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No elbows on the table—and other burning holiday mealtime issues

November 14 2015

Not so long ago, only crude spoons, knives, pewter mugs and roughly carved wooden platters or troughs were used in any real sense for western dining. Along with those were certain dining habits thought to be proper—serving the foundation for manners today (see previous entry). Royalty and nobles, and eventually just the wealthy, tended to influence the dining behavior of the broader masses, and inevitably set the dining standard for special meals. So right here, right now, we answer those top of mind questions about left versus right when it comes to utensils; napkins in the lap; the ever persistent "no elbows on the table"; and what a charger is. And for the bonus round—the pinkie finger when drinking tea.
Why the fork on the left and knife on the right? Originally, the right hand was used for eating because it was considered the "sanitary" hand, as opposed to the left (which in some cultures was used for cleaning the backside). So, the idea was you picked up the fork with your left and the knife with your right, cut your food and then switched the fork to your right hand. This particular eating style has evolved into the "American" style, whereas, the "European" or "Continental" style consists of continuing to hold the fork in the left and knife in the right, pushing your food into the fork and not switching back and forth.

So why do I have to put a napkin in my lap? Consider yourself fortunate it's as small as it is. Before the invention of the fork, napkins were half the size of the dining table because eating was just such a hugely messy experience. You had to wipe your hands somewhere. If you couldn't afford linens, well, you just slobbered all over you sleeves.  But the fork made eating a lot less messy, hence a smaller napkin.

"Don't put your elbows on the table!" Its origins are a bit clouded in history, but the basic theory is that it makes you appear as if you're guarding your food—sort of a caveman hunch. Of course, when you're dining with family and friends, hopefully you aren't having to fend them off from your plate, but who knows? Dining has, in theory, evolved into a gracious and social experience, not a defensive match.

What is a charger, you say? Well, chargers (oversized plates) were originally used for formal occasions like state dinners and weddings, and now used to place the appetizer/salad/soup course on so as to eliminate the space between the plate and the diner (no unsightly drips, etc. on the table). The charger is never meant to be used for serving food, and is technically to be removed from the table once the entree is served. But, in more informal settings, hosts like the eye candy appeal they afford to the overall look for their table, and often opt to keep it in place until dessert is served.

Pinkies up? No way. Totally pretentious. Tuck that pinkie back in.