A Fork in the Flatware Road

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Dear Miss Manners:

I was raised with the understanding that a spoon was to be used only with ice cream (unless it comes with cake) or soup (and a few other exceptions).

Lately, I notice at many family-style restaurants servers will bring a spoon with cake or pie. Somewhat understandable, I suppose, because of the number of small children served, but I can feel myself bristle. If the waiter hasn't already made his escape, I politely ask for a fork to be provided.

I was especially surprised at a very upscale restaurant when only a spoon was provided to eat a firm, thick-crusted tart. So I started doing some research. I could not find a stated rule for the use of spoons. I did come across a statement by one woman who said her mother taught her that peas were to be eaten with a spoon -- eating peas with a fork was "common." That sounds completely backward to me.

Can you help me uncover the truth about spoons? By the way, is it okay to cut (vegetables and soft meat) with a fork?

Are you sure you are up to hearing the truth about flatware? Miss Manners must warn you that there is some vicious competition going on in the most ordinary and innocent-looking place setting.

The fork is the latecomer here, having been in widespread Western use for only a few centuries. But it quickly bullied its way to the top of the hierarchy and established the rule that everything that can be eaten with the fork alone should be. (And even some things that can't be, such as peas; your mother's acquaintance was sadly mistaken.)

The knife and the spoon had to settle for the leftovers. Well, not the leftovers you eat straight from the refrigerator while Miss Manners averts her eyes, but the foods that the fork had to admit it can't manage.

The knife kept the meat (but not fish) although now in partnership with the fork. The spoon still had the soup to itself, but for informal service, got only the mushy stuff, while the fork got solids, such as cake. In formal service, the fork and spoon are both presented for dessert, whatever its solidity, and can be used together. But it is easy to see which is the ranking instrument.

Dear Miss Manners:

For the last several years, I have become aware of an "affliction" that saddens me during the normal day-to-day interactions among colleagues, friends and neighbors. (This list can be extended.)

How can one deal (correct word?) with nice people, saying "all the right things," without meaning any of it? It's just been driving me crazy as it seems to be occurring more and more.

This is not an affliction, Miss Manners assures you. It is a blessing.

For the last several decades, people have been saying all the wrong things that they really mean, from "I can't use this" instead of "Thank you" for a present; "Only a moron would think that" instead of "I'm afraid we disagree" in a political discussion and "You've put on a lot of weight" instead of "How nice to see you" on seeing an acquaintance.

If they are learning to say the right thing, good for them. In time, they will learn to say it more convincingly.

2006Judith Martin Distributed by United Feature Syndicate Inc.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company