Grape scissors and good manners.

I overheard a young girl–maybe 9 or 10 years old–ask her father a question as they ate their pizza and salad in a funky neighborhood restaurant: “Did you know that some people use different forks for different foods?”

Dad, either a kind and nurturing parent or someone raised by wolves, responded with convincing curiosity: “Really? Why?”

Image from Replacements Ltd (a mind-boggling establishment in North Carolina and online at

She proceeded to explain that it was how everyone used to eat “in the olden days” and now just very rich people, like Prince William’s family, worried about such things. (This last remark solved the mystery of why she was bringing this line of questioning up right now.)

My dining companion showed up about then, so I lost the rest of the exchange. But I thought about it later. If you think about something long enough, you’ll get to a point where you need to go online and research it. Which is how I came to be searching “grape scissors” — the most obscure piece of silverware I could come up with — to find out if anyone really does use the things.

I’d assumed that these were a kitchen tool — not so. In their heyday, grape scissors were nestled in with the good teaspoons as a staple of gracious dining. And judging by the number of these things for sale in the vast internet bazaar, a great many people want to at least pretend to use them still.

Quite fittingly, the Victoria & Albert Museum offered the choicest tidbit on these pieces. The Victorian era, that thoroughly uptight period of history during which even piano legs had skirts, put grape scissors on the map, so to speak. It was considered bad form to convey food to mouth with a mere hand.  And if you’ve ever tried to spear a grape with a fork, you can see where this is going.

The V&A website’s entry notes:

With a few exceptions (such as for eating bread and some fruit), touching food with the fingers was frowned upon, and diners were presented with an alarming and growing range of specialist utensils for eating particular foods. It was important to be able to recognise items such as nut picks, sardine tongs and grape scissors, and to know how to use them correctly.

And don’t think things got easier after the snipping of grapes was done. No sirree. That handy little Victorian guidebook, Manners and Tone of Good Society advised: “When eating grapes, the half closed hand should be placed to the lips and the stones and skins adroitly allowed to fall into the fingers and quickly placed on the side of the plate, the back of the hand concealing the manoeuvre from view.” Some persons, the guide frostily observes, bend the head so as to get the stones closer to the plate: “an inelegant solution. ” Indeed.

If the typical American diner today looked down at a full cover of forks, knives, spoons, picks, tongs and scissors, he would have to flag down the waiter and demand a spork.

–Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett




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