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Sep 28, 2011 04:02 PM

Struggling to use a knife and fork

I recently met a friend for dinner at a local place that specializes in steak. While we were waiting for our meals to come, I had an opportunity to casually glance over at a group of young adults, from time to time. While they all appeared to be enjoying their meal out together, each one struggled, in a variety of ways to cut into their respective pieces of cooked meat. There were as many ways of using the knife and fork as their were diners at the table, stabbing....sawing, etc. Not one person seemed to try the sheer simplicity of using their pointer fingers on each hand, instead of multiple fingers on both hands or even a fist, for a knife and fork operation.

It certainly reminded me of my own awful multiple finger fumbledly-ness when using chopsticks.( I need a personal tutor to sit beside me to show me the simple basics, too!)

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  1. Your post confuses me a little. Just for clarification, did the group seem to be from a foreign country, possibly one that may not use "modern silverware" as Americans may define it?

    (Yes, I am attempting to be as culturally sensitive as possible for a long-haired southern boy)

    4 Replies
    1. re: PotatoHouse

      They appeared to be a group of American friends out for dinner. I do understand your wanting to be culturally sensitive, tho. I try to be as well. My chopstick attempts when eating at an Asian restaurant are embarrassing. Usually I end up asking, sheepishly, for a fork.

      1. re: Kamanda1953

        I was lucky enough as a Navy kid to live in areas with heavy Asian influence so I learned to to use chopsticks around the same age as most Asian kids do.

        1. re: Kamanda1953

          The only time I ate with chopsticks comfortably was in JFK, with a delayed plane, eating eri-bento (thanks grandcentral!). Of course, the bowl was about three inches from my mouth, as I inhaled the food. The WVians thought our food, while strange, looked a lot better than anything available in the terminal

          1. re: Chowrin

            oh I'd comment, but a WV joke is just too easy. and tired. but it probably didn't only look better than anything found at JFK (Grand Central really DOES have good choices doesn't it?)

      2. maybe they'd only had burgers (or equivalent) and spoonable food all their lives and just didn't know better. sad but it happens.

        5 Replies
        1. re: hill food

          Good point! A bit sad, perhaps, that no one demonstrated any simpler way.....just in case they ever were to be served something other than finger food, sandwiches, or soup, etc.

          1. re: Kamanda1953

            A large portion of the current teens and twenties struggles to deal with chicken that has bones in it!

            1. re: sandylc

              That's sad...and both depressing and disturbing.

              1. re: sandylc

                But, if I may interject - just because one might observe a person enjoying a portion of spicy Chicken wings ( or something like that), using hands to do so, does not imply that person isn't capable of eating that same Chicken with knife and fork. It just depends on the place and time....

                1. re: RUK

                  We're talking things like roasted chicken vs. nuggets and boneless, skinless breasts, here.

          2. Sad to say, most young folks I see out and about these days appear never to have been taught how to hold either eating utensils or writing implements. The usual method seems to be some kind of three-fingered semi-fist for pens, and thumbs-forward full fists for forks and knives. The only explanations I can think of are that either the parents themselves had not been taught properly, or that these kids never had regular meals around a family table at which good table manners were taught and expected. It may well be a combination of both those things. A shame and a pity.

            13 Replies
            1. re: Will Owen

              On the writing, Will, kids don't do much. There is a trend among schools not to teach cursive anymore because it is felt there is no need for it. Keyboarding is taught in the lower grades, however. (Unless that has changed since my youngest was in school.) But gone are the exercises making slanted ovals and different strokes. I am old enough that I remember being exposed to ink and a fountain pen, and making a mess. I never understood why I needed to learn to write with a fountain pen, and I was right. I have never needed to have that skill. Kids don't need to learn to write the way we did, so they don't. They enter everything. Handwriting will be an arcane skill in 20 years, much as the practice of copperplate or calligraphy has become.

              I posted above about table manners. I think everything is in flux. By the time my grandchildren are old enough to notice, they will think my table manners exotic, and my writing incredibly strange.

              1. re: Will Owen

                Now I am really curious about the "why" behind the struggle to cut food on a plate with a knife and fork. Everyone has made such good points. I do agree that part of it is generational, certain simple life skills not being taught/valued any longer. (One of my friends is a middle school librarian and she has regaled me with stories of HOW her 6th graders come to her, uh... "holding" pens/pencils, in her after school note taking class.)

