Thursday, August 30, 2012

Table Manners

“Never put your knife in your mouth, as not only is this bad manners, but the knife may be sharp.”
- PAUL'S Guide to Manners

This sheitel head looks like it's seen a lot of pins
I’ve been reading an interesting book, The Evolution of Useful Things, that describes how many every-day items developed. For instance, T-pins, ubiquitous in frum households for holding sheitels to (creepy) Styrofoam heads (do those heads really need to have faces?) were invented to replace typical straight-pins for holding papers together in an era before the paper clip became popular.  A nineteenth century catalog advertised T-pins, “used primarily in brokerage houses for securities,” as having “handles which speed pick-up, insertion, and withdrawal, will not slip through the paper.”

What prompted this post was the book's description of the evolution of the table knife. My parents were hardly sticklers for table manners, yet as a kid I was told half-jokingly not to put my knife in my mouth because it is bad manners, and more seriously not to because I might hurt myself. So I was surprised to learn that this bit of advice is fairly recent.

I knew that in the distant past, forks had been rare or non-existent, and people ate with their belt knives, an all-purpose tool that might be used in the morning for whittling a stick, in the afternoon for skinning game, and in the evening for cutting up dinner, spearing the pieces, and placing them in the mouth. What I had not known is that even when forks became common at the dinner table, knives were still used to convey food to the mouth.

17th century table setting
As forks became more popular, table knives lost their sharp point, whose function of spearing pieces of food was replaced by the fork’s tines. Early forks, though, had their own shortcomings. They often had two or three straight, narrow tines and were poor tools for picking up loose foods – the example most often given is peas. To compensate, flatware makers broadened the now-blunt tip of the table knife so that it could be used to pile the peas upon, and curved it so that only a small motion of the wrist was required to bring the end of the knife to the mouth.

Clearly, then, the admonition  to not put my knife in my mouth was not based on anything “real.” In the recent past, as little as a couple of hundred years ago, knives had actually been designed to make putting them into the mouth easier. Nor does the worry about cutting oneself really carry any weight. Table knives today are not really sharp at all, and rely on a serrated edge to saw through food. When knives were the only utensil, and routinely put into the mouth, they were sharp enough to be used as a woodworking tool. Yet history doesn’t record generations of people constantly bleeding from cuts in their mouths.  

The real reason we are not supposed to put knives in our mouths is that when the modern version of the fork finally developed in the early nineteenth century, with four closely-spaced tines bent in a scoop shape that could easily handle all sorts of foods, only “old-fashioned” people continued to use their knives to pick up food. Those who were more “with it” relegated the knife to its current function of cutting food into pieces to be picked up by the fork.

Fast forward two hundred years to today, and the change in tableware fashions has been forgotten by society at large. All that remains is a prejudice against those who use their knives to carry food to their mouths, justified by appeals to etiquette and safety.

As Emily Post, the famous early 20th century writer on and arbiter of etiquette once wrote, “etiquette is nothing more than tradition.” The story of the table knife’s development makes me wonder, how many things do we do in the name of “tradition,” that really recent changes to social custom, bolstered by post-hoc reasons that, upon examination,  are flatly contradicted by reality?

[A lot. Everything from the invention Halitosis (patholigizing bad breath) by Listerine to putting a hechsher on bleach.]