Fork and Knife School

“You know here we don’t cut our pasta with a knife.”

It’s not the same. But while there are over two decades separating the two phrases, this statement immediately brought me back to, “Tu n’as pas le droit de couper la salade au couteau.”  You don’t cut your salad with a knife. This had been a sharp correction inveighed against me an exchange student in France. I had been mindlessly sawing into a plate of French salad when my new host mother stopped me. Quelle horreur.To each country, son goût. Here in present day Europe, I put down my knife as soon as I was informed that I was doing something out of place. There was no teenage scowl secretly directed at a controlling host mother. Now I only struggled to negotiate my plate of tortelloni—the origami-like bigger sister of bite-sized tortellini. Awkwardly I commenced with halving through the pieces with the side of my fork, still not sure if this was also wrong. The dining experience, at least on my side of the table, was akin to what I first experienced with a plate of unruly and expansive lettuce leaves.

Back in those student days, with practice and determination, I had succeeded in learning to compromise the thick, green vein so that I could fold the entire leaf up. The knife was to be used a positioning tool (rather than cutting) that I used for pushing my food onto the fork. Before I knew it, a compact green square could be popped into my mouth without giving the action a further thought. But it took a bit of time for me to arrive at this stage. And I’m more talking about moving past the ego swipe, rather than a re-education in the field of cutlery skills.

It’s undoubtedly universal, but I found it extra unsavory to struggle as a teenage kid. Life up until that time in France had already felt overseasoned with failure— why on earth would I want to put myself through any extra adversity? Growing up is hard enough, who wants to be told that they are incompetent while doing something that they’ve been doing since they were born?But that salad was many years ago. The ensuing decades of ceaseless trial by fire—life as a great baptême du feu— convinces you that failure should not only be anticipated at all times, but that it is usually surmountable. You usually just have to devote enough attention and patience to the problem. These are not my strongest suits. As an adult, my ego still doesn’t enjoy being told that it sucks at something.All of these years later, I can at least say that when offered “instruction” in something simple like eating—I no longer take it as an affront. I don’t interpret it as some sign that I should abandon my attempt at wading into new territory. I think that’s the beauty that comes with age: at last I have learned to chill the fuck out. While attending college in Dublin, a (good) friend once told me to get over myself after I spent one too many days expounding on my self-constructed crimes of inferiority. I look back at it all now and see that it was mostly bullshit: French lettuce leaves, not feeling like I’m making it far enough, not doing things fast enough. I’m tired. Life should be more about lingering in the process of things.

Back to the more superficial level, I do recognize that if table etiquette is the greatest challenges that I have to encounter, then my life is truly charmed. But of course this is not the case. I take a phrase like, “we don’t cut our pasta with a knife” and I see that it can be applied on a grander scale. It reminds me of how life is a continuous cycle where we are sometimes at the beginning, and sometimes further along. Even better, it reminds me that I still have much to learn—and fortunately I am still more than willing to be taught.If I’m honest, I know that I remain the same slow-on-the-uptake girl that I was back at 16 years old—and in this respect I feel some frustration. It’s because I know that each time I embark upon something new, it will mean that I’ll have to wade through all of the tedious lessons that unfold in seemingly slow motion. I will lose patience, and I will get many of the same things wrong on multiple occasions.But salad, now that I eat it as an adult, I continue to fold it up like un petit cadeau. The long-term payoff is that I have given myself a strange kind of gift that has transcended the dinner table. I think of that now as my forty-year-old fingers continue to be corrected while navigating a dinner plate. The only difference now is my response mechanism. There’s a shoving aside of the ego, and hopefully—Christ hopefully—the guarantee that by just forging ahead and not feeling bruised I will travel through the learning process a little more quickly.

As it was, the pasta was gorgeous, so of course I’ll be willing to practice a few times more.