Knives Out and Go Fork Yourself by
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(125 Stories)

Prompted By Manners

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As this prompt wisely notes, there are manners (both good and bad) beyond simply table manners.  But all manners are usually correlated, and often reflected in other sorts of behavior (like driving habits) as well.  Fairly or not, I just assume that the SOB who cut me off without checking his rearview mirror or signaling (“Use your blinkah!” as we scream in  Massachusetts) probably also eats with his mouth open.

As this prompt wisely notes, there are manners (both good and bad) beyond simply table manners.

But let me show a little editorial restraint here and just focus on table manners. My parents, despite their liberal political views, were both very strict about table manners.  Some of that is generational, I’m sure, but I also think it has to do with their own upbringings (“breeding,” as the Brits would say), as both were raised in households where table manners really mattered.  So my brother and I learned them — they were strictly enforced — and they became baked in.  Indeed, we may have learned them to a fault, as both he and I remain a tad too judgmental — dare I call it snobbish– — when we observe bad table manners in others.

For example, we almost always ate in the dining room for dinner.  And all at the same time and one did not dare start eating until the hostess (i.e., Mom) first “lifted her fork.”  My brother and I early on were assigned to set the table and we learned the “right” way to do it: fork on left, spoon and knife (blade in) on right and all utensils placed in the order, from outside to inside, in which they would be used.  Here’s a pretty good chart, except we didn’t have bread plates; we had salad plates:


 

I particularly remember one little children’s poem we used to laugh at because it so glorified an egregious lack of good table manners.  It was called “Peas and Honey,” and went like this:

“I eat my peas with honey.

I’ve done it all my life.

They do taste kind of funny,

But it keeps them on my knife.”

                                                               

I do recall once when our mother, purely as a scientific experiment, let my brother and me try to put peas and honey on a knife — in the kitchen, of course, NOT in the dining room. In fact, it was incredibly difficult.  And not only the peas part; just getting the honey to spread evenly on the knife was pretty hard.  Plus the peas wouldn’t really stick to it.  Clearly, whoever wrote this little ditty had never actually tried to do it himself/herself.  So we got as much a lesson in poetic license as science by this little experiment.

Let me just note two anecdotes about table manners from my own experience. The first one, which is also apropos of my previous comment about being perhaps too judgmental in this regard, was my observation during my freshman year in college as to how many of my classmates who were from “good” families (i.e., rich) and had gone to the most prestigious boarding schools nonetheless had absolutely abominable table manners.  It was not exactly like the classic food fight scene from Animal House — though there were a few of those too — but pretty gross for my refined publc school sensibilities. When I mentioned this to my parents when I was home at Christmas break, they were singularly unsurprised.  As my father noted, that’s what happens when kids aren’t around — or supervised by — their parents at mealtimes, and instead are (mis)guided by the anarchistic behavior of their equally unsupervised peer group.  Think “Lord of the Flies” rather than “Miss Manners.”

The second anecdote comes from when I was a junior lawyer and on a business trip to Southern California with a very senior partner in our firm.  This would have been in the mid-70’s.  The partner was something of an epicure and, of course, the client — a huge multinational corporation — was paying all our expenses, so he suggested that we dine one night at a very fancy restaurant in Newport Beach.  When our salad course arrived, he noted that we did not have our salad forks — one did not, it need hardly be said, eat the salad with one’s main course fork.  When he asked the waiter, he was assured that our “chilled forks” for the salad would be brought to us imminently.  And, sure enough, out came another waiter, delicately carrying two salad forks in protective cloth napkins (presumably to insulate them from the 68 degree temperature in the restaurant), and he then very ceremoniously presented a fork to each of us with tongs (presumably also chilled).  This, as we learned, was the beginning of a brief culinary era, at least in tonier parts of California, when they believed that a chilled fork was the sine qua non of a salad. In fact, it was both of our views that the chilling detracted from, rather than enhanced, the salad’s flavor, but that was hardly the point; the real point, of course, was the haute “presentation.”


