Don't be bullied by the sauce spoon
June 12th, 2012
08:30 PM ET
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A person might think that a job as a food editor entails downing metric tons of beluga caviar and silver-plated Big Gulps of vintage Krug Champagne at lunch (Double Big Gulp at dinner) seven days a week. That person would be wrong - for the most part.

While the vast majority of my meals are taken while huddled over a plastic clamshell of CNN cafeteria salad bar scraps, I’m occasionally let out of my crate and allowed to sup amongst the humans. And yeah - sometimes it gets fancy. For some reason, this usually necessitates the presence of archaic silverware.

While eating with my fingers is one of the greatest visceral pleasure of my existence (if I could figure out an inoffensive way to eat soup with my hands, I would), I also deeply dig a rarefied object with which to convey food to my cakehole. Perhaps even more than most, since I have a master’s degree in metalsmithing, which entailed roughly 3000 hours of sitting around wearing protective goggles, talking about the semiotics of shrimp forks and writing Marxist critiques of 17th century gravy boats. Yet, I still get a little wary when the cuillère à sauce individuelle shows up next to my plate.

It’s not that I don’t know what it’s for (getting the last of the delicious sauce from your plate) – rather that I can never figure out why this task warrants a specialized implement or quite manage to deploy said implement gracefully. I’m not alone in this.

I escaped from my cage earlier this week to partake in a lovely lunch at the sixth best restaurant in the world (there’s an official list and everything) for a lunch honoring its chef, his recent accolades and his contribution to the world of dining.

You bet your sweet duck press that there were special utensils involved.

Passed hors d'oeuvres were in my wheelhouse: exquisite bites crafted specially to be dispatched from hand to soul in a single bite. First course: easy peasy mother-of-pearl caviar spoon (for the record, metal is verboten because it taints the delicate flavor of the eggs). Scoop, swoon, repeat. Second course, it arrived: fork, knife and my enemy, the sauce spoon.

I turned to my neighbor - the co-owner of the restaurant with Most Outstanding Chef in America (as calculated by a different group of people who rank these sorts of things), and opened my big, fat mouth.

"Do you use these at your restaurant? I mean, I mostly think of them as a harbinger of fanciness, but...why?"

He smiled and started to laugh, but God bless him, not at me. " I actually had a contest with my staff a few years ago," he said, "and I held up one of these and offered a prize to whoever could figure out why restaurants use these. They came back with something like twelve different answers and we never did figure out which one was right."

The rest of Table One joined in - the aforementioned Outstanding Chef, a few food writers, an executive for a prominent restaurant group - and not a single one of us could with any certainty pin down the origin, purpose of the design's distinctive notch or necessity for an extra utensil when a fork, spoon or piece of bread would do just fine. Most seemed unsure how to actually deploy it. So we did the 21st century thing and tweeted questions across the room to the people who'd seem most likely to know.

Mitchell Davis of the James Beard Foundation answered our cry (and Chef Eric Ripert retweeted with gusto). "Appears the cuillère à sauce individuelle was invented at Laserre in Paris in 1950 for...sauce...the notch said to be to drain excess fat, but I don't believe that. Popularized w/la nouvelle cuisine...All a plot to reduce bread consumption (while increasing flatware consumption), which I am opposed to."

Mystery (somewhat) solved, I surveyed the table - plates ravaged, very slight stains remaining. Not a one of my fellow professional-level eaters had employed the services of the vaunted spoon, leaned over to lick the china or gone without sufficient sauce.

I bring all this up because when I was a less confident diner, I'd occasionally let my own intimidation and food know-it-alls get in the way of my enjoyment - perhaps fretting and sliding the sauce spoon around on the plate a little so no one would think I was rube enough not to know how to use it. I'm sure that says an awful lot about me (at least back then), but also about a breed of eater that particularly vexes me: the food bully.

I don't mean food scolds who tell us that whatever we're eating is not sufficiently sustainalocaganivore or that we should be consuming fewer carbs. I'm talking about the spouters of, "Well, you haven't really had [insert dish] until you've have it hand-crafted by a grandmother down a dingy alley in [insert country] - but only on the third Friday in September when the [insert ingredient] is in peak season," the folks tricking their unwilling friends to eat casu marzu (that'd be maggot cheese), and the plain old jerks who'd make a fellow diner feel small for not knowing how to use a cuillère à sauce individuelle or incorrectly pronouncing "quinoa."*

Don't know why they do it and don't much care. When there's good food sitting right there, is it less delicious because you used the wrong spoon or someone at the table had a more "authentic" version elsewhere? If the people with whom you are eating are not approaching food with a generosity of spirit, willingness to share or respect your boundaries, they do not deserve the pleasure of your dining companionship.

