Long before there was a concept of “swipe right” or “swipe left” people concerned themselves with social consequences to choosing right or left for the placement of forks, knives and spoons on the table – rather than a date. To choose incorrectly could have been as socially disastrous to your reputation then as swiping right for a really bad date now.
There came a time in my early adulthood when I needed to set a table and had to reach deep into the depths of my childhood memory to conjure up what my mommy had taught. This is something I am grateful for today, but was really annoyed when I had to do it every evening as a child. Yes, my mother made dinner every evening and we sat at the table every night as a family!
Here is a simple tool I find useful to help remember which flatware items go where:
- There are 5 letters in the word RIGHT and there are 5 letters in the word KNIFE and SPOON.
- LEFT has 4 letters and so does FORK.
When you are in a pinch to set a table this is a great way to remember flatware placement. However, this would not be an ARTFUL MATTERS learning experience if I did not explain the history behind how it came to be that spoons and knives are on the right and forks on the left.
It all started with the knife. This was the first table accessory man had to assist in eating their food; other than the knife, we used our hands to navigate food to our mouths. So important and useful was the knife, men not only cut and stabbed their meat with it, but also, used it for hunting and protection. I say “men” because – I am sorry to say ladies – only men could carry and use a knife at the table. Women of the period were forced to rely on men to cut their meat for them and sometimes even feeding them straight from the blade. One had to be graceful about removing the meat from the blade with their teeth or risk being speared – the latter would have made for a “bloody-rare” experience. Because most people are right handed, they held the knife with their right hand, so instinctively we placed it on the right side of the plate.
The concept of the spoon has existed almost as long as the knife; even if it was as simple as a bowl shaped item tied to a stick. These earlier spoons were mostly used as mere serving utensils rather than instruments for eating. When people started using individual spoons for the purpose of eating, they became the first utensil to move food from the table that could both touch and enter your mouth. Because spoons originated as a stand-alone item, used to assist with liquids and/or solids mixed in a liquid, people – mostly right-handed – again placed the spoon on the right side of the plate, taking its proper placement alongside the knife.
People probably think the fork is the most useful piece of the utensil arsenal. However, the individual and personal fork was only introduced to the table in the 11th Century; until this period, it was reserved only for serving and not welcomed to the table. I will dive into the tumultuous history of the fork in a later post; for now, we will focus on its placement on the table. With its implementation, diners now had a stabilizer to assist the knife in cutting meats. It was not until sometime later that the fork was actually used to convey food to the mouth; this function was still reserved for the knife. Because the fork was an assisting utensil to the knife, and the knife was already firmly gripped in the right hand, people were forced to navigate the fork with their left hand. It is for this reason that the fork was then laid upon on the left side of the plate.
As I say all of this, there is always an exception to the rule – life is never black and white. So, I will leave you with this question. What fork is the only fork allowed to be placed on the right side of the table with the spoons and knives?
I welcome your answers below!