We were both amused by this nonsense and, smart ass that I was (and still am), I suggested that I should call the waiter over, complain that my fork was not sufficiently chilled and demand he take it away and bring me a properly chilled one.  The partner, who had a similar sense of humor, thought it was a great idea and encouraged me to do so.  And, of course, junior associates live to do things that please senior partners.  But then my “manners” training kicked in, and I remembered my parents explaining to me that, unless your wine had actually turned to vinegar, you simply never, ever sent the bottle back.  It just wasn’t done. So I took a pass on the encouragement and vowed to impress the partner with my legal skills instead.  A small victory for good manners, if not necessarily for my career advancement.


To tie this story up with a nice, neat bow, I invite other Retro writers to finsh a ditty that would begin as follows: “I eat my greens with chilled fork…”

Best entry wins the trophy below.  Chilled, of course.

 

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin


Characterizations: funny

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Don’t have the time or wits yet to think of an appropriate end to your ditty. Funny story about the chilled salad fork, though. Presentation was everything, I guess. Dan tells me similar stories from his early consulting days in NYC…the best wine, etc.

    As you’ve read, I was raised by a strict mother, but we didn’t eat in the dining room every night (she wasn’t much of a cook). I like your chart on how to set the table. You do know the P’s and Q’s of table setting. Your shock at those who went to fancy boarding school behave is equally funny. Your father’s observation is quite accurate. Those kids didn’t have adults around to model behavior for them. So does this, then become a problem with working, frazzled parents who don’t have time to set the table, cook a full meal when everyone is running off to practice for some event or just turn on the TV during dinner?

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Betsy. Will eagerly await your completion of my ditty. And good point about kids’ manners now, with frazzled, overworked parents. Though, of course, many of them have been nowhere but home for the past year or so.

  2. As a college student, I quickly realized that, having grown up in Ohio, I would cut meat using the knife in my right hand, fork in my left, and then shift the fork back to my right hand to eat the meat (or anything else that I cut), whereas many of my fellow students would continue eating the meat using the fork that was still in the left hand. I determined to learn this more elegant/sophisticated(?) way of dining, and without too much practice, I succeeded.

    Balancing peas–my solution was simply to put a few on my fork, eat, repeat.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Generally, Europeans do not shift the fork and knife and think Americans are idiots to do so. And Americans, in turn, think the Europeans are the ones with bad manners in this regard. I did not and do not shift my knife and fork, but not because I am trying to pass as European, but simply because I’m ambidextrous and see no need to do so.

  3. Ambidexterity–a skill that I have occasionally thought about learning, but never devoted any time to achieving. Sort of like unicycle riding, even though I have a unicycle (a gift from many years ago). Something that would be fun, but always seems to take more time than I have right now. As my future shrinks, I had best decide what to make sure it includes, or too many items will be left out.

  4. Suzy says:

    We were taught to have good table manners too, but we NEVER ate in the dining room except on Thanksgiving. So maybe our manners were only kitchen table manners. Do you think there are different manners for different rooms?

    I always liked that “peas with honey” poem, but it never occurred to me to try eating them that way. How great that your mother had you do it as a scientific experiment.

    While I don’t have strong feelings about chilled salad forks, I’m curious why you think they detract from the salad’s flavor. Maybe if you were eating a salad on a 100° Sacramento summer day, you would feel differently.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Different manners for different rooms….. An interesting idea, and I think it has merit.

      The problem with the chilled fork was that I couldn’t taste the salad. Sort of like ice cream with freezer burn on it. May have to try it again, though — along with the peas on the knife with honey thing.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    I wish I could complete the chilled fork ditty, but alas I am not as witty as you, John. Your story made me laugh and remember my own family stories regarding table manners. My mother-in-law was so upset that my husband’s older sister kept putting her elbows on the table that she stabbed her hand with a fork. Good manners? My mother constantly complained that one of my brother’s wives didn’t know how to set a proper table. I must confess that her random arrangement of cutlery upset me as well. Like mother, like daughter I guess, but I kept my mouth shut.

