Fish Forks & Finger Bowls

Carol Haislip demonstrates the proper way to place utensils on your plate to signal that you are finished eating. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / April 17, 2013)

Haislip acknowledged that it's an easy mistake to make.

"When you grow up learning American- style, you're taught to keep your hands off the table," she says. "But when we dine Continental-style, the hands never go out of sight below the tabletop.

"It goes back to the medieval era, when you wanted to demonstrate that you weren't reaching for a concealed weapon. Europeans think it's strange that Americans keep their hands in their laps when they eat. They wonder what we're doing down there."

It seems that table manners essentially evolved in the Middle Ages as a way of reassuring one's fellow diners that they wouldn't be assassinated during the soup course. Consider, for instance, the jolly custom of clinking glasses while offering a toast.

"People drank from lead tankards, and it was easy for someone to slip poison into your cup," Haislip says. "You'd clink your glasses together hard enough so that some of your wine sloshed into each other's tankards. Then you'd watch and wait and drink at the same time."

Similarly, there was a bothersome outbreak of dinner-table stabbings at court in 17th-century France. So Cardinal Richelieu instructed his minions to file the tips off the table knives.

"To this day," Haislip says, "all the knives we use are rounded, except for steak knives."

As a further precaution, she says, the blade of the knife is always turned to face the plate, and not our neighbor's tantalizingly exposed left wrist.

And knives weren't the only suspect utensil. The fork had to overcome a vicious mud-slinging campaign waged by the Roman Catholic Church.

The fork

As Haislip explains it, Europeans ate with their hands until a Venice nobleman married a Turkish princess around 1100, and she introduced forks to her adopted land.

"The clergy were horrified," Haislip says. "It reminded them of the devil's pitchfork, and they banned it. After that, forks were total outcasts. The only people who ate with them were courtesans."

Of course, once the fork became scandalous, it was only a matter of time before it began to seem edgy and attractively rebellious. James Dean would have used a fork. So would Lindsay Lohan. The utensil began to catch on after it was championed by the 16th century's trend-setting bad girl, Catherine de Medici.

The fork not only survived, it triumphed. It eventually spawned specific variations for uses such as sardines, fish, beef, pickles and seafood cocktail. . The spoon, formerly the size of a fig leaf, gradually dwindled in size until it was barely large enough to stir a cup of tea.

"Once forks became fashionable, no one wanted to use a spoon at all," Haislip says.

"Today, there's nothing in our culture that we serve on a dinner plate that should be eaten with a spoon. I still meet adults who think that you eat peas, rice and even mashed potatoes with a spoon. In our culture, spoons should be used only for dessert and to serve food."

I thought about that later at home, while I was preparing my dinner of steak teriyaki and rice. I was resolved to put my unmannerly past behind me. From now on, I would be a changed woman, and I would start that night by practicing Continental-style dining.

The steak speared up nicely, but the rice in sauce was another matter. No matter how many times I mounded it on the backside of the fork, it skidded downhill.

My gaze fixed on the spoon — so humble and unassuming, so peace-loving, the only utensil that to my knowledge has never been used to draw blood. It didn't seem fair that something so beautifully functional should be restricted to humble servant status.

Carol Haislip would never know, I told myself. Neither would the Campbells.

And so what if I humiliate myself at a future lunch with my boss and never get a plum assignment? If winning a Pulitzer Prize means a life without rice, is the choice really so clear?

I'd practice another time. But that night, I was hungry. Feeling slightly furtive, I picked up my spoon.