MR MANNERS: There is one thing about being back in my hometown and fraternizing with family and friends that has caught my attention in a rather macabre way. Many people have graciously invited me for nice meals, in restaurants and at home, and I've been eating well and too much.

But I've become fixated on the way a polite American eats. I used to eat like that, too. When I was still a teenager and first travelled in Europe I remember people tee-heeing at the way I addressed my food, using a fork in the right hand as a sort of all purpose tool. I was trained strenuously to eat with the left hand resting in the lap palm up, held in reserve for knife duty in case the edge of the fork couldn't cope.

Growing up with the practice, you don't think twice. It's been years though since I wriggled free of that habit. And now it seems positively warped. Today at lunch (the excellent and recommended Three Square Grill in west Portland, if you're ever there), I couldn't stop staring at a table of four people, all eating their main courses with left hands glued to laps. Some of the stuff they ordered was not meant to be cut with the edge of a fork, and one guy in particular struggled to pinch off bite-sized pieces by pressing down mightily with the edge of his fork. He would not pick up his knife and save himself the trouble.

To foreigners, this looks strange, even childish. To Americans, the Euro way, perhaps the single instance of greater European efficiency yet observed in nature, looks vulgar and greedy. Check out the expressions on your American visitors' faces next time you take them to a Czech restaurant.

Of course there's a history to all this. This one seems believable. As with some aspects of our version of English, it turns out American manners are surprisingly conservative. In essence, we are still eating in the same way our huntin, trappin and sod bustin 16th and 17th century forebears ate, with one no-nonsense implement in the right hand: a spoon made of bone or wood. This here fork is a new fangled high class innovation of modern times, and the table knife (no good for skinnin) is just for sissies.

Steve | 00:56 |