July 18, 2011
The point of manners is to make other people feel comfortable. Every culture has rules about how to eat food when in the company of others, and bread has its own large share of them. My husband’s brothers, who made masks from slices of Wonder Bread were not following any of them, but then – they were not doing this at dinner parties.
My favorite bread rule is set out by Emily Post (the 1943 version), who says that for formal dinners “the parlor maid or a footman brings the basket to each table.” Each diner take a piece of bread and lays it on the tablecloth. No plate. No butter knife. No butter. Butter is never served at a formal dinner because it is assumed that the rest of the meal will have so much of it that the unadorned bread will be a welcome texture all on its own.
Perhaps the best-known (if not the best followed) rule is to break off a bite-size piece of bread, butter it, and eat it before breaking off another small piece and repeating the drill. This suggests that you aren’t worried that your butter will disappear, and shows that you aren’t greedy or desperately hungry. A cultural note - many cultures, including Hindus and Muslims, consider it sacrilegious to cut bread. Jennie Reekie in her 1991 London Ritz Book of Etiquette says, “Bread is traditionally broken before it is buttered, and is not cut with a knife. The origin of the custom can be traced back to the last supper when Christ broke (emphasis in the original) the bread, and cutting bread is considered unlucky by some people.”
George Washington wrote a book on etiquette with several rules about bread. “If you soak bread in the sauce, let it be no more than what you put in your Mouth at a time.” “Feed not with greediness; cut your Bread with a Knife” – and also, [do not] “. . . cut Bread with your knife greasy.” Ms. Reekie also mentions buttering bread using one’s thumb. A commander of German forces, Wilhelm von Knyphausen, who fought with the British during the Revolutionary War was known for this habit; he apparently acquired it on the battlefields where silverware was scarce.
Civil War Era Etiquette: Martine’s Handbook and Vulgarisms in Conversation, re-published by R.L. Shep in 1988 quoted instructions from1864: “Do not put butter on your bread at dinner, and avoid biting or cutting your bread from the slice, or roll; rather break off small pieces and put these in your mouth with your fingers.” And, “It is considered vulgar to dip a piece of bread into the preserves or gravy upon your plate and then bite it. If you desire to eat them together, it is much better to break the bread in small pieces and convey these to your mouth with your fork.”
Another well-known rule is that you don’t use your bread to push food onto your fork. This one, alas, is not so clear-cut. Ms. Reekie noted that it was fashionable in pre-Victorian days to eat fish holding the silver fork in the left hand and a crust of bread in the right, pushing the fish onto the fork with the bread. In 1943, Emily Post’s Etiquette approved of the practice. But these days, Miss Manners disagrees, and so do most other guides to proper behavior, including more recent versions of Emily Post’s prescriptions. Europeans, however, still consider it mannerly to use bread as “pushers.