Dear Helena,
My boyfriend is British and thinks the way Americans eat by switching their knife and fork back and forth between their hands is “clumsy.” According to him, it is more elegant to keep your fork in your left hand and your knife in your right the whole time, European style. Now I feel self-conscious around silverware. Should I try to eat like my Brit boyfriend? Is one style more cultured and cosmopolitan than the other? What about when I meet his parents?
—Cutlery Clash

Dear Cutlery Clash,
You shouldn’t try to emulate your boyfriend’s parents’ European cutlery usage purely to impress them any more than you should attempt a British accent or refer to four o’clock as teatime. Do whatever feels most comfortable for you. As long as you’re not talking with your mouth full of half-chewed food or tweeting about his parents under the table, they’re not likely to consider you a boor. It really shouldn’t matter to them which hand your fork is in.

That said, your boyfriend isn’t the only one to wrinkle his nose at the so-called American style of cutlery usage. Emily Post herself thought it was inefficient, derisively dubbing it the “zigzag” method. As Chowhounds have pointed out in their epic debate on this topic, the European style is more efficient (not to mention easier for left-handers). When my uptight ex-boyfriend from my days at Oxford University came to visit, his chief observation from his tour of the U.S. was: “Doesn’t anyone in this country know how to hold a knife and fork? People eat like barbarians!” (Yet more proof that he and I were totally wrong for each other.)

Critics of the zigzag method might be surprised to learn that it originated in Europe. Darra Goldstein, editor of Gastronomica magazine and cocurator of the exhibit “Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table, 1500–2005” at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, says, “Americans actually got the transfer method from the French. It was fashionable among the French upper classes.”

It’s not quite clear why the French adopted it in the first place. Sarah Coffin, head of product design and decorative arts at the Cooper-Hewitt and cocurator of “Feeding Desire,” suggests this method originated because it may have seemed less hostile—and therefore more genteel—to put your knife down when not using it. That way you could avoid “waving it around or potentially pointing it at someone.” Another reason, she explains, might be that the first forks had straight, very sharp tines, and people preferred to manipulate these crude instruments with their more efficient right hands. When forks developed their gentle spoonlike curves, it became safe to use the clumsier left hand.

Eventually Europeans abandoned the zigzag style. So why did Americans stick with it? Again, historians can only speculate. We do know that Americans did not start using forks (other than crude meat forks) until the second half of the 19th century, when the implements had become a status symbol. In fact, forks became so trendy that, according to Goldstein, it was considered proper “to eat even ice cream with a fork.” She theorizes that since the zigzag method involves putting down your knife, it was a good way to showcase the more sophisticated and impressive fork.

But we all can agree that nowadays, owning a fork is nothing to show off about.

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