And if they've got a problem with that, refer them to Table One. We're armed with squeaky clean sauce spoons, and we (mostly) know how to use 'em.

* KEEN-wah

Previously - Of romantic meals, fibbers and fish knives

soundoff (63 Responses)
  1. steveo

    knives and forks all come in contact with other food while one eats the main course and bread introduces a flavor of its own to the sauce if sopped. the sauce spoon is just a way to enjoy the sauce itself without "interference" from other foods. it's an artisan touch to remind people of the appreciation and care with which the french have created their sauces over many centuries. if people dipped crackers into a fine french wine, some might be taken aback. the sauce is supposedly elevated because of the unique spoon in the same way a fine wine is elevated by placing it in the "correct" glass.

    November 29, 2013 at 8:39 pm |
  2. Fiona

    I detest snobs of any kind. The intention behind snobbery is unkind. Dining together should be a joyful pursuit, and if the company or the host is prickly it ruins my appetite.

    Here's the thing...truly confident and gracious people do not correct others or remark upon the errors or goofs of those in their company. Ever. If someone makes a rude comment about, rolls his eyes at, or corrects something you say or - spare me - your utensil use, that person is to be disregarded entirely because he is a fo ol. The best reaction to that kind of behavior is a blank stare and an awkward pause. Then turn to another diner and engage Ina lively, happy conversation.

    On mopping up sauces - I usually break off a small, bite-size piece of bread, place it on my plate and use my fork to push the bread sponge around. It's tidy, efficient, and say I.

    June 15, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • steveo

      the best "reaction" is to say "i was always taught to know the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork for the purposes of being polite growing up. doesn't that seem silly considering they are both forks and we can eat with either one?" not saying anything is more polite than saying something rude. not saying anything rude while also staring blankly is also very uptight and also not particularly interesting when having a dinner with close friends.

      November 29, 2013 at 8:44 pm |
    • steveo

      turning away from anyone, especially if you are seated next to them at the table, is one of the more rude things a person can do at any meal...i hope you will reconsider that approach to dining and make light of something you find offensive, rather than admonish someone or ignore someone.

      November 29, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
    • steveo

      and, no, pushing food around with any implement is not considered appropriate or good manners. technically, if you can't gather the food with grace, the food should be left as it is on the plate. though i, myself, have terrible manners and love to push my pizza into a good slop of ranch dressing when i have the chance.

      November 29, 2013 at 8:52 pm |
  3. Fiona

    I detest snobs of any kind. The intention behind snobbery is unkind. Dining together should be a joyful pursuit, and if the company or the host is prickly it ruins my appetite.

    Here's the thing...truly confident and gracious people do not correct others or remark upon the errors or goofs of those in their company. Ever. If someone makes a rude comment about, rolls his eyes at, or corrects something you say or - spare me - your utensil use, that person is to be disregarded entirely because he is a fool. The best reaction to that kind of behavior is a blank stare and an awkward pause. Then turn to another diner and engage Ina lively, happy conversation.

    On mopping up sauces - I usually break off a small, bite-size piece of bread, place it on my plate and use my fork to push the bread sponge around. It's tidy, efficient, and say I.

    June 15, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  4. KM

    Growing up, every once in a while we'd pull out all the silver and do what amounted to formal Victorian style settings just so we kids would know how to use anything we'd ever be likely to run across. I think it was also an excuse to let her have us polish the silver for her. I suppose there are restaurants that are pretentious enough to put out everything at once , but even the best I've been to tend to bring the needed silverware with each course.

    June 15, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  5. Less Metallurgy 402, more Creative Writing 101

    Cut back on the sarcasm. It'll be a better read. Clever as you (whoever you are) may be, too much of anything gets old pretty fast.

