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The American Shuffle

How a Change in 17th Century French Knifemaking Led to the Uniquely American Style of Eating

Carving set, Flanders 1504

Another example of how knives have shaped culture is the unique American habit of switching the fork from the left hand to the right and back as we eat. Ever wonder why we do this awkward little move? It all came about because of a change in knife making in 17th century France.

From the Middle Ages until the end of the 1600s, most diners ate with their fingers and a knife, which they brought with them to the table. Hosts and innkeepers didn’t provide tableware. Except for the extremely wealthy who owned separate eating knives, these knives were used for everything from cutting rope to defending one’s honor. These long slender knives continued to be used as weapons and posed the conceivable threat of danger at the dinner table. However, once forks began to gain popular acceptance there was no longer any need for a pointed tip at the end of a dinner knife to hold and spear the food. In 1669, King Louis XIV of France decreed all pointed knives on the street or the dinner table illegal. The claim was that this would reduce violence. Other accounts of the story suggest that Cardinal Richelieu was so disgusted by his dinner guests constantly picking their teeth with tips of their knives that he had his house knives ground down. Others in the court followed suit and the King made it official.

German painting detail 16th century

By the beginning of the 18th century, knives imported to the American colonies had the new blunt tips. However, colonists were not shipped any forks, which were still somewhat exotic. Because Americans had very few forks and no longer had sharp-tipped knives to spear food, they had to use spoons in lieu of forks. They would use the spoon in the left hand to steady the food as they cut it with the knife in the right. They would then switch the spoon to the opposite hand in order to scoop it up to eat. This distinctly American style of eating continued even after forks became commonplace in the United States.

3 comments to The American Shuffle

  • Beerthoven

    I’ve heard that American spies in Germany during WWII could easily be spotted because of the “American Shuffle”. Is this true?

  • Hey! Always nice to have a friend stop by. Yes, I’ve read the same thing about our hand switching habit being a giveaway during WWII. I don’t have a definitive source, though. I came at this from the front end, researching the history of the fork (yes, I do lead an exciting life), rather than than eating habits as a whole. Might be worth looking into.

    Take care,
    Chad

  • Chad Rice

    Cool site, I found your site looking for knife making supplies and ended up reading more than I expected and wanted to say thank you! If you ever think about learning how to make a knife you should check out http://www.knifemaking.us or http://www.knife-mart.com thanks!

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