DEAR MISS MANNERS: Back in the olden days, when I was in a home economics class, I was told that when setting a table, the knife and spoon were placed on the left side of the plate and the forks were placed on the right.
The explanation for this was that in the semi-civilized medieval times, the knife was placed on the left because most people are right-handed, and this made it more difficult for the diner to stab someone with his or her knife.
Somewhere along the line, the placement has changed to where the knife and spoon are now on the right side of the plate and the forks are on the left.
Am I just misremembering my home ec teaching, or have things just evolved – because we are obviously much more civilized in our modern times (typed with tongue in cheek)?
GENTLE READER: Much as she hates to spoil such a delightfully vivid picture of a volatile medieval dinner, Miss Manners is obliged to tell you that there were no place settings in that period. None.
Diners brought to the table their own knives (likely the same knives that they used for hunting), their own spoons and, more notably, their fingers. The only Europeans who used forks were Italians, which English tourists thought hilariously pretentious. Instead of plates, there were bread trenchers, which would soak up the juices and be then thrown to the dogs. Or the starving peasants.
But you are quite right to question our ability to look down on these people for being less civilized than we are. Dinners, when given by those who could afford them, were highly ceremonial.
Precedence was strictly observed. We have the expression about being placed “below the salt” because the salt cellar, often silver and beautifully shaped, marked the difference between the more and less distinguished guests. There were elaborate hand-washing rituals and meat-carving traditions at the table, as well.
And we have the word of Erasmus, a great etiquette authority (among his other talents), that polite medieval people would rest their knives to the right of their trenchers.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: My husband and I have always gone out to dinner a few times a week. If there was a wait, we put our name in and waited near the entrance together.
Since COVID began, you have to wait in your car. My husband pulls up to the door and expects me to get out, put in our name and come back to the car to wait with him. Am I being old-fashioned in thinking he should put our name in?
GENTLE READER: Why? Because you are a lady and should be spared making an effort?
Gender is not always the key distinction, Miss Manners must inform you, and it is not in this case. Rather, it is who is driving – and since it is your husband who pulled up to the door, he should not have to leave the car, blocking others, as he approaches the restaurant.
Send your questions to Miss Manners at her website missmanners.com.
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