Everyone in our family remembers the ‘80s visit from our urbane cousin Roly, who flew in from a more glamorous place and showed us the error of our dusty mining-town ways. Among other instructions, we were taught how to set the table. We’d assumed we knew. But alas, we’d been placing the dessert spoon above the plate, at 12 o’clock; the worst sort of proletariat gaffe, it turned out.
Said spoon should go to the right of the plate, swelling the battalion of spoons and knives for other courses. We were also still using fish forks for the seafood course, whereas apparently all those with any clue had recently decided these items were hopelessly fussy and outdated. I’m sure there were other table-orientated things that had us all tangled up with doubt.
Like so many inventions that are supposed to make life simpler, cutlery seems always to have rendered things complicated. In fact, it sometimes seems that all tableware — from finger bowls to sugar tongs — represents nothing other than a giant bear trap into which the careless diner can fall at any moment during a meal, seriously fracturing all dignity during the plummet.
Fish cutlery may no longer be an area of worry, and things may have appeared to chill on the decorum front in general, but there’s still room for unease. Take chopsticks. My children, like many broadly Western eaters-out, are embarrassed when their chopstick skills fail, and compete for top-wielding. I often see grown-ups apologise when they ask for a fork to replace the sticks.
If you fall into a cutlery bear trap of any kind, it may help to remind your dining companions with chin held high that these social mores are extremely temporary
Being a chopstick dunce as a Westerner may not invoke the “class” issues that spoon placement did, but it does mark you as both parochial and culturally ignorant — a far worse sin these days. Even operating them with apparent devilish ease may not be the success story you imagine: chopstick custom varies from country to country, with finger placement and other signalling all quite different. Using cutlery at all can even be a giant blunder: curries, pap and relish, and many dishes besides are eaten by hand. And in a very particular way.
If you fall into a cutlery bear trap of any kind, it may help to remind your dining companions with chin held high that these social mores are extremely temporary. Up until the 17th century, forks were considered very odd indeed, all over the world except in Italy, where pasta gave the prongs quick cred. But even there, forks weren’t omnipresent. Photos from the 1900s of spaghetti eaters in Naples’ streets show Rapunzel-length strands being lowered into mouths, clutched by hands held high. So there.
Now, of course, we have a new sort of angst. Disposable cutlery is no small part of our direly destructive throwaway culture, and the penny’s finally dropping. In China and Japan, a “bring your own chopsticks” movement has begun. I’m convinced it won’t be long before the same applies to knives, forks and spoons. If they’re transported in a sealable (and, of course, suitably fashionable) container, to be washed once home, it won’t be too onerous. As a bonus, “bring your own” is a far easier route to social acceptance than knowing how the hell to hold or place the stuff correctly.
• Burgener is owner of and chef at The Leopard, 44 Stanley Avenue, Joburg
• From the October edition of Wanted 2019.