On the Matter of Manners

We could not lead a pleasant life,

And 'twould be finished soon,

If peas were eaten with the knife,

And gravy with the spoon.

This cheery bit of doggerel is the work of Sir Walter Raleigh. But not, as it turns out, the Elizabethan courtier and explorer. This Sir Walter, born in 1861, was an English lecturer and critic. With a name like that you'd think he would have had better things to do, like gallantly spreading his cloak across a puddle, than to turn nanny sayings into nonsense rhyme. Well, perhaps it was no more than a sideline.

His words do, however, touch on one of the deeper enigmas of childhood.

Think of it: We arrive on the scene, trailing clouds of glory and all that, and naturally expect the world to make sense by listening to our preferences and adjusting to them. But instead, to our growing astonishment we find that everything has been decided in advance. And we have to go along with it unquestioningly or be dismissed as eccentric or just plain (nannyspeak again) naughty.

Think of it, nobody asks us how we'd like to tell the time: It's already laid down by some forefather in Greenwich or somewhere. And what sort of leeway are we allowed in the matter of tying a tie or reciting the alphabet? There are set ways of doing these things.

And nothing - nothing - is so predetermined and set as the matter of knives, forks, and spoons.

Politeness vs. success

One of my distinct earlyish memories is of being shown firmly, as if my very life depended on it, not only how these eating tools should be arranged on the table (decreed, doubtless, by the Medes and Persians), but also how I was to use them from this day forth. The fork was not to be used like a spoon to scoop food. That was what babies and Americans did. Food should be balanced on its back like baggage on a dromedary. No matter that most of it falls off before reaching the mouth.

Politeness is what matters, not success.

Individual choice had nothing to do with it. There was no room for a fresh approach. It was a matter of manners and breeding, and I truly suspect that the inflexible rigors of etiquette had just as much significance for my elders as - well - "Thou shalt not covet" or "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

The rules of table behavior were unalterable. Except, of course, by adults. Adults did have some freedom. I had an uncle of ripe years, for instance, who licked his fingers - and I loved him for it. It was his gesture of appreciation for a particularly delectable morsel. He had, by default, become a bachelor again, and maybe he was celebrating his release.

Anyway, he also steadfastly refused to eat bread at the beginning of a meal. This I thought marvelously defiant. It had been drummed into me from birth that I was not allowed to eat cake before I had finished my bread and butter. My uncle pronounced bread "space waster" and went straight to the cake. He was a good man. A man after my own heart.

A friend told me that when she was a child during World War II, her father came up with one or two rules of his own. For instance, she was not allowed to "woof down" a boiled egg "in a one-er." She must eat two pieces of bread with it. This was probably more economics than manners. But why did he also insist that she must on no account carry the prospective mouthful of food on her fork and dip it in the salt on the side of her plate, but should instead lift some of the salt with the tip of her knife and deposit it on the mouthful?

I'd never encountered this before, so I looked for clues in that fascinating book "The Rituals of Dinner," by Margaret Visser. I found something interestingly apt.

Ms. Visser is talking about Vincenzo Cervio, who wrote a manual for carvers in 1581: "No carver worthy of the name, in Cervio's book, cut up meat on a dish. He lifted the entire joint or fowl up into the air, speared on the carving fork held in his left hand, and sliced pieces off it by wielding an extremely sharp knife in his right; wafers of meat fell to the small plate underneath ... in perfectly organized patterns.... A swift tidying of the slices with the knife-point was permissible, before salt, lifted from its receptacle with another knife [my emphasis], was sprinkled over them with a flourish ... and the dish presented to the diner."

Perhaps my friend's father was a descendent of Vincenzo Cervio.

Her father also, in the matter of soup, agreed with the grandfather of Yankee magazine's editor, Judson D. Hale Sr. Mr. Hale recalls in a recent issue that one "gathered a spoonful of soup by moving one's spoon from the side of the bowl closest to one in the direction of the side furthest away. And ... there were to be no slurping sounds."

Well, I have to say that I had never tried taking soup this way, so I tried it. It really works well: Anything that drops from the spoon tends to return to the bowl, rather than onto table, shirt, or chin. So perhaps these old rules sometimes had a point.

Honoring my uncle, still

But on the whole, I have chosen anarchism as my preferred philosophy vis--vis eating utensils (although I do behave in restaurants). As a schoolboy, I became quite a wiz at eating peas off a knife. I always eat gravy with a spoon. I persistently dip my food in the salt. And (my wife tells me) I decidedly make slurping sounds.

And I do all these things in honor of my favorite finger-licking uncle.

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