According to Slate‘s Mark Vanhoenacker, the very American custom of alternating one’s fork between the left hand and the right is downright un-American. How’s that for counterintuitive?
Vanhoenacker begins his analysis of the custom—known as the cut-and-switch—by noting that it was actually imported from France in the 18th century. Ironically, it’s since fallen out of fashion across the pond, leaving Americans the only group in the world that still insists on inefficiently putting down our knives every thirty seconds and awkwardly passing our forks to ourselves.
Vanhoenacker is right that the practice makes next to no sense, and he provides a range of possible explanations for why it’s lasted so long: etiquette often values inconvenience; many cultures find the left hand distasteful or taboo; eating with the dominant hand is generally more graceful and less messy. Whatever reason you choose, says Vanhoenacker, none of them are compelling enough to justify the archaic cut-and-switch.
Luckily, Vanhoenacker claims that cut-and-switch is on the decline; he doesn’t have numerical data, but he has plenty of anecdotal evidence and input from etiquette experts (including Emily Post’s great-great-granddaughter, Anna). Better still, instead of converting completely to the European style, where the fork stays in the left hand but stays tines-down, Americans are opting for the best of both worlds, using their forks as a tines-up “efficient shovel” placed squarely in their left hands. Still, Vanhoenacker isn’t satisfied: cut-and-switch’s replacement needs a name. He proposes “American Modern,” but we’d be fine with “common sense.”