Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Continental vs. American Style

In our shrinking world, we often see people using the continental or European style of dining, as well as the more familiar (to most of us) American style. Both are perfectly correct, and neither is preferable to the other. What’s important is being consistent and being correct in whichever style you choose. After it is mastered, the continental style is far more graceful and efficient, so it is well worth learning. (Children, by the way, often get the hang of this style of dining more easily than adults do.)
When knives and forks became popular in Europe in the early seventeenth century, most people probably used them in much the same way as Americans do now. Only later did the upper classes in Europe begin using what is now known as the continental style and the practice spread—but not, obviously, to America.
American style. The knife is used for cutting only. It is held in the right hand (for right-handers) while cutting, and the fork is held in the left hand to help control the object being cut. The knife is then put down on the edge of the plate (blade facing in), and the fork is switched to the right hand to lift the cut piece to the mouth. The tines of the fork face upward when bringing food to the mouth. Hands are in the lap when not being used.
Americans are the only people in the world who use this basically inefficient style of dining. Continental style. The knife remains in the right hand and the fork in the left. After the food is cut, the knife is used to push it onto the fork. The prongs of the fork face downward when the cut food is lifted to the mouth unless the type of food—peas or creamed food, for example—requires a different tactic. The hands remain above the table from the wrist up when they are not in use.
Small forks for eating were first used in the eleventh century in Tuscany. Prior to that and for some time after, people ate with their hands. They separated their meat by tearing it with their hands or cutting it with knives and using their fingers to pick at it. Some historians attribute the more refined use of eating utensils to Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Louis VII of France and Henry II of England. Eleanor is credited with initiating and encouraging many chivalrous and courtly customs.
Dining skillfully and enjoyably takes homework and practice. The good news is that it’s not brain surgery, and anybody can do it. Most people take dining skills for granted until it’s too late. But, just as nobody ever learned to ride a bike by reading a book, actual experience is necessary for you to become a poised, informed, and confident dining companion.
Bonne chance and bon app├ętit!

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