Monday, July 16, 2012


It all started with a remark made by Lady Mary, a daughter who is being urged by her aristocratic parents, the Crawleys, to marry an heir to the family fortune in the televised Downton Abbey series. The scene is a country home in Edwardian England, circa 1912, and the discussion centers on a gentleman who is sole heir to the kingdom of the Crawleys. After watching the heir’s table manners, Lady Mary remarks that she could never marry a man who couldn't hold his fork like a gentleman. “Oh,” I said to my friend who was watching the series with me: “I know how Brits feel about Americans’ table manners, and I wrote all about it in my column, Cherchez la femme, back in the 70’s.”
At noon today I unearthed a compilation of the columns, which I once planned to showcase in book form, and read aloud the column involving the use of the common fork at the lunch table. After reading it, I decided that there could be some Downton Abbey fans who would enjoy the revised column I'm posting below:

Good manners rank with good grooming and good behavior. And if you don’t believe that adage, ask the British. They’re sticklers for the proper use of china, glass, and silver. I know because I underwent considerable teasing about my American style of eating when we lived abroad.
The problem had to do with the common fork. One noonday at a church camp in the Garden of Evangelism in the Elburz Mountains near Tehran, Iran, I was casually cutting a piece of meat with knife in my right hand and fork in my left. When I transferred the fork to my right hand to devour the meat, I found several Brits looking at me and snickering. “Oh, you Americans,” one of them commented. “You always do things the wrong way—and certainly the hard way.”
If you’ve never tried eating continental style in the manner that my British friend recommended, you must try forking food “the proper way,” as the Brits say. You spear meat with you fork and cut it off with the knife. With the meat fixed on the prongs of the fork (prongs down, prongs down) you place the knife blade underneath. The Brits say, “A slight twist will help to fix it firmly.”
Don’t stop with the meat. You also pile a small amount of potatoes and vegetables on the topside of the prongs, along with the meat. The heavily-laden fork is then conveyed to the mouth by twisting the wrist and raising the forearm slightly. The biggest “no-no” is that of changing hands. And you aren’t supposed to stick your elbows out and raise your entire arm either.
I worked on this fork operation for the ten days of church camp I attended that summer of 1974, but I was still viewed as a clumsy fork user. “Why?” I asked my British friends, “why isn’t the fork used to scoop food when it is fashioned with a gentle curve in the middle for holding food?” Well, they didn’t know, and no amount of researching turned up the answer either.
Actually, mention of the fork in literature dates back to the 11th century when a lady journeyed from Byzantium to Venice. She married a rich Doge, Domenico Selvo, in 1070. The first person in history to mention forks was an Italian named Saint Peter Damian. He wrote that this Doge’s wife from Byzantium did not touch her food with her fingers. She carried it to her mouth with certain gold, two-pronged forks she had brought with her from Byzantium. At that time, people were shocked by the lady’s extravagances, and very few people followed her example.
Well, forks aren’t everything. The Brits at the Tehran camp didn't know how to eat watermelon southern style. They tried to cut the melon in dainty snips just the way they cut meat. “Look,” I told them in my best Louisiana drawl, “watermelons are to be held. Put down those forks and knives and watch me.” I grasped a large slice of melon with both hands, lowered my face, and zipped through the choicest pulp, swooshing the melon from one side of my mouth to the other.
“But what do we do with the seeds?” they asked. Would you believe that there are now Brits who returned from their stint in Iran to live in places like Sussex, London, Surrey, and Buckinghamshire who mastered the art of spitting watermelon seeds through their teeth almost forty years ago?
Yes, I know good manners are as important as good grooming and good behavior, but we Americans also believe that good digestion is vitally important. And how can you digest food properly if you’re uptight about conveying food on a heavily-laden fork to the mouth?
Just between us, in that seed-spitting contest, I was lucky to get one watermelon seed through my teeth with the first shot (which landed in the lap of the Anglican minister who was director of the camp). And, truthfully, I always eat watermelon with a knife – sometimes with a fork.

1 comment:

anne said...

Great memories, Diane, although I still choose not to eat watermelon at all and do use my fork 'properly'!!!!! It just seems easier and less time-consuming than swapping hands and picking knives up and down!