Knives out for British table manners

The US method of ‘cut-and-switching’ is on the rise. But surely moving your fork from left to right is perverse?

Lots of American customs have invaded British culture over the past few decades, but I wouldn’t have bet on this one: apparently, British people have begun to brandish their forks in the American fashion.

In accordance with US “cut-and-switch” etiquette, diners begin with the fork in their left hand and the knife in their right, but after they’ve cut whatever it is they’re about to eat, the knife is put down and the fork is transferred to the right hand. According to a new survey, 23% of UK adults have forsaken the traditional European style – where the fork remains in the left hand – in favour of the American way. Up to a third of young Britons are said to have adopted the American-style fork-switching.

As an American who has never done it (I’m left-handed – why would I switch?), I would have sworn that while the practice might persist in the US, it would never catch on elsewhere. Why would anyone adopt something so cumbersome, pointless and perversely formal? Fork-switching is said to have its origins in 19th-century France, but it fell out of fashion there more than 150 years ago. North America was, until recently, the only place where this obscure bit of pretension clung on.

The fork is a relative latecomer to the place setting. Pronged implements had long been used as cooking utensils, but forks didn’t arrive on European tables until the 11th century, and for hundreds of years afterward were regarded by many as a decadent and vulgar extravagance. Knives and spoons were necessary tools; the fork was just a dainty substitute for one’s fingers. Apparently, Louis XIV forbade his children to eat with forks. It should perhaps come as no surprise that such an instrument would attract a bit of counterintuitive etiquette.

In fact, both styles of eating are now considered “correct” in North America, and it’s rare that you find anybody in the States arguing the case for the cut-and-switch technique. As long ago as 1928, American etiquette expert Emily Post wrote that “to zig-zag the fork from left hand to right at nearly every mouthful is a ridiculous practice of the would-be elegant that is never seen in best society”. Usually, I’m quietly pleased when American customs and practices migrate to Britain, but I’ve been running away from this fork thing my whole life.

Powered by article was written by Tim Dowling, for The Guardian on Monday 19th October 2015 17.29 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010