Poor Miss Manners is always having to explains why Americans hold forks in their right hands as opposed to Europeans, who use their left hand to spear their food. Have American table manners deteriorated? Or are we following an historic tradition?
To answer that question we need to go back to ancient times when two-tined kitchen forks were used to help carve and serve meat. (We still require the assistance of large two-tined forks when barbecuing foods on a gas or coal grill.) In the 7th century the people in the Middle East began to use forks when dining, and by the 10th through the 11th centuries such usage had become quite common. The Italians were introduced to the fork in the 11th century.
One tale of the introduction of the fork to Western Europe credits Maria Argyropoulina, the Greek niece of Byzantine Emperor Basil II, who brought a case of golden forks to Venice in 1004, when she was to be married to the son of the Doge. She shocked guests at the wedding feast by using a fork, leading one priest to comment, “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks — his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating.” Italian clerics viewed it as God’s vengeance when Argyropoulina died of the plague two years later. – Early British Table Silver: A Short History
It took 500 years for the implement to be used widely in that land. The French had their first look at the fork in 1533 when Catherine de Medici brought them from Italy upon the occasion of her marriage. The fork was at first thought to be an affectation, thus its adoption was slow, as it was in England after Thomas Coryate brought the implement back in 1608 from one of his travels to Italy. He observed that at their meals Italians “use a little forks when they cut the meats.” Early table forks were small and two-pronged, but the sharp straight tines were unable to hold much food, inspiring mockery. “Why should a person need a fork when God had given him hands?” one Englishman asked. (History of the Fork). Ben Johnson satirized the fork in 1616 in The Devil is an Ass for “the sparing of napkins.”
One wonders how the Europeans ate their food without a fork. If you’ve ever attended a reproduction of a medieval banquet you have an idea. People used knives to spear food, spoons to scoop up, and fingers to grab. Only one implement was used at a time, and it was held in the right hand.
Slowly but surely the fork began to make inroads upon the dining table. As is the usual case, the wealthy began to adopt the new implement first. The upper crust began to impress their guests with forks made of expensive materials. Called suckett forks, they were used to protect the hands from sticky and messy foods or foods that stained the hands, like mulberries. By the mid 1600s, forks had become luxury items and were considered to be marks of fashion. At the end of the 17th century and beginning of the 18th century the three-tined fork was introduced. The “sherbet course”, introduced in the early 1700’s, was created to wash the single fork for the next course.” (The History of the Fork)
Four-tined prongs became popular in the 1750s. These tines were curved and served as a scoop, reducing the need for the spoon. By the time Jane Austen and her family had moved from Steventon to Bath, the four-tined fork was also being made in Germany and England and had traveled to the Americas. In the mid 19th century specialized forks were produced for every kind of food, including cakes and fish.
This short history still does not explain why Americans and Europeans hold their forks in different hands. History Matters: Cutlery provides an insight:
Cardinal Richelieu of France supposedly was so disgusted by a frequent dinner guest’s habit of picking his teeth with his knife that he had the tips of the man’s knives ground down. The fashion-conscious French court picked up on this style and followed suit. In 1699, to reduce the risk of dinnertime knife fights, French King Louis XIV banned pointed knives outright. Since blunted knives were useless for spearing food in the old two-knife dining style, forks replaced the knife held in the left hand.
The newfangled blunt knives reached the American colonies in the early 1700s, where few forks were available. Americans were forced to use upside-down spoons to steady food for cutting. They would then switch the spoon to the right hand, flipping it to use as a scoop. Even after forks became everyday utensils, this “zigzag” style (as Emily Post called it in the 1920s) continues to divide American eaters’ customs from the Continental style of dining. (Shifting the fork to the right hand after cutting is considered uncouth by Europeans.) – (This passage seems to have used The Uncommon Origins of the Common Fork as its source.)
In a recent Washington Post advice column, Miss Manners contends that Americans follow the correct European way of eating centuries ago and that it was the Europeans who sped things up by keeping the fork in the left hand as they cut their food with the right hand. She concludes her advice with this thought:
Those who point out that the European manner is more efficient are right. Those who claim it is older or more sophisticated — etiquette has never considered getting food into the mouth faster a mark of refinement — are wrong. – Miss Manners: Fork’s History is not a big Mystery