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
28 responses to “Etiquette violations: eating off your knife”
My sister, privately educated, was scandalized when I dared to convey a minute rib of meat to my mouth by hand, instead of dissecting a few strands off of it; that meal was more of a minimalist display than sustenance. This was Santa Fe, but the bar beside had the best Brandy Alexanders that I have had (with much cream, and like ice cream, could be eaten with a spoon, rather than just a mix of liquids).
If I had the power to absolve you, I would.
Your picture depicting the man eating from his knife is amazing. Thank you.
What can I say then to keep from running afoul of all this wisdom. However, early in US history we read of the hardships encountered by the early settlers as they moved their families, fame and fortune to America, many struggling just to survive the hazards of the oceans. Then struggling to survive the harshness of the winter climates, being assisted at times by the native American Indians, the surviving populace used many different forms of tableware as could be utilized in the preparation and eating of available foodstuffs that could found. One of the most versatile implements for a man to have was a knife, and with that alone, many amazing feats could be achieved. A man must eat, and with a knife in hand, a meal could be had easy enough without much squabble for anything but maybe a fire on which to cook the food.
No doubt you are correct that a knife was a valuable and versatile tool for those living on frontiers. In cities, in public eating places, it was another story.
“The personal table fork most likely originated in the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire. Its use spread to what is now the Middle East during the first millennium CE and then spread into southern Europe during the second millennium. It did not become common in northern Europe until the 18th century and was not common in North America until the 19th century.”
This post reminds me of a favorite passage of mine from Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” (1920):
“These revolutionists were not angels; they were men, and men who had come up from the social pit, and with the mire of it smeared over them. Some of them drank, and some of them swore, and some of them ate pie with their knives; there was only one difference between them and all the rest of the populace – that they were men with a hope, with a cause to fight for and suffer for.”
I like that.
Knife eating is unhygienic as well as lacking in etiquette. Especially when someone chooses to cross contaminate cheeses by mixing blue with Brie with whatever else and then going back for a second helping having added a good coating of saliva in the process to the knife being used to cut two items.
I have a friend staying over at my house, she is from Japan but i’m not sure if this is common. She eats from her knife and I keep asking her if she needs a spoon to help her eat but she says no. Is it a cultural thing?
I’m not sure — I’m not familiar with Japanese customs.
It is probably a substitution for chopsticks.
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.
No, poor people who have issues with keeping silverware do this, I.e my family.
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!
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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.
“Most heinous of crimes” ? You don’t get out much, do you ? When I think of heinous crimes I tend to think of Klaus Barbie or Pol Pot. Here in France there are of course rules of etiquette, but the most important is : if it enhances your pleasure it is fine. And until the Chinese (via the Venetians) gave us the fork everyone ate with his knife.
Here, here and Huzzah, WR!
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.
Ergo the rather circumspect woman I witnessed was a true violator!
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
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.
Henry, I like your theory.
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.
That occurred to me too but I couldn’t hear her.
Doctor David Goldstein hired me in 1985 to work in his anesthesia practice as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist. He and his wife were both from England. Our annual Christmas parties were lavish events where everyone dressed in their best attire. The first thing I noticed was how elegantly Dr G ate his meal. He used the knife and fork but balanced food on the knife and delivered it to his mouth always with the blade side out. It was very pleasant watching him eat. I have mimicked his use of the knife for the last 28 years.
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.