I never thought that I'd be one to discuss dining etiquette. After all, my first blog was entitled Uncouth Gourmands and my previous utensil usage brag was that I could fish pickles out of the jar with chopsticks.
Although, this past week I have switched from my loud and inefficient way of using a knife and fork -- known as American style -- to the much more elegant and efficient way known as the European/Continental style. I also consulted with Elena Brouwer, CEO (Certifed Etiquette Officer) of the Etiquette Centre in Hollywood to help me as I transition from fork in the right hand to fork in the left.
To explain the differences in style, we went straight to the expert, whose video on eating Continental style on YouTube has over 320,000 views.
New Times: How would you describe the difference between the European style of dining etiquette and American style?
Elena Brouwer: The European or continental style is a bit easier and quieter, because your fork stays in your left hand and your knife stays in your right. You keep the tines down the whole time. It is actually also called the international style, most countries eat this way.
The American style is also called the "zig zag" style. It starts the same when you are cutting, knife in right and fork in left, but after you cut a couple of small bite-size pieces the knife goes down, you switch the fork from your left to right hand and you eat tines up.
What are the advantages of each style?
With the American style, the switching can help you to slow down and you can chew while you switch hands. The tines up allow you to scoop up your food. The European style also has it's advantages when you use the back of the tines you have smaller bites and you can also use your knife. It is helpful with something like peas that you can be chasing all over the plate. In the American style, you only use your fork in between cutting -- never use your fingers or bread to help.
What do they use in Latin America?
They use a hybrid of the two styles. It's mostly European, with the fork in the left hand the whole time, but they use tines up.
What kind of style do you see in Miami?
Barbarian style. A lot of young people holding utensils like weapons. In Miami, there is a lot of continental style. In Broward, you see more American style.
Why do you think dining etiquette has gotten so bad here?
It's a combination of casual food like hamburgers and french fries and people are not eating around a table as often, so not seeing or learning table manners. A lot of people eat alone at home, in front of a TV or a computer. Whatever you do becomes a habit.
What style should we use?
You should know both ways. I just came back from London and when dining with a bunch of people there you would not want to stick out eating differently from everyone else. There's nothing wrong with your style, but you should know both so you can use the same style as your host. Same thing if someone was coming to a Thanksgiving dinner table in America.
What advice do you have for people that want to change their style?
Practice at home. They always say don't try this at home, but this you want to do. You don't want to be out and look down [at your utensils] the whole time when someone is trying to talk to you. You want to get comfortable enough where it flows and you can easily switch styles.
I have switched over for the last week, do you think that is enough time? No, not really because there is always different food to try. Like maybe you mastered chicken, but what do you when you get spaghetti? How do you eat spaghetti continental style? (Hint: don't use the spoon for support, just a few strands at a time) I had one student who was Cuban born and she said, "When I can eat rice and beans continental style (tines down), you'll be my hero." She did it, but it takes practice.
In my week of switching over, I have learned that I am not yet an expert, but the European way just seems so efficient and natural. You pick up your silverware exactly as it is set and never have to switch or cross over. Plus, the support of your knife is constantly there for packing perfect bites on the back of the tines. It is not automatic yet, but I am waiting for that day when I get that perfect backhanded compliment from a European, "You have good dining etiquette, for an American."
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From uncouth to couth, one knife and fork at a time.
If you are interested in learning more on etiquette, from the dining room to the boardroom, Brouwer regularly holds workshops for the public and if you have five to ten friends she can hold a private workshop. etiquettecentre.com
Follow Carina on Twitter @CarinaOst