                1. re: Will Owen

                  Just curious, Will; what is the "proper" way to hold utensils?

                  1. re: mucho gordo

                    Thumb, forefinger, index finger - same way you hold a pencil or pen, only with the thumb farther back - this is for lifting a spoon or fork. For piercing or cutting the hand is rotated counterclockwise (and the left rotated clockwise) with the thumb and index finger doing the guiding. When you're preparing food and cutting with a cooking knife, leading the blade with the index finger on top gives much more control and accuracy than just wrapping your fist around the handle.

                    1. re: Will Owen

                      That's what I thought and what I was taught. I was told that it was the elegant, mannerly way to eat and showed good breeding; never mind that it is rather awkward. Now that physical limitations forces me to grip the fork in my fist, lest my shaking hand splashes the food all over, am I to be considered boorish and unmannerly?
                      I have to wonder whom, and by what authority, was the 'proper' method established?

                      1. re: Will Owen

                        Not to get too sidetracked, but I find that the pinch method for holding a cooking knife gives much more control than the index finger on top of the blade.

                        Three fingers wrapped around the handle and pinch with forefinger and thumb at base of knife. I find it less fatiguing too.

                        1. re: Will Owen

                          Hmmm... how DO I hold utensils? When you do something every day forever you don't even think about it, you just do it. Got to fetch some out of the drawer and see.

                          I am Australian and used to eating with knife and fork simultaneously. Picking up and putting down the knife all the time is strange. If I need to use a knife, I'll use both together, if it doesn't need a knife, I'll just use a fork and won't even get a knife dirty.

                          Knife for spreading - fist, because you're dipping it vertically into a jar of something.
                          Fork for scooping - tines facing up, fork held between thumb and forefinger with your forefinger curled underneath for support.
                          Knife and fork together - fork in the three fingers with your first finger extended for better control, tines down for poking food. Knife halfway in between fist and three fingers, first finger extended but other fingers on the butt of the knife so you can press downwards for cutting, and the end of the knife is pressed against your palm.
                          Spoon - like scooping fork, a fist is unwieldy unless you are trying to exert maximum force on frozen icecream!
                          Teaspoon - held between thumb and first finger with second finger underneath the blade. Hold it right down at the END of the spoon with the butt of the teaspoon resting between your thumb and finger.

                          1. re: Kajikit

                            Is the handle hidden in the palm of your hand, or exposed (as if holding a pen)?

                            Is the fork handle wide (at the end) or tapered? (in other words, does the balance affect how it is used)

                            I've also noticed that my grip changes depending on the angle. Scooping food off a plate calls for a different grip than spooning it out of a deep bowl or cup.

                            1. re: Kajikit

                              You know, I just thought of a something new for this thread. One of the objections to the way we use a knife and fork in the States is that we "clatter" around putting the knife down and switching hands with the fork. This begs the question: Is it polite to eat all of your meat at once, then put down your knife to eat the rest of the offerings on your plate? I was raised that this was a somewhat childish thing to do and somewhat frowned upon. So, if one doesn't put down their knife in order to avoid this terrible "clatter" (I like to think I can put my knife down mostly noiselessly), this person must be doing one of two things: Eating their entire piece of meat before moving on to their side dishes, or stacking the side dishes up the back of their fork on top of their bite of meat. Both of these things were taught to me as impolite and somewhat crude and childish.

                              Now, before the attacks come, I didn't say that this is my current opinion, I said that this is what was taught to me as being mannerly. I do feel that this has been a pretty one-sided conversation with an underecurrent of: "Crude Americans, sophisticated Europeans". I would like to offer that perhaps neither method is more sophisticated than the other and that both methods have long histories as well as good points and bad ones.

                              1. re: sandylc

                                I was taught that the switching hands and putting the knife down and picking it back up all through the meal is rude because of the clattering of the utensils against the plate (no matter how quietly you do it, it's not soundless). When you have a whole table full of people, it can get loud. It was all a part of eating quietly so our conversation wouldn't have to be too loud, either. The solution was not to do something like eat all of your meat at one time, but to eat using the Continental style. The knife has a use for more than meat, though, because it can be used as a "pusher" to get food onto your fork.

                                In my experience, knowing how to hold and use your utensils delicately without making a lot of noise and mess is just one indicator that other table manners are known. (Not mutually exclusive, just an indicator that may or may not be accurate.)