  6. Marian says:

    Hadn’t thought of the peas with honey in years, John. Fascinating about those boarding school kids. Does speak of lack of supervision. Couldn’t resist your ditty challenge, so here goes:
    I eat my greens with chilled fork
    As a Jew I eschew any pork
    If I’d three or more wishes
    I’d avoid all the dishes
    And eat from a can with a spork.

  7. I tried my greens with chilled forks,
    it seemed so upper class
    But I could taste no difference,
    Miss Manners, bite my ass.

    (Sorry Suzy, blame it on John!)

  8. I eat my greens with chilled fork
    ‘cuz I’m really a dork.
    Eat my peas from a knife
    Much like playing a fife
    Slurp my soup from a spoon
    Forgot my manners too soon!

    Honorable mention maybe…just for trying?

  9. Suzy says:

    I eat my greens with chilled fork
    But do not do it oft,
    It keeps the lettuce crunchy
    And makes the spinach soft.

  10. Khati Hendry says:

    I eat my greens with chilled fork–
    Some say I am a nutter–
    But don’t you think a nice, warm knife
    Would better cut the butter?

  11. Dave Ventre says:

    I eat my greens with a chilled fork,
    Chilled in dry ice/alcohol.
    For that I carry my own Dewar,
    Which I consider no trouble at all!

  12. I see your tempting challenge
    The one about chilled forks
    But in view of worthy entries
    I’ll place in mouth a cork.

    Great story, John, but in defense of at least some prep school graduates, not so: we had sit down meals and manners were strictly enforced. Especially by one faculty member who used to award certificates of completion at the end of each three week rotation.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Tom and your prose gets at least an honorable mention, if not the coveted Silver Fork.

      And apologies for my over-generalization. Blame it on my public school manners. I guess it all depended on where one was, er, “prepared.”

  13. I eat my greens with chill’-ed fork
    That’s how my pater taught me
    But fudge? I lick with tongue outstretched
    For no one yet has caught me!

  14. Risa Nye says:

    I eat my greens with chilled fork
    It makes my fingers cold
    I also sniff the wine’s cork
    John, do I win the gold?

    I nailed the rhyme sequence anyway…

    Back to the table: I always hesitate with the spoon and knife placement and many times my husband will adjust where I put them because he was brought up with better knowledge of these things! Much fun with this one, John!

  15. John Shutkin says:

    I want to thank everyone who has so far contributed to my little contest to finish the “chilled fork” ditty. And other Retro writers are still encouraged to do so.

    But, at the risk of sounding like the commissioner of a six-year old T-ball league, there are no winners or losers here. Truly, all the entries are terrific. Beyond that, all of you should be proud and happy simply to be recognized for your collective contributions to the contest, regardless of the brilliance of your particular effort. And, after all, isn’t that entirely consistent with the spirit of our Retro writings?

    So everyone is entitled to receive the coveted “Silver Fork Participation Trophy,” pictured above. To receive your very own trophy, just send me, c/o Retro, $249.99 in cash, check or money order to cover shipping and handling. And if you’re Matt Gaetz, you can pay via Venmo.

  16. John Shutkin says:

    OK, despite the lack of any popular demand whatsoever, I feel obligated to contribute my own entry:

    I eat my greens with chilled fork,
    At least in California.
    But if you say that doesn’t work,
    In that I’ll gladly join ya.

    (With apologies for fork/work, but they ought to rhyme.)

  17. Risa Nye says:

    John, but in an alternate universe where silver is first, wouldn’t gold be…oh, never mind. As they say, fork ’em if they can’t take a joke! This was fun. And I may actually remember how to set a table now, in case I ever have company come to dinner again–so thank you!

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