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Do You Know Which Fork to Use?

Updated on July 14, 2018
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I am interested in making delicious, unusual meals and desserts, particularly for special occasions. Quick and easy meals are also great.

Dining Table


History of use of Silverware

There is actually a historical hierarchy that applies to silverware or flatware, the two names used in the western world. Cutlery refers to any hand implement used in preparing, serving, and particularly eating food. Now that we have our vocabulary straight we will move on to the history of flatware. The spoon has the lowest rank as it is the oldest means of eating, other than fingers.

The knife is the most respected piece flatware which was used for centuries to spear and eat food. Then the fork came along form Constantinople to Italy in the 12th century and from Italy to France in the 16th century. The English were a lot slower to adapt to the fork and universal use didn’t happen until the world was into the nineteenth century. The fork became the instrument of choice in the western world.

The hierarchy goes into reverse at this time as history can be very strange. Many specialized utensils were made in Victorian era; however, the upper crust rejected many of them. Therefore, you had the rather peculiar situation happen. If you had whole fish on a plate you did not use your knife to fillet it, nor did you use the newly invented fish knife that had a little notch at the tip for lifting the flesh from the bone; instead two forks for each plate of fish were used to remove the flesh from opposite directions trying to uncover the bones. Obviously common sense didn’t reign.

Proper Place Setting


Cartoon Improper Manners

Photo Courtesy of Clipart
Photo Courtesy of Clipart

Typical Family Dinner

Of course, now most of sit down for an informal with our families and just use the knife, fork and spoon, unless a soup spoon or maybe an ice teaspoon is called for. All cookware and cooking utensils stay in the kitchen. Maybe we’ll throw in a salad fork, but we seem to get along just fine. At a formal dinner at least eight pieces of silverware are used. Are you sure you know which utensil to use for which course?

How to Set a Place Setting

Setting the Formal Table

I thought it might be nice to offer a little refresher course on how to set the table for a formal dinner party as most of us don’t have formal dinner parties frequently. If the procedure is done correctly, it can be a bit over whelming. Basically there are two rules bounded by tradition; cutlery is laid out in order of food presentation, so guests shouldn't have to guess which fork or spoon is appropriate to the course before them and most diners are right-handed. The first thing done is to place the table linen in place if you are using one, rather than place mats or just charger plates. Plan your color scheme ahead of time.

The easiest formal dining rule to remember depending on dinner menu choices are forks line up of the left unless they are tiny fish forks which line up with the spoons. Knives and spoons are placed on the right. Knives are always placed with the blade side in for children safety. There is a logic to the formal setting of the silverware is laid out it the order of the food presentation. Holding your menu, which includes everything you are serving, in your hand while setting the table is helpful.

Opinions seem to vary on the most efficient way to complete the task. Some say lay out your basic five pieces of silverware first (knife, fork, salad fork, place spoon and teaspoon.) Others instruct starting from the outside right with soup spoon then when the right is complete move to the far left with your forks. Fish or shrimp cocktail is place at your far right, although I found some site showing this fork on the left or just above the plates. A dessert teaspoon or fork can also be placed at the top of the plates but also can be brought in just before dessert is served. The napkin always is on the far left with the edges facing outward.

Rules of Etiquette for a Beginner

In Summary

After spending all this time on silverware, then you would have to arrange your charger plate, dinner plate, bread plate if bread will be served, and then a butter plate is used above the forks. This will also require a butter knife laid across the plate at a slightly diagonal from left to right. Of course, beverages are another item requiring a water goblet and one or two wine glasses. If coffee will be served the coffee cup and sauces will be at the right of the setting.

While some of this sounds like a task that is too much trouble, it is adhered to in many circles. You can have a nice formal setting at home with less silverware but still the adequate utensils for the menu. Don't just wait until holiday gatherings to use your sterling.

We had a small formal dinner recently and it is nice when you have all of your pretties dishes and silver on the table with a nice centerpiece of flowers. Remember, a well laid table says "welcome" to both family members and guests. Entertaining has no limits and few boundaries so you might as well have some fun while entertaining.


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