                                1. re: velochic

                                  How does one take a drink of water while eating one's meat? Dear lord, I'd choke to death! I believe it's barbarian to try to chew all of your meat without taking the time to drink a bit of water. Unless you have a third arm, you must put *something* down, right? Do YOU make "clattering" when YOU do?
                                  BTW, all the talk of this "clattering" ( and zig-zagging) is ridiculous. Folks everywhere can pick up utensils and put them down without excessive noise. To think that American style is louder is laughable. And if there is a bit of noise when utensil meets plate, how does this offend one's sensiblitilies?
                                  Tis' much ado about nothing, if you ask me. A red herring, if you will.

                        2. re: Will Owen

                          I have not yet recovered from reading a while-ago CH post about a young person preferring to eat salad with the fingers so each bit of lettuce, tomato, celery, or whatever could be hand-dipped into the salad dressing. And this was in restaurants.

                          1. re: Querencia

                            Q: I guess you never read Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar" a top editor or something at her job ate his that way with such aplomb and confidence it seemed natural.

                        3. I don't know that I have noticed younger people struggling too much with knives and forks. I do notice more younger people using the continental method of holding the fork in one hand and the knife in the other as they eat. However I have noticed people grasping their spoons or forks in their fists, rather than in the typical accepted way. Just a few days ago I noticed a grown man forking up salad this way. I always wonder if these people (usually men) eat this way among business associates. A while back I noticed a guy eating this way, but holding his plate or bowl in the crook of his elbow as if he needed to safeguard his food. I'm sure there is a backstory there.

                          36 Replies
                          1. re: sueatmo

                            ok 1: Sue ya antiquated freak! (kidding) personally I don't care about handwriting, but I sorta feel we can't eat with an OCR tablet and stylus.

                            2. I had a co-worker originally from Eastern Europe whose parents were in the diplomatic core and you'd think he would be a bit more fluid but just could. not. get. the hang of either method (American vs. European). it was painful watching him eat precarious bits balanced on a ham-handed upside down fork, it just made me nervous.

                            3. I would love to learn the back story of the plate in arm technique - on face value that's some serious hoarding issue.

                            4. I'm not commenting about what's 'proper' it just looks so awkward and difficult to hold the utensil that way.

                            1. re: hill food

                              "Sue ya antiquated freak!" That is probably an accurate description. :-)

                              While I'm remembering crazy things I've seen people do in restaurants, there is this: a guy in a food line took the fork, knife and spoon and placed them in his shirt pocket before paying for his chosen viands. Can't imagine the thought process there.

                              OK, so how does an Eastern European eat food with fork and knife? Surely there is an accepted method which would be understood by anyone who was eating with him or her. Why would he feel the need to switch methods?

                              On the writing issue, left handed people often "hook" their hands around to write from the top of the letters, so to speak. Perhaps some people are offended by this, but really it is a known phenomenon.

                              And does anyone use a stylus anymore? I've noticed my kids don't.

                              1. re: sueatmo

                                the EE guy used the clenched-in-fist hold, clumsy and not considered smooth in any culture.

                                I always do the cutlery in shirt or jacket pocket thing, keeps your hands free and you don't to balance them on your plate, sliding into the food. that's my thought process.

                                lefties do that so the ink doesn't smear as the hand trails the writing.

                            2. re: sueatmo

                              Sorry Sue, but this "typical accepted way" of holding utensils smacks of pure elitism. What, exactly, is wrong with grasping the fork with the fist for better control and leverage?

                              1. re: mucho gordo

                                I think that etiquette is definitely not elitism. Etiquette means I understand physical limitations and make people comfortable in my presence. Elitism means, refusing to been seen with a person, a group and feeling superior. Huge difference. Etiquette provides guidelines to build social connections, elitism is to build a wall to prevent social connections.

                                I think this thread is about etiquette.

                                1. re: Quine

                                  Elitism is an attitude. Etiquette is a set of rules, written or not, that define accepted behavior or the norms of a society, group or class. Often those rules are used to distinguish one social class from another. The word itself comes the French, meaning 'tag or label'.

                                  Yes, I accept the argument that part of good/nice/polite etiquette (as opposed to elitist etiquette) is recognizing that some people do not have the motor control to use the fork in the 'typical accepted way', but it expects everyone else to follow the rules. If they don't follow the rules they are considered to be poorly trained, uncouth, clumsy. To call them 'lower class' isn't polite, but I think the attitude is still there. You worry about such people not fitting in with business associates - that's a social class.

