Fork Etiquette

There is no reader question this week. Instead, Helena wants to set something right: cutlery.

When I tell people I write about etiquette, they often say, “Oh, like which fork to use?” But I’ve avoided covering this particular topic because I think modern etiquette is more about whether it’s OK to use your iPhone at the dinner table or how to encourage your roommates to recycle food containers. Nonetheless, the question remains: Is it important to know which fork to use?

The old-fashioned rule for place settings is simple: Use the implements on the outside first and work your way in. Spoons and forks that are set horizontally at the top are for dessert. But is it a big deal if you don’t know this?

Let’s put it in context. Until the second half of the 19th century, forks were rare in the United States, says Darra Goldstein, editor of Gastronomica magazine and cocurator of “Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table, 1500–2005,” at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York. People generally used knives to cut and spear things, and, less commonly, spoons. It was only after the discovery of electroplating in the 1840s and the Comstock Lode silver ore deposits in the 1850s that forks became ubiquitous. By the late 19th century, elaborate place settings were used as a status symbol, and knowing what fork to use with the right food was essentially knowledge for the upwardly mobile. An industry emerged producing dozens of specialized implements, like marrow spoons and sardine forks.

These days, a surprising number of people don’t know the difference between a salad and an entrée fork. Christopher Losa, owner of San Francisco restaurant Bar Bambino, says approximately 30 percent of his customers use the wrong one. Another common mistake, says Annabel Day, a director and instructor at Jon D. Williams Cotillions, which offers adult etiquette courses, is that people commonly misuse their dessert spoon for mashed potatoes or soup.

A growing number of restaurants have stopped offering multiple knives, spoons, and forks, asking you to hold on to your knife and fork from course to course instead. This practice, says Losa, is designed to streamline service and save on dishwashing labor and hot water.

So is knowing what fork to use superfluous information these days? In at least one case Day knows of, somebody used the wrong utensil during a job interview and was not hired as a result. “If you’re incompetent at choosing the correct utensil,” says Day, “how will you be competent about making decisions in the workplace?” But people who teach etiquette courses for a living have a high stake in promoting this view.

If you’re in a situation like a very stuffy business dinner or an outing with highfalutin in-laws you’re reaching to impress, you might as well keep in mind the outside-in rule, which is very simple to remember anyway. But beyond that type of situation, the importance is low. The only other reason you might want to use the “right” utensil is for your own sensual enjoyment. “The soup spoon exists because it gives you the ability to have a complete mouthful of soup components versus the smaller dessert size,” explains Losa. But if we’re talking about the sensual joys of eating, I’d suggest using your fingers as well.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.