Photo by Kelly Hau
The artichoke is actually the leaf-enclosed flower bud of a plant that is in the thistle family. It is usually served steamed with a dipping sauce. To eat it, pull a leaf off, dip it, scrape the flesh from the base of the leaf with your top teeth, and discard the leaf on the plate provided for that purpose. (Or you may encounter a special plate made with a central niche for the artichoke, a niche for a small bowl of sauce, and a sort of moat all around on which the leaves are to be discarded.) Continue eating the leaves until the prickly “choke” is revealed — this is the point when it is clear you have a species of thistle in front of you. Switch to fork and knife, first to remove the choke, then to eat the heart and base.
Asparagus may be eaten with the fingers as long as it is not covered with sauce or otherwise prepared so it is too mushy to pick up easily. Of course, it is also just fine to use a fork and knife to eat asparagus, even when it is perfectly al dente and sauce-free. But you might appreciate getting to act like a rebel without breaking any rules.
When bacon is cooked until it is very crisp, and there is no danger of getting the fingers wet with grease, it is okay to pick it up to eat it. This is an instance of practicality winning out over decorum, since trying to cut a crisp piece of bacon usually results in crushing it into shards that are quite difficult to round up onto a fork.
Bread must always be broken, never cut with a knife. Tear off a piece that is no bigger than two bites worth and eat that before tearing off another. If butter is provided (and at formal events it customarily is not), butter the small piece just before eating it. There is an exception to this rule: if you are served a hot roll, it is permissible to tear (not cut) the whole roll lengthwise down the middle and place a pat of butter inside to melt.
It is never necessary to try to eat the cookie that comes as a garnish to your dessert with a spoon. Unless it has fallen so far into the chocolate sauce that there isn’t a clean corner by which to pick it up.
Corn on the Cob
It is unlikely that it will be served at a formal event, but if you encounter corn on the cob, it may be picked up and eaten. The approved method of doing so is to butter one or two rows at a time and to eat across the cob cleanly.
Chips, French Fries, Fried Chicken, and Hamburgers
All these items (which could also probably be classified as “fast foods”) simply will not be served in a formal setting. Most are intended to be eaten with the hands, although a particularly messy hamburger could be approached with fork and knife, and steak fries (the thick-cut, less crispy variety) may be best eaten with a fork.
Hors d’Oeuvres, Canapes, Crudités
Almost everything that is served at a cocktail party or during a pre-meal cocktail hour is intended to be eaten with the fingers. Some of these foods make appearances at regular meals as well (although not often very formal ones). When they do, it is still permissible to use the fingers to eat them. This includes olives, pickles, nuts, deviled eggs, and chips.
The straightforward sandwich — that is, any sandwich that is not open-faced, not too tall to fit in the mouth, not saturated with dripping sauces or loaded with mushy fillings — is intended to be picked up and eaten. Otherwise use fork and knife.
Small Fruits and Berries on the Stem
If you are served strawberries with the hulls on, cherries with stems, or grapes in bunches, then it is okay to eat them with your fingers. Otherwise, as with all berries, the utensil of choice is a spoon. In the case of grapes, you may encounter a special scissors, to be used to cut off a small cluster from the bunch. If not, tear a portion from the whole, rather than plucking off single grapes, which leaves a cluster of unattractive bare stems on the serving platter.