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Hunt Valley school teaches adults how to use fish forks and finger bowls

It took almost 56 years, but I've finally mastered my table manners, and in the process learned something about the curious and controversial history of the fork.

And all it took was two hours of bearing up under Carol Haislip's patrician gaze as she waved the silver instrument of torture with the twisted prong known as a "butter pick" through the air, perilously close to my throat.

Possibly, the danger was all in my mind. It's true that I lack the higher, lower and intermediate social graces — I am a child of the lawless '70s, after all. And it's equally true that I had never fully grasped silverware's potential for inflicting bodily harm until I attended "Fish Forks and Finger Bowls," a seminar that teaches table manners to adults.

But as one of the founders of the Hunt Valley-based International School of Protocol, Haislip couldn't have been friendlier or less intimidating. Perhaps that's because putting one's guests at their ease is the first principle of the code of graciousness that she's trying to impart.

As she puts it: "We don't take either ourselves or the rules of etiquette too seriously. Good manners is all about making other people comfortable."

Path to success

She told the class that she's been teaching etiquette for 17 years. For nearly two decades before that, she worked in sales and human resources for a major corporation.

"We took everybody to lunch before we offered them a position," she says. "And one of the things I figured out was that it wasn't the smartest people who were the most successful in the workplace. It was the ones with the strongest social skills."

Haislip's school is just one of several programs in the Baltimore area to teach the fundamentals of mannerly living to children and adults. Other programs included Anne Arundel-based etiquette coach Diane Cookson and the Etiquette School of Maryland in Ellicott City.

As the latter writes on its website: "Every business meal is rife with the potential for disaster. People judge us by which fork we use, whether or not we put our napkins on our laps and how we cut our meat."

That lesson wasn't lost on my classmates.

For instance, John Campbell of Columbia has recently been promoted to the executive level of an information technology firm. International travel is part of the job, so he's doing his best to avoid making inadvertent faux pas, such as holding his chopsticks vertically while dining in Asia. (That's considered barbaric, Haislip says, because it's reminiscent of incense-burning joss sticks, which are used at funerals.)

"It's getting more and more important," Campbell says, "that I know how to participate properly."

Teacher's pet.

To be fair, Campbell got a run for his money from his wife, Kellé. She grew up in Jamaica, so she breezed through the sections on the continental (as opposed to the American) style of dining, in which the fork is always held in the left hand, and the knife always in the right.

Holding my fork upside-down, I struggled futilely to mound my practice Rice Chex on the top of the curve as instructed, only to watch the slippery little cubes toboggan down the tines.

Kellé Campbell, in contrast, can easily mash and mound any food whatsoever onto the back of her fork and lift it to her mouth without dropping a morsel: Rice. Orzo. Peas, for crying out loud.

I should have had an advantage when we practiced American-style dining. And indeed, early on I took the lead, adroitly holding my fork in my left hand and my knife in my right while cutting my food, and then deftly switching the fork to my right hand when it was time to spear a bite, a method known as "criss-cross dining."

But I spoiled that fine impression when my decommissioned, utensil-free hand neglected to remain properly in my lap. Instead, my fingers crept recklessly onto the table.

It appeared to take all of Haislip's admirable restraint to keep from impaling the offending extremity with an ice-cream fork. (And yes — there really is such an implement, with a rounded edge and a prong in the middle. It resembles a spoon with a split personality.)

Haislip acknowledged that it's an easy mistake to make.

"When you grow up learning American- style, you're taught to keep your hands off the table," she says. "But when we dine Continental-style, the hands never go out of sight below the tabletop.

"It goes back to the medieval era, when you wanted to demonstrate that you weren't reaching for a concealed weapon. Europeans think it's strange that Americans keep their hands in their laps when they eat. They wonder what we're doing down there."

It seems that table manners essentially evolved in the Middle Ages as a way of reassuring one's fellow diners that they wouldn't be assassinated during the soup course. Consider, for instance, the jolly custom of clinking glasses while offering a toast.

"People drank from lead tankards, and it was easy for someone to slip poison into your cup," Haislip says. "You'd clink your glasses together hard enough so that some of your wine sloshed into each other's tankards. Then you'd watch and wait and drink at the same time."

Similarly, there was a bothersome outbreak of dinner-table stabbings at court in 17th-century France. So Cardinal Richelieu instructed his minions to file the tips off the table knives.

"To this day," Haislip says, "all the knives we use are rounded, except for steak knives."

As a further precaution, she says, the blade of the knife is always turned to face the plate, and not our neighbor's tantalizingly exposed left wrist.

And knives weren't the only suspect utensil. The fork had to overcome a vicious mud-slinging campaign waged by the Roman Catholic Church.

The fork

As Haislip explains it, Europeans ate with their hands until a Venice nobleman married a Turkish princess around 1100, and she introduced forks to her adopted land.

"The clergy were horrified," Haislip says. "It reminded them of the devil's pitchfork, and they banned it. After that, forks were total outcasts. The only people who ate with them were courtesans."

Of course, once the fork became scandalous, it was only a matter of time before it began to seem edgy and attractively rebellious. James Dean would have used a fork. So would Lindsay Lohan. The utensil began to catch on after it was championed by the 16th century's trend-setting bad girl, Catherine de Medici.

The fork not only survived, it triumphed. It eventually spawned specific variations for uses such as sardines, fish, beef, pickles and seafood cocktail. . The spoon, formerly the size of a fig leaf, gradually dwindled in size until it was barely large enough to stir a cup of tea.

"Once forks became fashionable, no one wanted to use a spoon at all," Haislip says.

"Today, there's nothing in our culture that we serve on a dinner plate that should be eaten with a spoon. I still meet adults who think that you eat peas, rice and even mashed potatoes with a spoon. In our culture, spoons should be used only for dessert and to serve food."

I thought about that later at home, while I was preparing my dinner of steak teriyaki and rice. I was resolved to put my unmannerly past behind me. From now on, I would be a changed woman, and I would start that night by practicing Continental-style dining.

The steak speared up nicely, but the rice in sauce was another matter. No matter how many times I mounded it on the backside of the fork, it skidded downhill.

My gaze fixed on the spoon — so humble and unassuming, so peace-loving, the only utensil that to my knowledge has never been used to draw blood. It didn't seem fair that something so beautifully functional should be restricted to humble servant status.

Carol Haislip would never know, I told myself. Neither would the Campbells.

And so what if I humiliate myself at a future lunch with my boss and never get a plum assignment? If winning a Pulitzer Prize means a life without rice, is the choice really so clear?

I'd practice another time. But that night, I was hungry. Feeling slightly furtive, I picked up my spoon.

 

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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