Food is just one of those things that unite us as human beings. Regardless of nationality, we all need to eat. But since you’ve been eating long before you remember starting, you probably aren’t aware that your dining habits are well engrained and you've probably never pondered ‘is this normal?’
I didn’t realize how different American eating rituals are compared to our British counterparts until I was confronted with it. Sometimes, it was humourous. Other times, irritating.
Let’s start with entering a restaurant and being seated before ordering. Universal? I think not. I remember how Perry and I got this wrong multiple times before we figured it out. First, not every sit down restaurant has a host and waiters. In many restaurants in the UK, you seat yourself, but not always. Second, pubs are usually self-seating, but with an added twist. You also have to order your food at the bar. But the line between pub and restaurant is fine, so this is not always obvious.
It would usually go like this. We would enter an establishment, excited by the historic building or great food reviews from TripAdvisor. We would wait by the door, hoping someone would see (pity) us and give us the drill. Sometimes, were lucky enough to come in behind another party and could follow their lead. Mostly, we were unlucky and if we milled around long enough to receive strange looks, would hastily grab a seat. If there were menus, would raise them to hide our faces. Then, we would covertly glance around for clues. Servers coming to tables with and without food? Drinks being delivered or patrons milling at the bar? Do we seem invisible or did that woman just look in our direction and say ‘you alright?’
Perry, in his infinite wisdom, asks great questions. When discussing this blog post, he asked me why is ambiguity is so unsettling? Does misreading social norms feel like more of a gaffe in a foreign country than your own? Direct quote: ‘If we loitered in a Bob Evans entryway until we were told to seat ourselves, is that less distasteful than doing so at Fayre and Square? Is it that we want to blend in or just not offend? Are we overly sensitive (or overly optimistic) about our goal to be ambassadors of America- attempting to right the decades-long woes of 'American Abroad' entitlement and inadaptability- by simply trying to fit it?’
‘Further, if the goal is for no one to notice, then how will they give you ‘credit’ for assimilating now that you don’t stand out as foreign? If they did notice, and were impressed by your conformity (to the extent that they are even AWARE that your norms are different), what is the goal? Spread your legacy by word of mouth? In all likelihood, they are too busy thinking about themselves and how they are being perceived.’
That’s my Perry.
Once we had the seating thing under our belts, we realized it was the WAY we were eating that was cause for notice. There was an incident at a work dinner early on. I was concentrating on the conversation as I ate, and was having a tough time understanding some of the accents. I noticed a woman across the table looking at me with raised eyebrows and a bemused look. I put my hand to my face, searching for a stray gravy drip and leaned towards her whispering ‘Is there food on my face?’
She didn’t whisper, but announced loudly, ‘No, it’s the way you eat. I forgot that’s how you Americans use a fork and knife.’
My first thought was to pretend I didn’t hear her and reply ‘Pardon me, but do you have any Grey Poupon?’* However, I couldn’t do anything but just feel plain embarrassed. I looked down at my forkful of mashed potatoes, then around the table at my dining companions. Sure enough, everyone was holding their fork and knife in hand which they rarely set down. I watched with fascination at the fork skills on display. The food was eaten while balanced on the backside of the fork. Everything, including difficult foods, such as peas and rice. The mysterious obsession with sauces now made perfect sense. They are needed to shepherd these items into gravity defying feats.
I mentally crafted more retorts, but instead laughed and promptly changed the subject. However, when I got home that night, I turned to the internet for answers. I learned this is an actual thing. The Continental (or European) style of using a fork and knife is quite different than the American style.
The European style involves holding the knife in the right hand and the fork in the left, tines facing down. Food is cut with the knife, and the fork delivers it to the diner’s awaiting mouth. The utensils are held at the same time.
The American style (known as ‘cut and switch) involves holding the knife in the right hand and fork in the left hand, allowing the diner to cut their food with the (usually) dominant hand while the fork holds whatever has been cut. Then, the knife is set down, usually on the top of the plate, and the fork is switched over to the right hand and turned over, where the forkful is finally consumed.
Reading these descriptions, one can see objectively that the American style is not particularly efficient.
I pondered this newfound information with great interest. With our general appreciation for speed and efficiency, I wondered ‘why DID we eat this way?’ I thought back to my childhood where dinner was a briskly paced affair. With five kids in the house, we ate quickly, mostly to ensure someone didn’t take your portion. So, we shoveled rather than forked our food. My mother lamented the fact that we never ‘dined’ in our household, but rather, gobbled our meals with the intensity of a famished wolf pack.
My table manners had definitely improved since childhood, so I was surprised to be ‘called out’ in such an undignified fashion. I mean I wasn’t holding my fork in a Kung Fu grip or anything! However, I decided to avoid future embarrassment and make my mom proud by trialing the Continental method.
It took a few weeks, but pretty soon, I had the hang of it. In fact, it didn’t take long for the technique to take hold permanently. But I did draw the line at pizza and burgers. I know it’s not ‘proper’, but I just can’t eat food with a fork and knife that are clearly meant to be eaten with hands. I probably won’t be allowed back into the country now that this is in print.
Unfortunately, this method has taken root such that I can’t revert to the American method. Now, I’m back in the US, and I’ve had to explain myself all over again.
Once again, I turned to Perry for shrewd observation. He asked me why we long for conformity in some situations, but are proudly defiant in others? I sought conformity in this case- mainly because I had more social situations such as formal dining with work colleagues, while he deliberately chose not to adopt it. He wondered if we had stayed in the UK, if he would have just picked it up over time?
The last big dining out difference I will address is the pace. In the US, you are expected to eat, then move on. The check arrives so early, it sometimes accompanies the main course! In the UK, that table is yours for the night. There is no concept of ‘turning a table’. No one is stood over you brandishing the stink eye. On a related note, the courses (starter, main, pudding) are meant to take up an entire evening. This is more than just sustenance. It’s dining, baby.
American friends, I know some of you are thinking ‘But, I get a salad before my dinner’ or ‘Well, we split an order of wings before our meal last week’, but I’m going to make an executive call here and say that salad and communal fried plates don’t count. The concept of a starter in the UK is more like a mini-main. Also, it happens anywhere and anytime. High-end, low-end and everything in between. Even the Hungry Horse.
I didn’t adopt every aspect of the British dining experience however. While I enjoyed my newfound utensil skills and slower pace of three course dining, I detested the dance that is known as ‘asking for the check.’ After several episodes of waiting so long that we were practically ready for our next meal, I got in the habit of asking well before the meal was finished. My desire to leave upon finishing was stronger than my desire to be civilized.
*For my British friends, Grey Poupon is a mustard here in the US that had humourous adverts in the 80's. See for yourself in the link below.