After moving to the UK, I discovered that I didn’t know how to eat in English—in public, anyway.
My first attempts were in restaurants. I don’t remember the whole text of the Declaration of Independence, but I’m pretty sure there was something in there about our inalienable GodBlessAmerican right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of iced beverages with free refills. But here in the British Isles, I learned that if you order a drink with ice, it will arrive with a brave little ice chip bobbing forlornly. So I usually request a drink with twenty-three ice cubes, and hope the wait staff didn’t spit into too many of them.
In America, menus are regarded as mere culinary suggestions which can be modified to suit each customer’s whim.
But here in the UK, menus are basically chiseled onto stone tablets. No substitutions. Jack Nicholson would not approve, but I’ve grown to like this approach. It’s fast, clean, and takes all the guesswork out of ordering.
Also, here you need to be grateful for any scrap of your waiter’s attention. They are not here to serve you—because that would imply that they are servants. Instead, they are people who happen to stop by your table with food now and then, and as such they deserve your gratitude for imposing on their valuable time. I’ve gotten so used to apologizing for every request that even when I got a steak that smelled like week-old road kill, I hesitated to mention it to the waiter. When I couldn’t stand the smell, I still waited to catch his eye before starting to apologize. “I’m so sorry, but I wonder if you might have brought the wrong steak? This one seems like it isn’t what I was looking for. Perhaps you could just bring me a piece of fruit if it’s not too much trouble?”
Oh, and I’m an American, so I tip. After intensive therapy, I’m slowly working my way down from twenty percent to fifteen.
On the Continent people have good food; in England people have good table manners.
For the first year or so that we lived in England, my neighbors were too polite to comment on my American table manners.
They got over it.
At a Harvest Supper in the Village Hall, I noticed the man to my right was practicing the British art of Pretending-Not-to-Look as I cut my meat, put down my knife, transferred my fork to the right hand, and proceeded to eat the piece I’d just cut. Cut/switch/repeat. Meanwhile I watched in open admiration as his wife turned her fork upside down so that something shaped like a shovel turned into a slide. She speared three peas on the tines, and using the impaled peas as anchors, balanced a few more on the upside down tines, and maneuvered it all to her mouth—still upside down. Eating five peas at a time without losing a single one was an incredible feat of balance and persistence. I didn’t know whether to applaud or never attempt public pea consumption again.
To Americans, English manners are far more frightening than none at all. –Randall Jarrell
“Look at that American plate.” One lady across the table murmured to another.
I looked around the table. My neighbors were all residents of a small English village, which meant they could all play for England if there was ever an Olympic event for Pretending Not to Look. But I’ve potty-trained four children. I know about waiting. Finally a few looked over nervously. I pointed to my knife and fork. They shook their heads slightly. “Knife and fork at six o’clock if you’re finished eating,” one whispered. “Unless you’d like more…” I followed her doubtful gaze down to my plate. It was white china, just like their plates. But while all of their plates were properly empty of everything save the knife and fork modestly anchoring the six o’clock position, you couldn’t see most of my plate. That was, of course, because my dinner came with mushy peas that I didn’t eat because I’m a grownup American who doesn’t consume food that could double as a sculptural medium. Plus there was still an entire serving of blood pudding on my plate because you know—blood pudding. But my knife and fork were properly placed (for an American) at 4:20 on the plate circle. I edged them around the remaining food to the required position and looked up brightly.
“No, more thanks.” I tried a smile. “I’m stuffed.”
A kind neighbor took pity. “My grandmother taught us what to say.” She looked me straight in the eye. “I’ve had an elegant sufficiency.”
So there it is. I’m learning not to cut/switch/repeat my knife and fork, to tip less, and to put my used utensils at six o’clock on my plate.
But there’s still so much more I don’t know about eating in the UK. So I guess I’ll have to hang around. At least until I’ve had an elegant sufficiency.