In Praise of Cutlery


For those with inclinations to agonize about the dangers hovering over the American way of life, it has become commonplace to discourse at length about urban violence, cancer incidence, the crime rate, the loss of family values, or even the love of money. But a society's decadence starts long before the uglier aspects of its everyday life monopolize the news headlines. Watch the callous disregard with which the average American handles knives, forks and spoons, whether he be at home, in the car or in a restaurant: it is this utter indifference toward some of the most fundamental cultural tools that can throw any society, no matter how powerful, into a state of disarray.

The importance of this cultural heritage can be traced into the work of even our most illustrious exponents. Shakespeare was especially careful that his use of cutlery contributed to enhance the dramatic effects he so carefully plotted. In 'Julius Caesar', for instance, the last man to hold the knife and stab the dictator was the one that the playwright portrayed as the "noblest Roman of them all": had Brutus bowed to the temptation of wringing Caesar's neck, or striking him down with a hammer, and there would be nothing that Shakespeare could have done for him, or for the play itself. It was his judicious use of the knife - the appropriateness of the means to the solemnity of the occasion - that, in the end, earned Brutus the most honourable rites of burial, and our unbounded, centuries old admiration.

It becomes a most pitiable sight to see an American holding a fork and a knife as if in a hurry to plough the last field; cut furiously and indifferently into every piece of food lying on the plate, until what was supposed to be a meal rather resembles the remnants of a battlefield; and then have the knife laid aside, one arm being suddenly crippled into forced inactivity, with the fork having to roam and scratch the chaotic landscape, until its prongs have swept everything up, the destructive exercise finally ended.

One should have the classics in mind when sitting at table; they did not strive so much for beauty, or perfection, as they did for balance. And, needless to stress, ever since Sir Charles Darwin and Sir Richard Attenborough managed to persuade apes to stop using their feet during meal times, it should be quite out of the question for humans to stand while eating, for the effort thus incumbent upon the lower parts of the body is bound to distract us from the real purpose of the ceremony.

Therefore, when sitting before a plate, the knife and the fork should first be delicately, even thoughtfully, weighed - plastics are to be banished, even at picnics, because they do not arouse any sensory feelings worth remembering. Both hands should be called into action at all times, not to help each other overcome some unbearable burden, but to relish in the enjoyment of communion over a memorable feast. Let it be said at the outset that this subject has nothing to do with etiquette, which has to be taught preferably to people who cannot follow conversation at table, and thus have to practice a simple set of rules that will keep them from being noticed by those who are bent on enjoying their meal to the fullest possible extent.

No meal should be started before the body has joyfully braced itself up for what is to follow. But walk into the average American car, and the full impact of the difference between chewing and having a meal shall be immediately perceived. The multitude of cans, plastics, and assorted empty bags bears painful testimony to the driver's disconfort: one hand on the steering wheel and an eye on the road; the other hand and eye reaching for some piece of edible substance, which has to be untapped or unwrapped while one foot lies idle and the other has to shift suddenly from accelerator on to brake; once the contents are physically available, they cannot be gazed at, because the eyes cannot be off the road for too long; and since everything had to be gulped down in a hurry, it was not properly welcomed into the stomach, so that disagreeably raucous belches can become the stock reaction to the unevenness of the road surface. So much for eating while driving.

So, suppose bodily balance and consequent peace of mind have been achieved, in preparation for a meal. It is then time to let spirituality take over: for the different food elements lie naked on the plate, so to speak (or, in the French manner, thinly veiled by a shrouding sauce), and it is time to let the anticipation of taste govern our bodily movements. This spirituality is a product of our thanksgiving for the gifts of nature and our wonder at the culinary ingenuity of man, for these are the two invisible ingredients without which no plate can be said to be properly dressed.

Each one of the food elements must command absolute respect as regards its individuality; care should be taken to combine the various elements in ever changing ways, so that one can bring about the best in another, either by emphasis or by contrast. The fork should not be used to pierce everything in sight: it can be used to hold still a piece that is asking to be carved into a more manageable size, but immediately after turns around to slide gently across the surface of the plate, waiting for the elements willing to be soothed into its welcoming prongs. The knife is the natural and indispensable complement - one would dare say companion - to the fork; and if it relies on the latter's stabilizing influence to go about its cutting business, it also plays a leading role in the coaxing of the elements on to the expectant fork.

Every time that congregation of efforts allows the happy feaster to ease the food into his mouth at last, his elevated state of mind and body makes him all the more ready for the joys and pleasures of intelligent conviviality - and that is why no meal should be taken in solitude. It can be convincingly argued that the fate of the family as the stabilizing nucleus of the social fabric is not put at risk so much by the rising divorce rate, drug addiction or extra-marital sex, as by preventing the family members from the daily communion of a proper meal. So that even the Catholic Church should take a more lenient stance toward divorce on culinary grounds, since that would induce the estranged parties to seek mating propositions more suited to their respective eating habits, thus giving rise to stabler family units. In this context, hitherto overlooked implications of the Last Supper should perhaps be given sharpened attention; some artists' impressions evoke a family ridden by anxiety, sitting at that table on that fatal evening, ready for everything, but not for a proper meal. But no further words on the matter, since it is not the main purpose of this essay to carve out new religious doctrine.

It is to be hoped, moreover, that the education of young and not so young Americans into the proper use of cutlery will not only induce better eating habits, or strengthen family life, but will also eradicate the most lethal menace facing mankind nowadays: the sandwich. Picture someone eating such an object, and one has the very definition of inelegance before one's eyes; think of all the food elements crushed into each other, and one has a veritable example of concupiscence; behold the concentrated effort with which the teeth have to rake through this object's contents, and it is easy to see how uninspiring it renders social and family life; in the end, gaze at everything that has dripped onto the fingers, and you shall have appreciated how much mankind had to evolve, in order to break loose from the shackles of that barbarity toward which the sandwich threatens to drive us back. And all this comes about, of course, because the sandwich precludes the use of cutlery.

The spoon is ignored almost to the point of extinction, especially after Americans confused soup with ketchup and decided to mix the latter with the rest of the foodstuffs. No attempt shall be made here to redress such an injustice, but it is only fitting that this most gentle piece of the cutler's family should have the last few words. Again, we shall resort to Shakespeare and another of his classics, 'King Lear'; in this play, there is that infamous scene where one of the King's best friends, the Earl of Gloucester, is mercilessly blinded by the Duke of Cornwall. Had Shakespeare contrived to leave the Duke even a small vestige of nobility, and he would have given him a spoon, with which to pluck out the earl's eyes in a far cleaner, gentlemanly manner. Instead, the dramatist let the jelly from Gloucester's eyes drip slowly from the fingers of the hapless Duke, in a terrifying premonition of the punishment that befalls every villain. A stern reminder, from the Bard himself, that the importance of cutlery should not be disregarded by powerful and lowly alike.

Vasco Almeida

April 99