The Reason Americans Use a Fork the Way We Do

The cultural politics of fork usage are actually quite complex.

November 19, 2017 10:00 am

You may not have noticed, but Americans are famous for fork-switching, or the practice of cutting a piece of food with a knife in the right hand and a fork in the left, and then transferring the fork. Once the transfer is complete, Americans usually pierce their food at 90 degrees and then put it in their mouth. Timeline writes that some Canadians do this, but most prefer the traditional Continental European style, which is when the right-hand holds a knife and the left holds a fork for the whole meal. Meanwhile, in Britain, diners always keep their fork tines pointed down.

But when did forks enter our eating habits in the first place? In ancient Greece, they just used knives and spoons, or their fingers, writes Timeline. It wasn’t until the 11th century, during the Byzantine period, where the first people picked up pronged utensils, but they were always nobles who wanted to keep their hands clean.

After that, French nobility devised more rigorous table etiquette in the 16th century as a “political intimidation tactic,” writes Timeline. The fork shape changed weight, length and girth over time. More people started to host others for banquets and big dinner parties. Physical poise and sophistication were key, writes Timeline, and so fork-switching became fashionable because you can use your dominant hand to eat. At this time and into the 19th century, Americans thought that French customs were the height of civility, so we took up fork-switching. But by the 1850s, the French stopped doing it. The U.S., however, continued.

Recently though, it seems like more Americans are eating like Europeans, without switching their forks every bite, which might be due to the globalization of cultural practices, writes Timeline. But young Americans also see the tradition as awkward and formal and prefer to keep things “simple and streamlined,” according to Timeline. 


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