Eating with a Fork and Knife

May 17, 2018




On the European continent, everyone eats with a fork and knife - always. The fork is held in the left hand, tines down, and the knife in the right hand with the pointer finger on top of the blade. It's continental style and everyone does it. I mean everyone - even little kids by the time they're four or five!

It's remarkable how quickly you adopt things like the way you hold your knife and fork. In 2006 I moved to Neuch√Ętel, and after going back to the US for Christmas break, I happened to eat my lunch without a knife one day. My Swiss co-workers were visibly bothered to see me eat with just a fork. And when I turned my fork sideways and rocked it through my food to cut it, they let out audible gasps. I'm not kidding! "Would you like a knife?" one of them finally asked, strained and slightly disgusted, and of course I accepted, never to eat with only a fork again.

By the time we had been in Zurich for four years, my strictly continental eating drove my mom crazy. In her view, the American style was actually better because it was pre-Mayflower and therefore more polite. The original proper. But the fact is, proper American table manners are so lacking in smoothness and fluidity, that they're easier to skip all together and that is where the fork rocking comes in. Ugh.

So I decided that my children were going to have proper continental table manners like myself and J. To that end I made sure that they had proper children's flatware and that we ate dinner at the table together every night. But, lately it occurred to me that Coco is already 6, and she still hasn't mastered continental eating. Or even really gotten to it at all! I've been working with her on simple things, like eggs and pancakes, but to her it's very, what's the word? Foreign.

When it comes to eating and food, I've been disappointed to find that American culture does not line up with anything I set out to accomplish or establish as a mother. As a young mama in Zurich, I read Bringing Up Bebe and French Kids Eat Everything. I developed a stance wholly against snacking in favor of having hungry children at mealtimes. And I envisioned my children eating continental style, with a knife in their right hand and a fork in their left. But in the States, children are given snacks constantly, almost more as a form of entertainment than a source of nourishment. And Coco actually came home raving about the sporks they have at hot lunch at school!

I saw a remark online recently that it's easier to change (move) countries than it is to change the culture you're living in and it made me pause. It seemed really dramatic and I didn't want to believe it. But after some experience and giving it some more thought, I have come to believe it's completely true. You can decide to do things your own way, but if the wider culture doesn't support it, it's hard to make it stick. So, along with shoes off inside, I think I may have to take a more relaxed stance on the eating with a fork and knife during our American sojourn.

Have you lived abroad or in a different cultural region and brought back different customs? How has that played out back home?

(Photo via Tumblr/Mats Gustafson)

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  1. I also adopted it right away. I think it's much better and also it's considered sooo rude to just eat with a fork here

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