Monday, January 25, 2010


Have you ever wondered why Americans switch hands to eat with their fork, but Europeans don't?

Yes you have. You lie awake at night, in the cold early morning, pondering life, the universe, the number 42, and why Americans eat with a zig-zag fork pattern. Admit it.

Well, now there will be one less thing to ponder in the bitter existentialist dawn because I am here to share the answer with you:

If you're American, you know the proper way to hold your dining utensils is:  fork in left hand, knife in right. After you cut your food, you release the knife and switch your fork to your right hand. Then you eat right-handed with the fork.

If you're British, you know the proper way to hold your dining utensils is: fork in left hand, knife in right. Full stop. Period.  After you cut your food, you eat left-handed with the fork.  No switching occurs.

Why the difference?

Time was, your average fork possessed two narrow tines, spaced apart, and was absolutely flat.  Sort of like a carving fork, which was basically what it was. You used it to hold the food still while you cut with your knife, then you lifted the food to your mouth with your knife's wide, flat blade.  (Remember, this was considered far more genteel than eating with your fingers.)

The technology for making utensils changed over the 1700s so by the early 1800s flatware was financially within reach of more people and, to establish your place in high society, the idea of having whole matching sets came into vogue.

At which point, etiquette moved from use-your-knife-not-your-fingers to use-your-fork-not-your-knife.

"Where, excepting among savages, shall we find any who at present eat with other than a French fork?" - The laws of etiquette, 1836

Forks weren't French, but Americans associated them with good manners, and the French were our arbiters of taste (remember, we'd fought the British twice at this point). At this time, the French ate in the zig-zag pattern, so the US did, too.

The British invented the fork-stays-in-left-hand method.

Other Europeans saw this as a "simplification" of table manners - always a good thing in an age where there was etiquette for everything - so a German etiquette book recommended the "English method" in 1832 and a French manual recommended it in 1853.

Meanwhile, patriotic Americans did not wish to be "influenced by imported manners" (Mrs. Farrar, 1830s).  So we kept to the zig-zag. And ended up being the only country that did.

Now you know. Go forth and amaze your friends at the water cooler. :)

Research from:
Ambitious Appetites: Dining, Behavior, and Patterns of Consumption in Federal Washington (Octagon Research Series)


  1. That's interesting and I *have* always wondered why people switch hands. Personally, I don't switch hands but I keep my fork in the right hand and my knife in the left. Hmmm...maybe my mother being English and my father American I adopted a little of each :)

  2. LOL That sounds like a good plan. :)

  3. I can honestly say I have never pondered this, perhaps because I am a leftie--I do not zig, nor do I zag. But you can be sure I will probably begin to obsess about it now that you've mentioned it!

    Jeni ;)

  4. LOL Yes, I find I notice it more now, too. :)