    June 15, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  6. Eclipse

    I appreciate learning from people who know more about something than I do and that includes food..but when there is an animosity for how or what others choose to eat (a repugnance) that may not be said outright but is implied added to a holier than thou attitude, it makes one feel very uneasy and, yes, bad about their own choices. I got to the point where I did not want to eat at all around some people because they made me so uncomfortable and found myself going to the other extreme..eating candy and things with people who were accepting..not good!

    June 15, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  7. FoodieFullODoodie

    I love to eat and try new things (who doesn't?) but I despise the "foodie" label. Everyone eats... the fact that some think eating and the appreciation of good food is some illustrious art form worthy of a title, is somewhat ridiculous. Good food can be found in so many places, from five-star French restaurants to little backwoods roadside diners. It's all a matter of one's personal preference. As for utensils, who cares. Do what works for you. (It never hurts to be mindful of your surroundings though... I'd say making an effort to respect your hosts/dining companions is a good idea in any situation. However anyone belittling a person for using the "wrong" fork is a first class sack of you-know-what.)

    June 14, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
  8. Underoo Jamboree

    Spoons in the nose, forks in the ear, knives in the rear... That's all you need to know.

    June 14, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  9. jan

    They don't dare pull that around me...I'm a chef. (and also don't have a clue about the sauce spoon individuelle)

    June 14, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  10. Georgia Cajun

    I will drink soup from the bowl at a Japanese restaurant. They do. Sushi is also eaten with fingers. Being a native Southerner I found it very funny to see yankees in New York eating fried chicken with a knife and fork. That is finger food y'all. Just enjoy your food and enjoy life!

    June 14, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Dr. Jantzen

      I have never seen that. It would be too funny. Haha, New Yorkers – oh, they're so proper! **said in a really gay voice while tossing hand motion gay as well**

      June 14, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
    • e

      And New Yorkers laugh at tourists who cannot eat a piece of thin crust pizza with their hands.

      June 14, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • steveo

      i'm not from NY, but i eat popcorn with a spoon if i have the choice...(i don't like buttery fingers). fried chicken problem as a finger food. if fried chicken could be eaten more quickly with a fork than with fingers, i'd do it....but it can't. and that's just wrong

      November 29, 2013 at 8:56 pm |
  11. teamom is a link to a great discussion about sauce spoons and other cutlery. I particularly like the comments re: the marrow forks, which made me wax reminiscent.
    And, how uncomfortable would it be to drink a good brandy from.....a coffee cup?

    June 14, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  12. Josh

    I'm more of a beer snob.

    I'm the kind that does know why different beer glasses are shaped differently, and serve the right glass with the right beer, but I only explain it to others when asked. .

    Exception to previous statement: For the record, MGD is best served in a 16-once red plastic cup.

    June 14, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • Underoo Jamboree

      All beer is actually best served as an enema.

      June 14, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
      • Alpo

        You are another fan of a beer float? Do you drink it from a straw?

        June 15, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • steveo

      ok beer guy....head, no head, medium head in the glass? it's still a long running and contemporary battle among beer snobs about the amount of head, so i'm curious where you stand on the issue.

      November 29, 2013 at 8:58 pm |
  13. Matt

    In the south we use a variation of the "cuillère à sauce individuelle": a biscuit!

    June 14, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  14. Hypatia

    So a 'food bully' is anyone who expects decent table manners? Go eat in your man cave away from the rest of civilized humans!

    June 14, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • Josh

      Your second sentence seems to support the positive case for the first.

      June 14, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  15. Susan

    I love to "drink" soup. A hearty stew like soup of course I eat with a spoon, but a cream or broth soup, I really like to drink. At home I will put it in a mug and do just that. I wish it were acceptable to lift the bowl to my lips while dining out. Maybe I will start the trend. With no slurping of course ~ see we all have our "rules".

    June 14, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  16. bvilleyellowdog

    The worst at this are Brit restaurants.
    When you sit down there will be this large array of silver in front of you.
    After you order some will be taken away (did you order wrong somehow?)
    More may be added.
    I finally did figure out what a fish knife was supposed to be for – although a regular butter knife works just swell.

    June 14, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • burnz

      fish and steak knives are different.

      June 15, 2012 at 5:19 am |
    • steveo

      better than most american restaurants where you suddenly find yourself asking for another knife or fork because the server just takes plates away without thinking about what utensil you need for the next course.

