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Are We Culturally Bankrupt, Too?: Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution Exposes Another Problem

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Are we done with manners?

Watching the launch of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution when it aired on ABC left me slack-jawed in disbelief. Not just about the bizarre relationship with food Americans have, but something even more fundamental. Newsflash: People don't know how to eat! And the reason is, they're not taught as kids.

I'll amend that: They don't know how to eat properly. I'm not talking about what food to eat, which is what Oliver is addressing; I'm talking about physically transporting ingestible matter from the plate to the oral cavity -- which is stunning for a civilized nation.

Which begs the question: Are we still a civilized nation? Or are we culturally bankrupt, too?

During the two shows, run back-to-back, I was by turns amused, amazed, appalled, even outright crying at the situation in Huntington, WV. But in the latter half of the second hour, I was as stunned as Oliver when he discovered the schoolchildren he was trying to educate about food did not actually use cutlery.

"We're tryin' to figure out how we're going to do this fork/spoon business," said Alice, one of the cooks in the school cafeteria. "They need a fork." Oliver: "Yeah, and a knife would be nice. They don't have a knife?"

"Oh no, no knives."

"You don't get your kids to use a knife and fork?" Oliver replies, confusion clouding his boyish features.

In an on-camera narration, he underscores: "[That] means from the age of 4 to 10, they never use a knife and fork!"

The conversation continues, with an incredulous Oliver: "This is school. You teach them how to spell, you teach them to read, you teach them to write -- you teach them to use a knife and fork!" he emphasizes. "You don't want to bring up a nation of kids that only use their fingers and a spoon!"

But the staff was equally amazed that small children in Britain are given these utensils --and asked for documentation.

Slight tangent: I hope a neon sign spelling 'irony' is not necessary here when noting that we have a British citizen, with the word 'revolution' in his show's title coming to this country to teach us how to be civilized 200+ years after the American Revolution.

I scuttled over to my style library and grabbed The Girl's Guide to Social Savvy, Manners for the Modern World, by Jodi R.R. Smith (Barnes & Noble, 2004). I don't know what the R.R. is for, but clearly she should have railroaded her book down everyone's throat, especially since they're not using a knife and fork anyway.

Yep, there it was, Chapter 4: Gracious Dining. The information is out there folks, and hopefully not just relegated to bookshelves. And another, Kate Spade's Manners (Simon & Schuster, 2004), states, " I don't think table manners are passé." Clearly before the advent of Oliver's show. Spade also quotes Deanna Troi of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Higher emotions are what separate us from the lower orders of life... higher emotions, and table manners." There you have it! Space, the final authority from the final frontier.

Oliver opined later in the episode that to have no use for a knife and fork was neither a class nor a cultural issue; it was saying we've no use for real food. I agree, to a degree.

But I also think it is a distinct marker of a civilized society. Human beings in third world countries are forced to eat with their hands -- it is not a choice. How you eat reflects your personal style, grooming habits, attention to detail, a host of things. Smith's website has this quote from Goethe, "A man's manners are a mirror in which he shows his portrait."

Several years ago, I was on a quest to discover why Americans practice (or used to, anyway) the complicated ritual of switching the fork back and forth between hands after using a knife -- unlike our European counterparts who keep the two utensils active in each hand while eating. Americans think this looks barbaric. Europeans think keeping one hand in our laps is restrictive and illogical.

I found the reason at the bottom of a pool in St. Augustine, Florida. Well, the pool was drained and filled with antique shops in what is now The Lightner Museum, but Julia, the shopkeeper, had the tidbit I'd been seeking. She was showing me what I thought was a crumber -- a silver utensil to push the crumbs from one's place at the table. "Oh no," she said, this was for a baby to learn how to push its food onto the fork, in lieu of a knife.

A baby! No wonder our nation's children can't use cutlery; we're equipped with sippy cups (adult version: to-go coffee mugs) and sporks.

Oh, the reason Americans switch back and forth? In our country's infancy, knives were scarce and primarily used for tools in the field, Julia said. The knife at the table was placed in the center. You used it to cut your food, then replaced it and put your other hand in your lap to make room for all the people crowded round the table. The root of the custom was deprivation.

Now, deprived of nothing, and armed with pizza, buffalo wings, mozzarella sticks, hamburgers and chicken fingers, who needs cutlery?

Perhaps with a little history of the practice now illuminated, and Oliver enlightening us on what to eat, we can employ these valuable utensils again? For real food, that requires cutting, and chewing, and digesting.

It's certainly something to chew over.

Oliver won the TED prize in February 2010 for his global initiative to change our approach to food, and has a petition to that effect anyone can sign.

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