I had lunch with my friend Sam the other week in a Mayfair restaurant. Sam is an urbane chap. Trumpers aftershave, suit, polished shoes, brushed hair. He also approaches lunch with the reverence of a bishop approaching the altar. We would, Sam said, be having something to start with and then a main course. I ordered asparagus to kick off with. And that was the problem. The asparagus arrived. Stalks as thick as a thumb and shiny with butter. Heaven. But as I picked up my knife and fork, I remembered the Debrett’s rules about asparagus. ‘Asparagus is always eaten with the left hand and never with a knife and fork,’ the etiquette book says severely, before going on to instruct that you eat the stalks down ‘to about an inch and a half from the end. It is a solecism to guzzle up these stumps and leave nothing on your plate.’
My knife and fork froze in mid air. PANIC. I was about to disgrace myself in front of Sam. But I was also wearing a white shirt. And I didn’t fancy the chances of being able to manoeuvre a stalk of asparagus into my mouth without dripping butter down my shirt. So it was either finish the asparagus course looking like the sort of person who should be fed in a highchair. Or commit social hari kiri by deploying my knife and fork.
I picked the latter. And I ate the whole stalks – stumps and all – because that’s the sort of devil-may-care woman I am. And then it made me reflect on the other rules Debrett’s applies to eating fruit and vegetables. You, poor simpleton, may have been eating pears like an apple all your life, entirely unaware that Debrett’s says the grandest way to eat them is with a teaspoon. Apples, meanwhile, should be held with the left hand and peeled with the right. The peel should be ‘around half an inch wide’ and ‘remember, it is smartest to start at the top of the apple and to cut the peel in one, unbroken length.’ Bananas ‘must never be eaten monkey-style at the table.’ Instead, you should peel one with a knife and then cut the fruit into small discs which can be eaten with the fingers ‘or a fork if provided.’
And salad! Do you know why you’re supposed to eat salad with a fork and not a knife? Let me tell you. It’s a practice, apparently, that dates back to ‘early times’ when poison might have been injected into the veins of lettuce. ‘To cut into your leaves would have suggested that you harboured sinister suggestions about your host.’ How elaborate is that, to go to the trouble of contaminating your iceberg with hemlock to knock off an unwanted dinner guest? Easier, probably, to just tell them you’re short of chairs and you’ll invite them to the next one.
The list goes on, including instructions for figs, papayas and globe artichokes. The only fruit and vegetable rule in Debrett’s I truly recognise is the one about grapes. Other British households may row about who’s left their bedroom lights on or abandoned a wet towel marinating on the bathroom floor. Not ours. We row about grapes. Should somebody pick a single grape off its stalk, instead of cutting or twisting off a small branch of grapes, there will be the sort of investigation which makes the Chilcot Inquiry look a bit slapdash and rushed.
I presume what’s happened is that we’re all too worried about eating our five a day, or ten a day, or 62 a day or whatever it is now, that we don’t have time to think about the methodology of eating a kumquat. Quick, no time to worry about which utensil you’re using – shovel it in before you get scurvy. And by and large I think that’s fine. The President of the United States excepting, I reckon we’ve evolved to the stage where we can decide our own approach to a banana. Although, if you’re worried, there are yellowing copies of Debrett’s on eBay for £3.