Fingers or Fork? That is the Question

I clearly remember a participant at one of my etiquette workshops asking if I ever wear jeans. “Sure,” I replied. “And, do you eat pizza with your hands?” she pressed. I reflected for a moment and replied that I sometimes do, but only when wearing jeans!

When I offer instruction on dining etiquette, learners are always interested in discussing “finger food,” food that doesn’t have to be eaten with a fork and knife. Most finger munchies are easily recognizable, like mini egg rolls, croissants and tea sandwiches, but some ambiguous items can leave even the best etiquette-savvy diner’s stomach twitching with butterflies.

Etiquette books devote entire chapters to the issue of what constitutes finger food. In fact, there’s still on-going debate as to whether eating asparagus requires the use of cutlery (Reader’s sideline: The Queen Mum preferred to eat asparagus spears with her hands -pinkie curled, naturally.) Um, let’s return for a moment to pizza. Etiquette experts toss and turn at night wrestling with the thorny wringer: “Is pizza really a finger food?” The question gets tossed around more often than pizza dough at your favourite take-out hut. Many feel that if ever a digit-worthy food existed, it would be the lowly pizza-pie-in-the-sky. But, I beg to differ. Why would you want to subject your bare hands to a blistering, oily triangle of dough (ouch!) that just emerged from the red-hot heart of a brick oven?

Interestingly, there’s a strong correlation between the formality of a dining situation and our approach toward food. It’s undeniable: When the dining ambiance is more informal, so is our behaviour. I suppose pizza is most commonly regarded as finger food because it’s usually served in relaxed settings or fast-food establishments where the use of fork and knife is optional (if not downright discouraged). But just because you use your hands to eat the Italian specialty at a stand-up counter or straight out of a cardboard delivery box on the living-room shag rug, doesn’t mean you have license to ditch cutlery when you’re dining in a proper sit-down restaurant. Remember, a more laid-back approach isn’t always the most efficient way to handle food. Sure, you’ll see the brazen pizza-parlor patron who insists on free styling it sans accoutrements, but the results are inevitably dire: the sizzling slice flops over before reaching the anticipatory mouth, triggering an avalanche of pepperoni and olive toppings to tumble onto the tabletop. And just think of how many diners have been humiliated by that long, resilient string of Mozzarella, the one recoiling from the pizza wedge like a bungee cord… Boing! Boing! Only one thing will disengage its mighty hold, a knife.

It’s time for some general advice: when faced with fare that isn’t easily categorized, begin by analyzing its inherent characteristics. Hot, oily or sticky food provided as a main course is clearly meant to be tackled with a fork. Dry, bite-sized tidbits presented atop a doily-lined silver tray at a cocktail party are, without a doubt, meant to be handheld. Teeny, skewered appetizers warrant hands only; while brochettes, nestled between rice pilaf and grilled veggies on a plate, demand the trusty fork-and knife tool kit.

The most important thing to consider is the overall nature of the dining example. Let’s face it, just about anything can be taken directly from our hands to our mouths when our appetites are fierce enough. Often, it’s more a question of context than content. When unsure of how to proceed, ask yourself a few questions: How formal is the dining situation? Have the items been served on a platter with proper accompanying cutlery? How motivated are you to make the best impression? How is your host or the most prominent table-side person eating their food? The more data you collect in your hands (pun intended, of course), the more likely you’ll be able to make the best bon ton decision.

In conclusion, the answer to our initial question, “Fingers or fork?” depends on the type of food you’re eating, where you’re eating it, and with whom you’re eating. Ultimately, the choice is yours. Given the option, I prefer to keep my hands clean, since I never know who’ll be watching my manners.  

written by Loretta N. Di Vita