Finger Food

On walking home from work rather late the last few nights (for various reasons, including both work and not-work) I’ve come across refugees from our local “parked in the market square food truck” where you can get a burger and some chips/fries along with that burger. In each case, the person with the styrofoam food tray has been eating said fries/chips with a plastic or wood (I’m not sure) two-tined “fry fork” to allow them to pick up the fries/chips without having to touch them directly. I’m puzzled. As I often am.

Finger food in America is a well-established genre and a take-out burger and chips/fries would definitely qualify. In the US last month I had pizza (Papa John’s, of course) on more than one occasion. Eaten with the hands, whether in triangle cuts or square cuts. And even worse, at the beach I had crab and lobster, things that come in nice US restaurants with bibs and tools for finger food extraction.

So my question now has to do with finger food. We have the obvious differences between Britain and the US in terms of silverware etiquette, with forks in the right hand in the US and in the left hand here in the UK. Knives at the ready all the time in the UK and only when needed in the US. I’ve watched people here in the UK try to eat burgers with silverware, the whole fries/chips thing, and the entire spectacle of Pizza Express or the like where people saw away at UK pizzas with a butter knife, clearly hoping to avoid using the fingers in this process. So I ask, with an open mind and a truly confused heart, what is the issue with finger food in the UK? Why are sandwich quarters okay but other edible food is not? I’m literally starving here. Although admittedly I cannot imagine my British friends wearing a Red Lobster bib nor can I see them picking up a slice of pizza to hold. There are sandwiches, dastardly sandwiches here a plenty, and this is not a taboo in terms of eating in public, but aside from the sandwich there seems to be some breech of etiquette associated with ever eating food with one’s fingers here in England. What exactly is the problem with eating food with your fingers?

19 responses to “Finger Food

  1. Sorry, don’ t know the answer to your question. Just wanted to comment that I’d forgotten all about those silly wooden forks!

  2. This post makes me smile….have you ever witnessed smeone trying to balance peas on the back pf a fork??……..using fingers is considere (or was) bad table manners,years ago….perhaps 40 or more, princess Margaret was said to have eaten her fried chicken with her fingers, I cannot recall in this moment in which country she was staying at the time, perhaps Italy, this act of non conformism launched a new trend…..If Prncess Maragaret can use her fingers, “so can I”. I see English people eating spaghetti with a knife and fork, sad spectacle….yet they will use chop sticks when eating Chinese!

  3. Do you think eating a Pizza Express pizza with your fingers is even possible? British people do use our fingers to eat the American style pizzas we get delivered; perhaps because we normally do so in our own homes you wouldn’t have seen that much.

    And lots of us eat chips with our fingers too.

    • I know it is because I gave up long ago when I realized the utility of trying to cut the Pizza Express Pizza into bit-sized pieces with a butter knife without destroying them! So I normally saw the pizza into quarters or sixths and then pick it up with my hands, all the while being stared at by the people all around me.

  4. I think the forks for chips aren’t particularly an etiquette issue, more that the chips are likely to be hot and greasy.

    Easting burgers with cutlery I have seen once in a blue moon but would be considered strange behaviour.

    Pizza will depend on setting – Pizza Hut likely to be fingers, Pizza Express is a bit more upmarket so more likely to be a knife and fork job.

    Other than that, if you’re really seeing a reluctance to eat food with fingers I can only assume this is specific to the location or the people you’re mixing with rather than being the norm for Britain as a whole. Certainly it would be entirely normal at a buffet to eat sausage rolls, pork pies (small or sliced), quiche slices, bhajis and samosas with the fingers.

    • You make a good point about how “upmarket” the place is; people eat burgers with their fingers at my local McDonald’s and with cutlery at the local Gourmet Burger Kitchen. And I swear this is not a “once in a blue moon” phenomenon, I see it all the time and at many different places. The exercise often starts with bisecting the burger into two pieces and starting in with the knife and fork at one pointy end. But my point stands, in America even at a “nice” restaurant you are not going to see people eating burgers with a knife and fork.

      • Ah, this is part of the difference. First time I’d heard of Gourmet Burger Kitchen was an article this week in the business section. We clearly move in different circles 🙂

      • I DID wonder about the GBK on St. Andrews (or is that stretch Park Terrace or Hill Road already)? …. i would’ve had to use cutlery ha…. hmmm….