      November 29, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
  17. Follow The Eaten Path

    It is heartening to see this happens everywhere – jerks at tables spouting their food knowledge and 'unique' experience instead of enjoying what's before them... Thanks for a very well written article!
    As for cutlery, I really think its a sheer waste of time, effort and money. Give me a humble fork or put the term 'finger-licking good' to practice! I think the dinner scene from 'Pretty Woman' best sums up the cutlery confusion... where the kindly Mr. Morse Snr. whispers advise to a flustered Vivian (Julia Roberts) staring, bewildered, down at an array of dinner cutlery. Cute, simple and yes, classic!

    June 14, 2012 at 4:31 am |
    • Maverick

      As for me, I like Molly Brown's response to Jack Dawson on "Titanic"

      Jack: "Are all these for me?"

      Molly: "Just start on the outside and work your way in."

      June 14, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
      • Follow The Eaten Path

        Oh, yes! That one's a close second... well put, Maverick!

        June 18, 2012 at 9:18 am |
      • steveo

        good point!

        November 29, 2013 at 9:03 pm |
    • steveo

      foodies should be protectors of their mates at the table. saying things like "oh no, you'll need that knife for the main course" rather than just quietly and smugly enjoying the moment when someone at the table "stupidly" has their knife taken by a server during second course. it's a bit mean spirited.

      November 29, 2013 at 9:02 pm |
  18. ann

    I'd like to know why these celebrities think they are so chic, eating with chopsticks! I personally think it's a bore.

    June 13, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
    • bvilleyellowdog

      There are somethings that chop sticks are best at – eating noodles for example.
      Jello is another matter.

      June 14, 2012 at 9:23 am |
      • Matt

        Jello? No problem! It's a shot!

        June 14, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
      • Josh

        The fork is the easiest way to eat noodles. Push in, turn, lift to mouth.

        June 14, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Chopstick user

      Eating with chopsticks isn't chic, but if you really know how to use them, it's a whole lot easier to eat with them than a fork. I learned how to eat with chopsticks at the same age as I did a fork and spoon, and given half a choice, I much prefer them when eating just about anything. Properly used, they're like extensions of your own fingers. And no, I'm not remotely Asian.

      Although I do agree that just about anything celebrities do just because it's the current trend is annoying.

      June 14, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  19. cleuq

    From what I've seen of the people my age, most of them don't even know what half the cutlery on a table is used for. But those who do know, they don't care. It doesn't look sloppy if someone uses a regular utensil instead of a "special utensil", it's just the super-orthodox people who even care and call it sloppy. If I see a small spoon or fork at the top of my plate, which is usually meant for dessert (or so I've been told), I will use it for my salad if the salad I'm being served doesn't come with an extra utensil. I often eat bread by breaking it into small pieces and covering each one with butter separately as I eat it, but that's pointless and a waste of time. Why not just take a decently-sized piece and eat it instead of taking tiny, impossible-to-fill-you-up bites one at a time? I don't eat like a pig when I do this. It looks fine. But as I've said, it's the food snobs that have the problems.

    As for how to eat other foods, if it looks dry and able to be picked up and eaten, I'll use my fingers. I don't care if it's larger than some tiny snack-sized food item. It's really pointless to memorize all these rules of how to eat certain things when it's just other people you're trying to impress. No one gives me funny looks when I eat. The way society is going, uptight manners aren't going to last. Saying this, people will still have the run-of-the-mill table etiquette but nothing overly stupid.

    June 13, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  20. Steve C.

    My thought is that a silversith had an apprentice working on some spoon blanks and didn't supervise well enough. Then the owner of the resturant was too intimidated to argue when his overpriced "fancy" placesettings arrived...

    June 13, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      I sorta love your theory! The Accidental Spoon sounds like an Edward Gorey book, to boot.

      June 14, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  21. Oddly enough

    There's something to be said for knowing the correct way to eat certain dishes, or how natives actually eat or order something. And certainly one should know proper table manners for the situation they are in.

    But knowing is one thing. Doing is another. Just as with proper grammar and punctuation, there are times that you should just relax and enjoy the experience rather than strictly adhering to correct structure.

    And then, Lording that knowledge over others is a whole different kettle of fish entirely.

    I have no problem with someone showing me how I should be eating something – I'll probably even ask first for someone to teach me. However, I do have a huge problem with anyone who watches me eat something incorrectly and smirks at me while pointedly doing it correctly. Or condescendingly telling me that I'm ordering wrong.

