Etiquette and Reaching That Right Fork

How many of my utensils can you name? Pictured above are a British bread fork, a cold meat serving fork, a butter fork, a butter pick, a large hot meat serving fork, a Mexican mango fork, a cucumber server, a lemon serving fork, a small hot meat fork, a youth spoon, a bacon serving fork, a potato serving fork, a youth fork, a melon fork, a pickle castor fork, a British sardine fork, a sugar spoon, an ice cream fork, and an olive serving fork and spoon.
There was an oft used phrase when I was growing up, which inferred that someone was “well-bred,” or in some way more refined than I ever hoped to be. It meant someone was beyond polite, had special knowledge of the social graces, or was not only well-mannered, but exhibited a special level of “class” which only a few could hope to exhibit. The phrase was, “She knows the correct fork to use.” or “He knows the correct fork to use.” 

It always seemed an odd phrase to me, seeing as the one thing I enjoyed doing that had anything to do with the social graces, was setting the table. I knew the correct forks, knives and spoons to use, but that knowledge did not make me polite or socially distinguished in any way, shape or form. In fact, I didn’t even know how to use them correctly or gracefully, until I was given instructions by my tremendously helpful, Aunt Virginia, back when I was in junior high school.

What I didn’t realize until I was older and more self-confident, was that knowing the correct fork to use, and being able to use utensils gracefully, allows people to relax more at social functions. And when people feel relaxed socially, especially when dining with others in public, those people are less likely to feel self-conscious. The opposite of what I describe, feeling socially self-conscious, can lead to overindulgence in alcohol, reverting to bad habits, or doing and saying inappropriate things in an effort to sound witty or impress others. 

I know one woman who, when feeling self-conscious at public events, will start arguments with those around her. Another’s husband will start speaking in odd accents that sound ridiculous, but his wife cannot get him to stop. Many years ago, a friend explained her problem with alcohol to me over dinner in a restaurant by saying, “When I start to drink a glass of wine, I immediately feel like I fit in... Like I am sexier, funnier, smarter and prettier!” I remember responding with, “When I drink a glass of wine, I usually feel sleepy.” But I was thinking to myself, “Thank God I don’t need alcohol to make me feel any of those things!” 

I felt as if I had discovered the secret. I had already cracked that code. I had developed they key to feeling as if I not only fit seamlessly in to any social situation, but that I added something to the group with whom I was socializing. I had started feeling less self-conscious publicly the moment I started learning basic social graces, which is why I started teaching etiquette so long ago.

Don’t get me wrong... I can still feel a bit intimidated now and then, especially as I have gotten older. But I don’t let it show if I am feeling self-conscious. I know how to control that and still have an enjoyable time. I can laugh at myself and not feel like an outsider. I learned the necessary etiquette. Not all at once, and not everything there is to know, but I can always look things up. It’s one of the reasons I began teaching etiquette nearly 30 years ago. It’s why I continue to maintain the Etiquipedia – an online Etiquette Encyclopedia.  

The post below is one originally posted on Etiquipedia after my last book was published. It’s a list of correct utensil usage from the book, “Reaching for the Right Fork.”

Using Your Utensils

Using “first” forks — Cocktail forks, oyster forks, escargot forks, and the like, are used with the right hand only. If snail or escargot tongs are being used, they are held in the left hand to hold the snail shell in place.

All spoons are used with the right hand, including individual caviar spoons and caviar spades.

Using dessert forks alone— Pie forks, ice cream forks, fruit forks can all properly used in the right hand, if no cutting with a knife is involved, with one notable ex-ception being the mango fork. A mango fork is held in the left hand while using a fruit knife or fruit spoon in the right hand.

Using dessert spoons alone — Ice cream, pots de crème, and other soft desserts eaten with spoons in the right hand.

Using a dessert fork and spoon together — Dessert eaten using 2 utensils is nearly always done in the Continental style, except this is done with a fork and spoon as opposed to with a fork and knife. The fork is held in the left hand with tines facing down, and the spoon is held in the right hand. The fork is used to hold or keep a dessert in place as the spoon cuts off small bites. This works well with desserts such as Baked Alaska or certain types of cakes.

An exception to this rule is pie or cake, à la mode. These are both eaten with a dessert fork and spoon. The spoon is used to cut and then place a bite of cake or pie and a bit of ice cream on the fork, which is held in the right hand and used to eat the dessert.

For all other dining with a knife and fork, the fork is in the left hand and the knife in the right when dining in the Continental style.

Fork tines point down for all cutting and eating in Continental dining, save for stringy pasta.

Fork tines point down only for cutting food, in the American style of dining.

Etiquette Sleuth and Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber, is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia


  1. This book is incredibly witty and full of information on how to do things correctly at the table! It's my new favorite book. I especially loved the part about the Polish diplomatic issue with the French. So funny! (I'm half Polish, so I ❤️❤️❤️❤️ that news story added in.) Please keep writing. We want more!


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