The Restaurant Put the Fork and Knife There In Hopes You Might Use ThemS

Of course you should use silverware when you're eating dinner at a restaurant that has provided silverware, right there next to your non-paper plate. Nobody believes otherwise. But here's our important new populist debate about whether New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is too fancy because he used a fork and knife to eat a pizza dinner in a sit-down restaurant.

When you eat at a sit-down restaurant with waiters and metal silverware, you show some basic manners and use the fork and knife. What kind of vile pigs use their fingers to stuff their faces at restaurants that have very deliberately provided silverware so that it might be used? Children in high chairs, that's what kind of vile pigs. They can't even hold silverware correctly, let alone use the utensils.

Pizza is many things, even in a partisan stronghold such as New York. Did you buy a slice to eat at the counter or hastily consume while walking? Then fold it up and eat with the paws and paper plate God gave you. Are you at a table with silverware and a cloth napkin, and do you have hands? Then you use the silverware and you use the napkin, what are you, a toddler?

In such a restaurant, you can take and eat the communal bread with your hands, and tortilla chips or garlic bread or other obvious "finger food" is meant to be delivered to the mouth with your fingers. In a strip-mall slob restaurant that offers, say, "pizza 'n wings," vulgar behavior is the order of the day. But in all other cases, how about using the silverware the restaurant helpfully put right there next to the plate with the food?

Sure, silverware is not used in many cultures, and the now-standard method of eating from a plate with a fork and knife didn't become widespread in America until after the 1850s. But that was 160 years ago, when slavery and child labor were legal and women couldn't vote and millions of Americans died of typhus. Unless you're in a specific eat-with-your-hands restaurant, the nice sit-down restaurant has rather obviously put those eating utensils right there with your plate, for you to use while eating.

The people who pretend to be outraged by a liberal mayor using common eating utensils at a restaurant are people who always eat with a fork and knife, and who would treat anyone who didn't like a half-wit rube. It's the same way they treat their audiences. If you are a member of any audience for cable news or talk radio, you are considered an imbecile by the people who produce that media. It is assumed you couldn't eat with a knife and fork even if you owned such luxurious utensils. They figure you'd be baffled by a plastic spork.

There's always fake outrage over perceived violations of local custom. Presidential candidates have to campaign in dull and depressing places and act like they care what kind of industrial cheese spooge is allowed on this or that pile of sliced sandwich meat. Incoming professional sports talent must pledge allegiance to whatever archaic urban rituals that most of the fans have never practiced themselves, because they live in the suburbs and moved from somewhere else, too. The fanatics on Yelp pause from their euphoric 1,000-word reviews about the latest made-up hybrid cuisine to lecture strangers on the "correct" way to eat a burrito or enjoy clam chowder.

Think about all that while you glance down at the plate set before you. Has silverware been placed in the general vicinity of your dinner? Nice that you noticed! It's to be used, that fork and knife, in the process of semi-politely shoveling that food into your mouth.

Americans are torn between two national instincts. The first is populism, an intentional embrace of common and humble tradition that's usually a put-on, often performed by the wealthy elites playing for the cameras and the crowd. When multi-millionaire country singers and hip-hop stars constantly remind you they're from the sticks or from the 'hood, it's a performance no different from the multi-millionaire primary candidates in Iowa pretending to enjoy foot-long grease-dripping corn dogs made of pig anus and E. coli and the fingernails of slaughterhouse workers.

"We're just regular slobs, too," the visible rich say. "Look how we eat this garbage with our hands. Please don't put us on the guillotine."

The second instinct is aspiration, the pursuit of the mostly fictional American Dream. This is why frat guys at third-rate state colleges dress like they're enjoying another weekend at the Bush Family Compound in Kennebunkport, and why humble brides-to-be push their families into years of credit-card debt to have a $50,000 wedding inspired by pictures in a celebrity magazine.

The third instinct is almost entirely gone from American Life, but nearly everyone except street urchins has a small reserve of this quality somewhere inside them. It is called "self respect" or "dignity" or "basic manners." It is what your mother should've taught you, whether your mom is Italian like Bill de Blasio's mother or a hard-working immigrant from Mexico or a nice Lutheran lady in Wisconsin bringing a hot dish to the church social or the single dad or grandma or aunt or foster parent stuck with trying to civilize the rude blob of babyhood you once were.

Are you in a restaurant with metal tableware next to your plate? Behave as if your mother is watching from across the table. Use the fork and knife.

Ken Layne writes Gawker's American Almanac and American Journal. Illustration by Jim Cooke.