The Finicky Art Of Fork Finesse

`Use your knife and fork properly!'' was one of the persistent adult woodnotes cooing through my English childhood. I vividly remember being taken up to the attic by my nanny, Adine, to be firmly initiated into the polite, proper use of eating utensils: the knife, fork, and spoon, which had somehow been designated, prior to my infantile entry on the scene, as the compulsory tools of eating by some unnamed autocrat of the table.

The democracy of fingers had apparently been outlawed long ago.

Adine's lesson had a punitive tone. Its message seemed to be: You, small child, were born table-mannerless, and must now atone for your original tendency to stuff the food into your mouth and all over your face with your hands. You must learn, once and for all, to... ``use your knife and fork properly!''

This came back to me during a drive around England with an American couple.

I wasn't aware of it to begin with. But, one lunchtime, looking across the table (at a restaurant called ``The Ubiquitous Chip'') as I tucked into steak-and-kidney pie, I suddenly noticed Bob endeavoring to maneuver his food onto the arched back of his fork and then negotiate whatever he had precariously heaped onto it into his mouth before it all fell off.

Evidently, he found it strangely fascinating to try. To me it is second nature. But he's been brought up to believe that a fork is a kind of spoon. It's not his fault.

The point is that I (being nanny-trained and English) do not employ this pronged utensil as a putative shovel or substitute baby spoon. In other words, I do not scoop up the food with it. I stab it. Neatly. Or I balance food with perfectly ridiculous finesse on its elegant convexity.

I am not defending the way I use the fork. I actually wish I could return to primeval slobiness - even to the point of drinking soup directly from the bowl or eating peas with a knife. In fact, even the English have eaten everything (including peas) with a knife for many more centuries than they have pronged them with a fork. In her book ``The Rituals of Dinner,'' Margaret Visser notes how the ``English in the eighteenth century started using ``special knives... with widened... blade ends.... [They]... were given to using this knife like a sort of flat spoon, even for eating peas.'' Visser goes on: ``It was an anonymous Englishman who expressed the frustration of many by imagining a heroic solution:

`I eat my peas with honey -

I've done it all my life.

It makes the peas taste funny

But it keeps them on the knife.' ''

But she adds that it was also the English who have for at least 150 years ``insisted... on trying to pierce peas with their fork tines.

At school I perfected what I thought was an amusing feat: I would line up peas on a knife (without honey) and then carefully bring them level with my lips. One swift inhalation then made the peas shoot into my mouth like machine-gun fire. It showed, I think, a certain rebellious spirit in the face of concerted efforts to turn one into a gentleman. Or a regression to infanthood.

The polite use of the fork seems to have been considered, in my childhood, quite as significant an achievement for British infants as potty training.

I go along with it still, in public anyway, not out of politeness, nor old-fashionedness, nor because I am convinced it is a particularly effective way of capturing some of the more elusive forms of cuisine such as thin-sliced mushrooms in a raspberry coulis, but because - like washing my hands - I somehow do it without thinking.

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