Catholic Tastes Alice Thomas Ellis
i'VE ALWAYS found knives to be a problem: kitchen knives are seldom sharp enough and if they are, it is virtually certain that sooner or later a small child will get hold of one. The "sharp little knife" so essential in any household has a constant tendency to disappear just when you need it to slice the root-end off the spring onions and the (admittedly useful) serrated bread knife has a parvenu, faintly vulgar air about it, not as bad as the electric carving knife, but still not traditional, not quite the thing. Bone-handled dinner knives disintegrate in the dish-washer and I have a prejudice against the kind composed entirely of metal. Once upon a time each guest would have brought his own knife, which must have simplified matters, but now it is forbidden by law to carry knives round in the street, the custom must remain obsolete.
My mother, when slicing bread, used to hold the loaf to her chest and cut it inwards which alarmed onlookers but was the correct, courteous mode, since if she was going to stab anyone it would only be herself. Why she didn't cut it on the breadboard I do not know, but suspect that the breadboard too is a recent innovation. The ancient way with bread was to break it: ready-cut bread, it seems, was brought to the table in a basket, but the rules of etiquette governing the custom are largely forgotten. All we know now is that good bread has to be sought out or made at home. The commercial sliced variety is not to be recommended. I had some once and after a few days it turned pink, not the expected mouldy green, but a pale rose colour. I admit to using it sometimes when a lot of sandwiches are required but regard it, not as a vital constituent, but only a convenient means of getting whatever is inside it to the mouth.
Speaking of which, I learn from a book, The Rituals of Dinner, that in the 18th century the English ate their peas off a knife with a rounded blade end. My grandfather had a set of "pea forks", which are mostly spoon with four, short tines and practical for the purpose, but they never seem to have generally caught on: people still apparently consider it unseemly to scoop up peas with any implement, preferring to pursue them, individually if necessary, round the plate with the fork pointing downwards. My book also records an anecdote from a work by Freud in which he describes an incident where a doctor of philosophy in 1901, "raised a piece of cake to his mouth but let it drop from the knife", which causes one to wonder when and why the practice came to be regarded as so unspeakably improper. Carving is another aspect of dinner which used, when people ate heroic quantities of meat, to be hung about with ritual: a skilled carver, so it is said, could impale a joint on a fork, hold it high in the air and cut off perfect slices which would fall, neatly in order, on the plate beneath. Rather like those bar-tenders who juggle bottles: very clever you concede, but why bother? Janet brought me back from France an old carving knife and fork and the next day, by the purest serendipity, for the first time in years, the itinerant knife grinder called. I now have a sharp knife so all I need is to learn the requisite skill and procure a disease-, dioxinand hormone-free joint of meat.