On a knife edge

Food - Bee Wilson looks at how they're taking the weapons off our plate

"You know something is wrong when screeners are confiscating thousands of nail clippers but allowing people with arsenals of weapons through." Such was the sage judgement of Senator Dick Durbin at the recent US hearings on airline security. Attempts to keep plane passengers safe have not, so far, been entirely consistent. We read endless accounts of people being stopped for wearing a harmless brooch, even though their neighbour gets through with a meat cleaver. Another aspect of airline security that seems faintly illogical is the practice of issuing plastic knives with airline meals but sometimes allowing metal forks, whose sharp tines could surely do just as much damage in the hands of a crazed hijacker.

If plastic knives are illogical, however, they are not unreasonable. George W Bush has made it clear that he believes himself to be in a struggle for the security of western civilisation itself. And western civilisation has consistently defined itself through taboos in the use of the knife. Such taboos, indeed, have been the bedrock of western table manners.

In The Civilising Process, the sociologist Norbert Elias wrote that fear of the knife "goes beyond what is rational and is greater than the 'calculable' probable danger . . . Therefore its use even when eating is restricted by a multitude of prohibitions." The greatest terror has been of putting knives into one's mouth. This is an irrational and exaggerated fear, given that those social groups who do eat using knives seldom damage their mouths (just as those who eat with metal knives seldom use them as murder weapons). But it is no less strong for that. As Elias observes, we feel uneasy "at the mere sight of someone putting a knife into the mouth".

Renaissance courtesy books were full of warnings that, when passing a knife at the table, you should hold the sharp end yourself, offering the handle, to signal that you were not about to stab someone with it. This fear must have seemed more pressing in the days when men carried their own personal table knives around with them, attached to a belt. The great writer of food manners Margaret Visser argues that one of the main purposes of table manners has been the "prevention of the violence that could so easily break out at table". She offers as a general rule: "When in doubt, do not use your knife."

Some foods do not require a knife anyway. "We must cut steaks and slices of roast with knives," writes Visser, "but the edge of a fork will do for an omelette, or for boiled potatoes, carrots and other vegetables." Without steak knives, Concorde must henceforth dispense with chateaubriands, rumps and fillets. Game birds would also be no good, unless passengers were prepared to dirty their fingers and gnaw like Henry VIII; but then, this would ruin the point, as such unhygienic behaviour is highly "uncivilised", and it was to get away from such messy finger-eating that the fork was invented. Osso buco would really be the perfect thing to serve on airlines, because you can eat it with a spoon and it reheats deliciously. In fact, I suspect, airline chefs will be relying more than ever on their beloved farmed salmon, which falls apart under the pressure of the feeblest plastic implement. Fish has traditionally not required knives, on account of its soft flakiness. It was also believed that the taste of blade metal would ruin the delicate flavour of the fish. (It was probably for the same reason that the French developed their taboo against cutting salad with a knife.) The unsharpened, silver-plated decorative fish-knife was invented in the 19th century to avoid spoiling the texture and taste of fish. However, for many (including Nancy Mitford), fish-knives were a step too far on the path of civilisation. The apogee of refined western civilisation is in the specialist knives of high tables: the double-pointed cheese knife, the blunt-ended butter knife, the ornate cake-knife.

American table manners have taken a different course. Reay Tannahill claims that "19th-century etiquette manuals were so severe about people who ate peas off their knives that those with better table manners went to the opposite extreme - with the result that America became a nation of dedicated fork-eaters". The plastic knife restriction will actually hardly affect American passengers, whose civilisation dictates that, after the necessary cutting of food has been done, the fork should be grasped in the right hand and used to do all the work.

Elias notes, however, that even such restricted use of the knife would not be regarded as "civilised" in all cultures. In China, "the knife disappeared many centuries ago from use at table", where the people sometimes say that "the Europeans are barbarians . . . they eat with swords". I wonder what the symbolism of plastic "swords" should be. Have we become children now, as well as barbarians?

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The SAS story they want to suppress