Etiquette violations: eating off your knife

While eating lunch at the Café Sabarsky in the Neue Galerie in New York last week what did I see but a well-dressed, “high-net-worth-individual” eating from her knife? She held a fork in her left hand and a knife in her right and delivered food to her mouth with both implements. She managed the operation unobtrusively and deftly, but still … I was amazed. I’ve read so many historical accounts by horrified witnesses of this behavior that I could not believe my eyes.

Foreign visitors before the Civil War were aghast to see American restaurant-goers convey food to their mouths with a knife and believed the habit was peculiar to the United States, which they regarded as a nation full of bumpkins. Some Americans retorted that it was not found solely in this country. They argued that the haughty visitors were accustomed to being sheltered by social class segregation in their own societies that prevented them from ever seeing their fellow countrymen who did this. Because the U.S. was more democratic, they said, all classes of people ended up eating together in the same restaurants and so a wide variety of eating customs were on display.

Evidently the habit was fairly common in the 1860s. Onlookers not familiar with this type of scene expressed nervousness that diners who appeared to be swallowing their knives might be in “imminent danger of ripping open their mouths from ear to ear.” That didn’t seem to happen but the mere idea was enough to put people with delicate sensibilities on edge.

In the 19th century eating off a knife was typically associated with cheap restaurants that had dirty tablecloths, uncouth waiters, and chipped dishes. Patrons at these places often exhibited other bad habits such as hunching over their plates. A Philadelphia restaurant keeper of the 1880s, hoping to attract better mannered patrons, went so far as to eject anyone who ate from a knife. He instructed waiters to tap the culprit on the shoulder and say that someone wanted to see them at the cashier’s desk near the door. The waiter then brought the person (usually a man) his coat and hat and asked him to leave. If he balked, a bouncer appeared.

No one reacted to the woman at the Café Sabarsky. Her companions seemed not to notice how she ate.

Up to last week I believed that eating from a knife had stopped back in the 19th century. Now I wonder: is the custom returning, or was it merely one person’s peculiar method of eating?

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

13 Comments

Filed under history, restaurants

13 responses to “Etiquette violations: eating off your knife

  1. Anonymous

    Knife eating has permeated through the mainstream via snarky judges on TV food show contests, holding their implements with complete disdain of the task they are about to perform.

  2. Rjk

    No, poor people who have issues with keeping silverware do this, I.e my family.

  3. Katherine Clifton

    Just watched the chef Eric Ripert eating from his knife on Masterchef Australia – I was horrified! That’s how I found myself here.

    From childhood I recall a rhyme on the subject:

    I eat my pesa with honey,
    I’ve done it all my life.
    It makes the peas taste funnny,
    But it keeps them on the knife!

  4. Pingback: forking. you are doing it wrong! am abend 29.06.2013 | martina's blackandwhiteandcolours

  5. Viv Fisher

    I agree. I was horrified to see a man eating cheese off his knife recently. I always thought this to be the most henious of crimes.

  6. Don Furnald

    The only item one should eat with a knife are English peas…….When eating with a knife one should have their elbows firmly planted on the table, napkin tucked in a collar under ones chin and belch with gusto. Oh by the way if you are a male a Ball Cap or Cowboy hat is an absolute requirement for completing the picture of the perfect uncouth lout.
    Ciao Y’all.

  7. Shelby Sweet

    I’ve always read that to eat with a knife was uncouth. I’ve never seen anyone do it. I would venture to guess that this woman figured out some strange system of eating that works for her. I doubt it’s indicative of any trend. Shelby

  8. As I recall, the sacher torte and apple strudel are particularly good at the Café Sabarsky—perhaps she was simply using both implements to shovel it in as quickly as possible.

  9. Could you hear the woman (who was eating with her knife) speak? I wonder if she was foreign.

    The English (European?) custom of eating while holding both the knife and fork still seems odd to me; I’ve heard them say that the American way is strange.

  10. Dan

    Clearly the introduction of the four-tined fork was akin to an atomic bomb of eating utensils. It transformed the fork from something to hold your food while you worked on it with the knife to a nearly omnipotent eating accessory. Knives, by contrast, have become less useful: witness the butter knife, which is good for little more than spreading warm butter over a pre-sliced piece of bread. If people could overcome their inhibitions and eat with a knife, the technology might prove a deterrent.

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