Does it really matter where the fork is placed? This is a question I receive all the time, and it’s not really an easy one to answer. The honest truth is it depends. Like so many traditions handed down from generation to generation, dining etiquette is full of rules and expectations that don’t always make sense. Too often we equate etiquette with these stuffy, out-of-date standards. But, if we strip away the fluff and examine the fundamental purpose of dining etiquette, we can understand why certain rules became so common and we can decide for ourselves what rules to follow and what we can ignore.
Place the fork on the left side of the plate. The knife and spoon go on the right.
To understand this rule, we need to examine the history of the fork. Though the fork has origins in the Middle East dating as far back as 2000 BCE, the fork did not become popular in Europe until the 16th century. The fork first gained popularity in Italy where the advent of pasta as the staple diet required a new utensil that could grab and hold better than the knife and spoon, the most used utensils in Europe at the time. Even though this new utensil was effective and was quickly adopted in countries along the Mediterranean, the fork was received skeptically by northern Europeans. It would be another 200 years before the fork became standard continent-wide.
So why place it on the left? Well, because the knife and spoon were already used with the right hand and had been for tens of thousands of years. Throughout history humans have been primarily right-hand dominant, and, since we almost never use a knife and a spoon at the same time, it was only natural for both these utensils to be placed to the right of the plate. A fork, particularly in fine dining, is almost always used with a knife. Since the knife already had its place in the right hand the only hand still available was the left, thus the fork is placed to the left of the plate.
When can you place the fork on the right of the plate? Keep in mind that most of the modern dining etiquette we have today evolved among the wealthy population of Europe in a time where strict propriety and adherence to behavioral standards was expected as a way to distinguish the haves from the have-nots. There was little motivation to conserve by using the same utensils throughout a meal when you had the opportunity to show your wealth by providing your guests with new utensils for each course served. Today, however, most of us are considerably less formal and have no problem using the same knife and fork throughout our meals. In my opinion, you should go ahead and place the fork on the right with the knife and spoon when it will increase efficiency (i.e., utensils rolled up in a napkin at a restaurant to speed turning tables), when you have limited space on the table (i.e., hosting a large group for Christmas dinner on fold-up tables in the living room), or when your guests are unfamiliar with proper etiquette and explaining it will embarrass them (hosting a guest from a country whose etiquette is different from yours) or will be ineffective (a group of young children).
At its most fundamental level, the purpose of etiquette is to make to the process of serving and eating a meal with a group of people as easy, efficient, and comfortable as possible. Whatever rules you choose to follow, follow them consistently. Over time your guests will know what to expect and knowing what to expect as a guest is the biggest key to enjoying a relaxed, delicious, and heartwarming meal.