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