I have to confess that whenever I go to a restaurant in Ireland, I’m fascinated by the way people eat, the intricate play of the knife, held between the fore and middle fingers of the right hand, and the fork, positioned backwards, held in the left. At what age, I wonder, does it take hold, this complicated act of coordination, cutting and maneuvering with the knife to assure that just the right mouthful of food sits on the back of the fork before it is carried, with the left hand to the diner’s mouth? How do they manage it, especially the children, their manners exquisite, their eyes like blue glass? Why don’t they spill the tiny peas that I can’t begin to carry, with any kind of dignity, more than two inches before they fall, if I’m lucky, back to my plate, but more typically down the front of my blouse?
Where, in the annals of our history, did we switch from the European style to our own Americanized way of eating, where the sole purpose of the knife is to cut, and where the fork is transferred back into the dominant hand to bring the food to our mouths?
Our language is full of idioms that refer to common practices from our past: sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite, or, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Surely, there must have been an event, a logical evolution at the root of this table etiquette change from the countries of our European roots, a change so dramatic and recognizable that spies in both world wars were unmasked because they reverted to using silverware the way they were taught as children.
And, naturally, there is such a reason: apparently, during colonial times, hostilities between the loyalists and the patriots heated to such a degree that tavern keepers were afraid of fights breaking out and, subsequently, property destroyed. Because most people are, and were, right handed, a mandate was set in place: knives were to be used for cutting meat only and then set down, at which time the fork was to be transferred to the dominant hand. Interesting.
The origins of sleep tight are disputed, but my favorite is the explanation that early mattresses were supported by ropes pulled tightly to insure a well-sprung mattress. The bedbug warning needs no explanation, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater refers to the order in which families took their Saturday night baths: dad first, then mom, eldest child and down to the baby, at which time the water was murky enough to sustain the joke that the baby might indeed be lost in its opaque depths.