    I find a cheerful "who cares?" sort of statement usually takes a bit of wind out of the foodie's sails.

    June 13, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  22. Dom

    "We're foodies!"
    "What does that mean?"
    "We like to go to cool restaurants and try new and unusual things!"
    "Oh, so you're exactly like everyone else except you like to brag about it?"

    June 13, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • Ally

      I consider myself a foodie because I enjoy spending free time exploring new and unusual foods. It's a hobby of mine. I have friends who aren't foodies. They like trying new restaurants and some like to try new foods occasiaionally. But they don't enjoy spending their free time finding new/unsual foods. It's not a priority in their lives.

      That's not bragging, it's just that I put more energy into it than someone who doesn't care to.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • Chef Donttell

      Oh Dom noooooo. Not "like everyone else except you like to brag about it?" My spouse has a very narrow window of foods s/he will eat.

      Foodie is a made up name like Trekkie. As such, it means nothing to those who truly love foods or StarTrek et al. I love to experiment with foods and to try new ethnicities, etc. The difference is I won't call myself a foodie because of the pretentious connotation.

      June 13, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Bob

      It's a media invented word for people who like to be called the current media invented word (see Locavore).

      June 14, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • doctordanf

      Just like everyone else? I don't think so. I have several friends who, if they can be persuaded to go out for a meal at all, are perfectly happy going anyplace where the prices are low and the food is edible. Old Country Buffet or Appleby's are right down their alley. More power to them, but if I'm going out for dinner I like a little more imagination and subtlety put into my meal. I'm not sure if I'm a foodie, but these friends are most definitely NOT foodies.

      June 14, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • steveo

      foodies are the people who go to restaurants and eat with chopsticks for the first time ever while they are seated with ethnic people who have used these same utensils their entire lives. foodies are also the same people who teach less brave eaters how to do the things they want to do with chopsticks but won't do because they are shy about making the move. so, yes, foodies talk about things. they also teach you how to take your girlfriend out to a french restaurant and explain to you how many courses will be involved in your meal, that it isn't spaghetti and meat-a-balls and what wines you could pair with each course to wow your woman so you don't feel embarrassed when you go there.

      November 29, 2013 at 9:09 pm |
  23. AdriaLynn

    My husband is a chef, I am a long-time foodie (though not really a food snob). Unfortunately, I have the opposite problem of being bullied by picky eaters who make it impossible to enjoy eating because they won't eat anything.

    June 13, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  24. KWDragon

    I like the standard advice on flatware – work your way from the outside to the inside. Beyond that – bring on the bread!

    June 13, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  25. felix el gato

    It would make me eat my salad with a soup spoon.

    June 13, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  26. bricemannn

    Although the author seems quite certain about the correct pronunciation of quinoa, the world at large is much less so. Wikipedia and many online dictionaries also list [kee-NO-ah] as an acceptable pronunication.

    June 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      I learn new things all the time!

      June 13, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  27. andrea

    Might I postulate that the chink the side of the spoon is to allow for a lip on a plate? That way the side of the spoon can effectively hug the surface and retrieve every tasty mL?

    June 13, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Jbart

      That was my initial thought upon looking at the picture. Seems obvious to me.

      June 14, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
  28. lindaluttrell

    If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then "delicious" is in the mouth of each diner. We all have different tastes/preferences when it comes to food and that is what should be celebrated. We all have to eat for nourishment. We should all enjoy the experience, without any guilt, as well.

    June 13, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  29. terrils

    Thank you for a delightful column. I love seeing proof that being knowledgeable about something does not HAVE to make a person a snotty stick in the mud.

    June 13, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      Thanks for that! I love people who are thrilled to know things and want to share, not squash. Life's just more delicious that way.

      June 13, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • MicheleG™

      Ditto. I like your playful use of words. You write a GOOD, readable column! Nice!

      June 13, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  30. MarkGlicker

    I never understood the 7 forks at a place setting.

    June 13, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  31. emma

    Sadly there are many people who cannot feel any self-worth unless they are trying to make others feel small or like less. It says more about them but it does cast a pall over everything to have to suffer their company and snobbery. They are always kill-joys.

    June 13, 2012 at 10:31 am |
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