Eating with a Knife and Fork–American Style vs. European Style

Eating with a Knife and Fork

In cultures where the knife and fork are used for eating, there are three accepted ways of eating: European style (also called “Continental style”), American style, and a synthesis of the European and American styles.

In the European method, the fork is almost always held in the left hand, tines down, and the knife, held in the right hand, is used to push and then compact food onto the down-turned fork before the food is conveyed to the mouth with the fork, tines downward. Likewise, when meat is being cut, the fork, being held in the left hand, is used to spear and secure the meat, tines pointing downward, while the knife, being held in the right hand, is used to cut off the the desired portion. Once cut, the desired portion is conveyed to the mouth with the fork, tines downward. In the European style, the only time a fork is held in the right hand is when it is not being used in conjunction with a knife. In such cases, the fork is transferred to the right hand, and the food is conveyed to the mouth, tines pointing upward.

In the American style, the fork is switched between the left and right hands, depending on the circumstances. When eating anything that does not need cutting, the fork is held in the right hand, tines upward, with the knife placed either vertically onto the far right side of the plate or in the “three o’clock” position, with the handle resting on the table and the blade pointing into the plate. When something must be cut before being conveyed to the mouth, the fork is switched to the left hand, the knife is held in the right hand, and the fork, tines down, is used to spear the item that is to be cut, holding it in place as the knife is used to cut off the desired portion. Once cut, the knife is laid onto the plate (in one of the two placements described above), and the fork is switched to the right hand. The food is then conveyed to the mouth with the fork held tines upward. In the strict American method, even if successive portions are to be cut, the fork is switched to the right hand each time food must be conveyed to the mouth.

The American style evolved out of necessity: In North America, the fork did not become a popular eating utensil until the 19th century; for the most part, only spoons and knives were used. So when food had to be cut, it was held in place with the spoon held in the left hand, and the food was cut with the knife held in the right. But since a spoon cannot spear food, in order to convey to the mouth whatever was cut off, the diner would have to place the knife onto his plate, then switch the spoon to his right hand to then convey the cut-off portion to his mouth, obviously with the bowl of the spoon turned upward. When forks became fashionable in the United States during the 19th century, the method of switching hands simply carried over to forks.

Many diners find strict application of the American method—with all its hand-switching—to be too cumbersome, especially when cutting off several items successively. Hence, the very popular (even in North America) synthesized method, which combines the European and American styles: The fork is held in the right hand, tines upward, to eat whatever does not require cutting—meanwhile, the knife is placed onto the plate, whether vertically or in “three o’clock” position as described above. When an item must be cut off, the fork is switched to the left hand, tines pointing downward, as it spears and holds in place the item to be cut with the knife, held in the right hand. The cut-off portion is then conveyed to the mouth with the fork, held in the left hand, tines pointing downward. And if items are to be cut successively, the cut-off portions are conveyed to the mouth with fork, tines down, held in the left hand. The fork is returned to the right hand only when the diner wishes to eat something that does not require cutting.

But regardless of the method used, it must be done with dexterity. Food and drink should be gracefully conveyed to the mouth while an upward, though natural and relaxed, posture is maintained. The mouth should not be carried to food and drink. And it is critical that a gentleman maintain his elbows sufficiently at his side so as not to interfere with diners sitting adjacent to him. Also, there are few things more embarrassing in life than to have whatever is being cut, end up—along with everything else on the plate—onto a hostess’ stark-white, linen damask tablecloth. It is therefore imperative that a gentleman pay close attention to what he is doing while eating. Cutting must look effortless—even if it isn’t. And if getting the last morsel, no matter how delicious, might risk an accident at the table, that morsel would be better left uneaten. A gentleman must choose his battles. And lamb chops have been known to defeat many a gentleman at the formal dinner table.

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