Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Not About Food >
May 5, 2011 05:38 PM

The master of the toothpick - what is the proper etiquette?

As far as the US, Miss Manners sums it up perfectly

"Dear Miss Manners,

When and where is it acceptable to use a toothpick?

Gentle Reader,

When: When there is something stuck in your teeth. Where: In spaces between your teeth. Oh, and in the bathroom."

But in certain parts of the world such as Asia and Brazil, using the tootpick at the table is considered ok. An old Chowhound topic

What brought this up is that I was dining at one of the pricer restaurants in Antigua, GT, an old-school Continental type of joint with waiters in tuxes. The meals starts with a warm napkin to clean you hands that is presented in a basket next to a red rose.

Anyway, after the entree, along with a dish of cardomon to cleanse the palate, there's a toothpick container. This isn't at the end of the meal, where you can slip the toothpick in your pocket and retreat to the rest room.

So it got me thinking. In those societies where this is acceptable ... this site came up with a few questions I'd like to know

"Should the left hand be used when handling the TP?

Should one cover one's mouth, whilst TPing?

What should be done with the detritus?

A) Placed on napkin

B) Spat into the fan too share around

C) Saved for when hungrey later

D) If saved, what is the time limit"

There is a book on the history of the toothpick where the author says in an NPR interview

"Petroski also finds that the toothpick has adapted across cultures. In Japan, traditional toothpicks are pointed at one end only. Decorative grooves at one end enable the end of the toothpick to be broken off to indicate that it has been used. The stub also provides a rest to keep the soiled part from touching the table. In Portugal and other countries, toothpicks are often hand-carved and receive elaborate ornamentation."

Another link on toothpick history says that "The prophet Muhammad assigned the care of this important tool to a servant called the "master of the toothpick."

So, in those societies that toothpick, what are the rules for using it? How does one become the master of the toothpick?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. I may be in the minority but I don't like to see toothpicks used in public, even if it is just stuck in someone's mouth. Same for digging fingers in the teeth, yuk!

    3 Replies
    1. re: eatswjoy

      The question is not whether you or anyone else approves of the use of toothpicks.

      The question is in those societies such as Japan or Portugual where toothpicks are socially acceptable, how does one use them?

      It was noted in the OP that it is not socially acceptable in the US. It is in other countries. Whethere you approve of that is irrelevant. I would like to know how to correctly use them in other countries.

      1. re: rworange

        I must apologize, you are correct and I didn't answer the actual question. I just had to blurt out my opinion about toothpicks and that was ill mannered of me! :o

        The cultural differences amongst us all in the world are always interesting even if I don't condone some of them.

        1. re: eatswjoy

          Well, I'm with you on this ... and I am itching to get back to the US and my cultural preferances. I just didn't want to get this side-tracked on approval of the practice or disapproval. It just "is" in some places.

          I found the whole thing about the Japanese only having one pointed end and then breaking the toothpick after use interesting. I was wondering if there are any other cultures with specific practices like that

          Either toothpick-using groups have adapted to US customs, are discreet or I just have never paid much attention, but I just can't remember seeing toothpick use in any type of restaurant in my neck of the woods in the US. Actually, actual toothpick use might be preferable to all the sucking and finger jabbing that goes on in Guatemala.

    2. I truly think you have covered it all. To be honest I did not go to any of your links. My belief on toothpick is if you have to use one, leave the table and come back when you're done. What happens in between is hopefully none of my business.

      1. Use your dominant hand, and cover your mouth with the other hand.

        11 Replies
          1. re: rworange

            I've seen this done all over East Asia.

            1. re: melo7

              Ok, so in East Asia it is cover you mouth with your hand and pick away.

              Than what?

              Where do you deposit the toothpick?

              And while the link in the OP was joking, Just what do you do with the picked food? Swallow it? Spit it out in a napkin?

              1. re: rworange

                Not just in East Asia, but in the Chinese community generally.

                Leave the toothpick in the tea cup.

                Eat the flossed food of course. Wouldn't want to waste food. It's perfectly good.

                1. re: ipsedixit

                  >>> Wouldn't want to waste food. It's perfectly good.

                  With an additional marinade of saliva.

                  Perhaps this can be done discretely as I've never noticed this in any SF Chinese restaurants ... nor do I recall toothpick distribution even when dining with Chinese friends ... the only difference being then you get fruit for dessert rather than a fortune cookie ... no fruit and toothpick ... wait, wait ... sometimes there is a toothpick in the fruit ... and I thought that was just to daintily eat the fruit.

                  1. re: rworange

                    Social taboos differ across the cultural spectrum as we all know so well, esp. when it comes to food and dining.

                2. re: rworange

                  I remember in Seoul there would often be a cup of toothpicks on your way out, like on the desk of the cashier/receptionist. So I imagine people take one on the way out and use it outside of the restaurant. I don't really use toothpicks so I have no idea where they deposit them, etc. Certainly an interesting question.

                  1. re: uwsister

                    That's the case with many Chinese restaurants in the U.S.

              2. re: rworange

                In my opinion, ipsedixit's suggestion would be the thing to do in any country. I have traveled to many and this is the acceptable method by people in better standing.

                1. re: rworange

                  This is done by certain ethnic groups in the US. Chinese Americans in Chinese restaurants in the US use the toothpick regularly.

              3. I'll check with my dentist.

                1. In Asia, cover your mouth with your hand as stated above. And, ahh... eat the unstuck food?

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: jaykayen

                    Toothpicks don't even work. Sometimes use just push the food in deeper, like using a cotton swab to get out ear wax. I swear, restaurants need to have individually packaged dental floss in their bathrooms.

                    1. re: david t.

                      Not served with the after dinner mints?

                      1. re: david t.

                        Toothpicks don't even work.


                        Only if they are not used properly. If that's the case, then it's a "you problem" not a toothpick problem.

                        1. re: david t.

                          I used to carry dental floss in my puse for this situation. When a chef I was working with on a catering job proclaimed that he would give $100 for a piece of dental floss, I offered him mine, but I didn't get the $100.

                          1. re: david t.

                            There are brand new modern toothpicks (plastic, with a little brush at the end) that works just like a floss.