  5. I reckon it’s embarrassment. At an upmarketish place, if you’re given cutlery you assume you’re supposed to use it! I haven’t thought about it much, but I think if there was cutlery laid out I would use it, and do normally eat pizza in pizza express with cutlery. But I wouldn’t be shocked by anyone who didn’t, I just find getting my fingers messy irritating.
    Apropos of nothing, finger food is a phrase I now associate with weaning a baby, as you are encouraged to let your baby choose their own finger food from a selection like carrot sticks, bread sticks, cherry tomatoes and other things easy for them to pick up and gnaw on.

  6. As a British woman with an American husband I remember being appalled shortly before we were married, to see my husband pick up a piece of fried fish and eating it with his fingers, in a restaurant, no less. As I told him, fish and chips should be eaten with fingers only when eaten out of newspaper, out of doors. Eighteen years in America later, I’m still eating all my food with a knife and fork (including restaurant burgers) and despairing of my American children ever learning to do the same. In my opinion, knives and forks keep us and our food clean, and are what separate us from monkeys. Eating bite-sized portions of food with the fingers is one thing, but if it is messy, requires two hands to hold it, or if at a table with knives and forks, the food should be cut and eaten with them.

  7. I’m British, and I never realized you were supposed to use those stupid wooden forks. I thought they were just a gimmick of the stalls that hand them out. You must be right – there must be British people who like them. Maybe it’s a class thing?

  8. UK chips are greasier than US French fries, so you get really really greasy fingers if you eat without that little fork thing (though lots of people do).

  9. I thought the forks were cute and I tried to use them because it was nice to not get greasy fingers. But I often sit down to eat something with french friend and I am picking away with my fingers while British hubby is stabbing them with a fork. I’ll bet the introduction of Tex Mex (i.e. tacos) confused everyone here!

  10. I use the fries themselves as the “cutlery” to scoop up the mushy peas (don’t get me started on the mushy peas…..)

  11. I’ll tell you, those little forks come in mighty handy when eating cheese fries in Coney Island.

  12. Funny post! I wondered the same thing when I watched a recent dinner guest try to cut apart pieces of garlic bread into bite-sized morsels. I have to say, though, that I’m a HUGE fan of the chip forks. The place where I (occaisionally) get my chips — they are big fat chips (not like McD’s) and are PIPING HOT. After dousing them with vineagar and salt, I really like the little funny wooden fork to eat them — otherwise they’d burn my fingers and get salty vineagar into any paper cut. Yowch!

  13. Strange, since everyone knows food tastes better when eaten with your hands…

    On another note,
    I’m the editor of Expat (, a site devoted to developing comprehensive destination guides aimed at easing expat transitions abroad. Currently we’re working on creating an Edinburgh city guide, but we need expats like yourself to share their unique insight in order to make the information as accurate as possible.

    Would you be interested in contributing in exchange for a promotional profile where you could levy exposure for yourself, your blog or your business.

    I look forward to hearing from you and hope we can work together in the future. Thanks for your time and consideration.


  14. Hey, I work with the CheapOair travel blog ( and we’re interested in having you guest blog for us. Please contact me if you’re interested. Thanks! Aldo.

  15. It seems that nobody has directly answered your query; I can definitively state that when I was growing up in the 1970s I was thoroughly indoctrinated by how impolite it was to eat with your hands. Finger buffets were rarely seen and were actually considered quite daring for house parties. If you ate your food with your hands, you were showing that you had no regard for your host/hostess/parents. It should be pointed out that there was not really a culture of eating out at that time, most families were not able to do so regularly financially. The fast food culture had not really taken hold, the first pizza I had was actually in Italy when on holiday. And I ate with knife and fork, as I had been taught.

    There is still a fairly intricate etiquette surrounding eating with the right silverware or cutlery at a formal dinner and understanding this was a pass then to being regarded as civilized and being accepted in all social circles. So yes, there’s a class issue in there, as well as what was regarded as good manners. Things have indeed changed in the four decades subsequent, but culture as a whole is shifting. I hope this goes some way to answering your query.

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