminded of attending afternoon tea with my step father’s physically diminutive high-born Scottish mother. As a teenager one sat very formally, jacket and tie (!), at the huge, polished mahogany table, waited until we were spoken to, and tried not to grab too many scones!! When we had demolished the pile, Dummy (as she was called!!) would ring a little silver bell and we waited, expectantly, until Mrs Gold the cook came in with a large cake. She was good at her craft and we were not disappointed.

I am prompted to scribble about cutlery, table manners and etiquette because of something I observed towards the end of last year. I don’t set myself up as the arbiter of right or wrong generally, can be as hypocritical as the next person (!) and appreciate there are real cultural differences between nations and social classes. We were out at a local restaurant, a group of people, some we know well, some not at all. I was finishing my main course and looked across the table …… to see a woman licking the end of her knife. I wanted to ask her not to …. but I did not know her, and it would have been rude (ruder than …..?)! It might have been covered with yummy sauce but she should have resisted, surely? And then, to compound the felony, 10 minutes later when she had finished eating … out came the dental floss and …. and I sat there amazed while she proceeded to …. clean the food from between her teeth. I was speechless, completely lost for words; later I thought of many things I could have said, most extremely rude, but I’m slow with the acerbic retort! According to Wikipedia, that wonderful (?) online reference, toothpicks in some shape or form have been used since Neanderthal man or woman walked this earth ….. and Debretts tells you how to use them …. but dental floss? That’s a whole new ballgame!

If you haven’t heard of Debrett’s, (www.debretts.com) it’s been a guide to “the stewardship of Empire and the arbiter of society etiquette” since 1769 and, whilst it makes no mention of dental floss, it offers guidance on how to eat, use cutlery and how to behaviour at a table. For instance:

Ensure the handle of both knife and fork rest in the palm of your hand.

When eating, keep your mouth closed …. and don’t talk!

Pips and stones should be discretely spat out into a cupped left hand

          Puddings: “always eat with a spoon and fork.”

 …… and don’t gesticulate with either a knife or fork

For those tricky vegetables like Globe Artichokes and Asparagus it also offers advice. Cute huh? It even mentions the use of chopsticks, that ubiquitous eating implement used throughout Asia. Funny how eating utensils have developed differently, in this case because a fork will damage a lacquered bowl and chopsticks won’t! Some of us master their use, others can’t be bothered. Bit like eating spaghetti; here in the UK long Spaghetti is becoming very difficult to buy, as we seem to have lost the art of eating it without sucking hard, when the free end sprays tomato sauce everywhere. So the short stuff is more popular, and easier to eat.

My mother, who had been a very accomplished cook, became completely disinterested in food in her dotage. She simply cut the food up as if she was a child, and then pushed it around her plate ….  and around! If it was fish and someone said: “Be careful, there might be the odd bone!”, the eating process took forever.

Back in Germany in the 1970s as a junior officer, I was sent to the headquarters in Rheindaland to have what was generally referred to as a ‘knife & fork’ test. I was being ‘interviewed’ for a job with the most senior military general, which clearly required lots of wining and dining and I had to have lunch with General Sir Harry & Lady Tuzo! Mind you I could spin a yarn about dining with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1976 and being on one’s best behaviour; well, me and 131 others!!

It was a Mrs Beeton, in her 1860’s book on ‘household management’, who observed that “all creatures eat but only man dines.”! So cutlery and its use became the norm, to stop our hands getting greasy ….. and then we got all ‘strict’ about how to use it, eat and behave. There were even special knives and forks for eating fish! I still have some but I don’t think I’ve used them this century. Then we started cooking chicken drumsticks using BBQs and eating Pizzas …. and we started to use our hands again!

In Singapore there is, or maybe ‘was’ for this was many years ago, an Indian restaurant called The Banana Leaf Apollo. It had a terrific reputation but was fairly basic. I have this rather romantic notion that the ‘plate’ was a real Banana leaf and the food simply dumped onto it. OK! It could have been green plastic but then if you’re a romantic that doesn’t sound so good! There was no cutlery so it was a choice of which hand, left or right. I know that there is a rule about this in Arabic countries, a rule I’ve never learned but I appreciate that we do other things with one’s hand!

A William of Wykeham wrote, in the late 1300s, ‘Manners Maketh Man’. And that’s right, isn’t it? Without developing good manners we run the risk of behaving like Neanderthal man … or woman.

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

P.S. Chinese saying: “Man who can catch fly with chopsticks can achieve anything!”

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