                                  1. re: Quine

                                    If, as you say, etiquette means understanding physical limitations, etc., then why is it considered unmannerly to grasp fork with fist? What does how one holds the fork have to do with etiquette? Who determined what is "correct"?

                                    1. re: mucho gordo

                                      Grasping the fork with a fist is child-like and crude. I know that's harsh, but there it is...

                                      1. re: monavano

                                        It is not harsh, the use of "tripod grip" is actually a child development sign. I was afraid people would try to make this a flame war.

                                        1. re: Quine

                                          Exactly. Motor skills develop, so should etiquette.

                                        2. re: monavano

                                          Do you agree with that narrow-minded, elitist view? If so, please don't invite me to dinner.

                                          1. re: mucho gordo

                                            I'm not sure what you mean. Do I agree with it? I wrote it. I'd be embarrassed to be seen in a restaurant with someone forking food with a fist. It's infantile and unrefined.
                                            Again, harsh, but there it is.
                                            About dinner, no problemo!

                                            1. re: monavano

                                              I know you wrote it but, it came across as a generalization not a personal viewpoint.
                                              What if I have a neuromuscular condition that requires I hold the fork in a fist for control? If I don't talk with a mouthful and chew quietly, can I sit at the table with you?
                                              Along the same lines, if I hold a wine glass without my 'pinky' finger extended and curled, I am unrefined, inelegant and uncouth.

                                              1. re: mucho gordo

                                                Pinky out! I tick off my brother in law when I hold a glass of white wine by the glass and not the stem. So many issues.

                                              2. re: monavano

                                                Well this post sure hit a nerve. I have been with someone who had ALS, and had to have her food fed to her. She was sensitive about it, but I think it was good for her to be out of the house with her friends. I almost felt as if we all erected a force field around her. I was not embarrassed. Were we noticed? I think we were. Who cares. If you are eating with a friend who hasn't been taught table manners, or who has a physical difficulty, you overlook or choose not to care about the other stuff, because she is your friend. Because you chose to eat with her. Because you are a human being who extends understanding to another human being. Now, I do agree that decent table manners help your image, and as Miss Manners has said, they are "a gift you give yourself." But how about extending a little grace to others?

                                                1. re: sueatmo

                                                  Ugh.... as a Physical Therapist, I get it. But bad manners are bad manners. How did you not get that? Please, read my former posts....

                                                  1. re: sueatmo

                                                    My mother had Parkinson's and eating could get quite crazy with her. The fact that she had difficulty does not give other people a free pass on eating without any consideration of the people around them. No one ever gave more than a passing glance at my mom because she was old and disabled, but I expect more consideration of those, who has someone else has pointed out, can text with absolutely no problem--my mom couldn't even use a regular phone!

                                              3. re: monavano

                                                People will understand fist-gripping if the gripper is three years old or elderly and arthritic but given that he is a functioning adult in his active years he will be judged as...not quite the right fellow for the promotion. Is this elitist, Gordo? Perhaps, but it's a social reality and a workplace reality. If the boss invites you to lunch and you handle yourself at the table like a young child, he/she will take note of this. Again (vd your posts) if you have a neuromuscular condition, people will understand. Otherwise, show off at your peril.

                                                1. re: Querencia

                                                  I thought bosses evaluated staff by their ipad and social networking skills, not their fork and knife skills! :) Though I suppose that depends on the business.

                                                  However in the context of this thread, none of us is doing an employee evaluation of the dinners at the next table. In all likelihood we don't even have evaluate whether to invite them to our next soiree, or worry whether they might break our Royal Doulton with hand-painted periwinkles.

                                                  1. re: paulj

                                                    Would table manners stop a promotion for an otherwise stellar employee?


                                                    Would that employee quietly be sent to etiquette school to improve boorish table manners?

                                                    Yes. Happens all the time -- I know a couple of guys who were sent to etiquette coaches, and a few more folks who hired etiquette coaches for their employees.

                                                    It's called being an adult with some measure of grace and social bearing, and it's not elitism -- proper manners are free. (being taught manners because your parents/guardians didn't get the job done, not so much)

                                                    If someone is physically unable to handle their silverware, that's an entirely different issue -- but I think we can all agree that those folks are a statistical minority as compared to the folks who either were never taught or just don't give a rat's red rump. If you're texting during dinner, you lose any free pass for physical impairment.

                                                    1. re: sunshine842

                                                      "Would table manners stop a promotion for an otherwise stellar employee?


                                                      While I do agree, more places are adding etiquette seminars and such, many still look at what is already in place. My last job, was with a large telecommunications company, all customer contact was over the phone ( anyone who has ever spoken to a customer service rep, already knows the value of spoken etiquette there) but many of the positions in Marketing, training, and vendor relationships required working directly with people, as well travel to sites around the world.. Social skills mattered. People who did not handle themselves well at company events somehow did not manage to move into those departments.

                                                      1. re: Quine

                                                        Absopositivelutely, Quine -- I have a dear friend who makes her living in intercultural training -- she's told me nightmarish stories of mergers and acquisitions made nearly intolerable by cultural misfires.

                                                        And yes, table manners across cultures is part of what she teaches.

                                                        1. re: sunshine842

                                                          Wow, I would love to hear her stories and see her work. Sounds like a dream job to me.

                                                          1. re: Quine

                                                            she's likened a lot of it to being the playground attendant at an elementary school!

                                                    2. re: paulj

                                                      "Mrs. Bucket, I'm sorry." Elizabeth

                                                    3. re: Querencia

                                                      +1. DH got his MBA and had formal instruction in eating etc. It gets noticed and reflects on the individual. The judgements though harsh (like me!) are a reality.

                                                  2. re: mucho gordo

                                                    It's sort of two separate issues at hand here. I don't personally care how my dining companions hold their fork, and I don't think etiquette is some big factor here. But if I saw someone holding a fork that way, I would assume they don't have great fine motor control.

                                                    Likewise, if I went golfing with someone and saw that they hold the club deep in their fists like it was a baseball bat, I wouldn't call it a moral failing on their part. But I would assume they're probably not too good at golf.

                                                    1. re: cowboyardee

                                                      I would not default to poor motor skills, I'd assume it was habit. Poor motor control of that magnitude would manifest in other ways as well. Cerebral Palsy? Sure, I understand. RA, sure, I get it. But in the face of no corroborating evidence, I'd just feel badly for the fister.
                                                      Hell's Bells, when I fractured my dominant right wrist some years ago, you better believe I ate with my left hand properly. It didn't come naturally, but it didn't take me long to master it.

                                                2. re: mucho gordo

                                                  So if most people eat in a typical accepted way, and someone else doesn't, and others notice the difference, their noticing is elitism? I disagree. Noticing is not judging.

                                                  1. re: sueatmo

                                                    Noticing isn't, but thinking 'what are these kids being taught?' might be.

                                                  2. re: mucho gordo

                                                    if your physical situation requires you to hold it that way - you get a bus pass and it's cool. for people without a neuro-muscular condition, holding them that way reduces control and leverage. when it comes to usage of cutlery the terms correct, proper and etiquette are immaterial IMHO ("did you see at brunch? Monica used her asparagus tongs to retrieve the pickled okra from her bloody mary!"), it's more about expediency, efficiency and awkwardness. now if one chews with mouth open and loudly belches while digging a finger in one ear, well that's a whole 'nother barrel of monkeys.

                                                    1. re: mucho gordo

                                                      "for better control and leverage..."

                                                      The fist method feels more clumsy to me.

                                                      1. re: sandylc

                                                        well, yeah but you, I presume, are fully abled, mucho needs to employ that method for control - and in that case it's POK by me.

                                                        1. re: hill food

                                                          If a person is disabled, then THAT'S a whole 'nother thing! Clearly others can't expect someone who is disabled to strictly follow social rules that they aren't able to manage.

                                                    2. re: sueatmo

                                                      What do you mean by 'in their fists'? Just that the handle is hidden in the palm, or that they are not controlling the utensil with their thumb and forefinger tips? How about finding an image on the web 'the typical accepted way', and of one or more ways that are not accepted?

                                                      1. re: paulj





                                                        (used google search - images for " table etiquette " and " table utensil etiquette "

                                                        Edited to add space before each link per paulj's suggestion.

                                                    3. We had a 10 year old for a year 5 years ago (he is now 15 and I'm his guardian but that's another story) and I would take he and his friends out for lunch. The two brothers would hold their knives and forks in their fists and couldn't really cut their meat. I had asked their Dad (single Father) whether I could correct their manners on occasion so I taught them how to hold their knives and forks, etc. The Dad just never noticed, I guess not sure as it would have been rude to say WTF???