What is the point of a butter knife exactly?

'Is it sensible to eat mash by forming a crater, pouring in gravy and then bombing the sides with sprouts?'
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The Independent Online

I eat my peas with honey,

I eat my peas with honey,

I've done it all my life.

It makes the peas taste funny

But it keeps them on the knife.

That was the little ditty I picked up at about 12, and it appealed to me because I was having an argument with my mother at the time about the right way to eat things. She, like so many mothers, insisted that there was one right way to do everything and lots of wrong ways. Soup spoons... piles of salt on the side of the plate... Butter...

Ah, butter. One day we had some smart visitors to tea and the butter appeared on a smart dish with a kind of miniature fish knife lying beside it.

"What's that?" I asked her.

"It's a butter knife, of course. Now keep quiet and eat your tea..."

She told me later how embarrassed she had been by my question.

"It made it look as if we don't normally use a butter knife."

"But we don't."

"I know, but I didn't want them to know that."

I soon came to the conclusion that my mother was entirely governed by inherited conventions, and I put it to her (what a smug little 12-year-old I must have been) that a better basis for table manners would be scientific logic, and that we should eat things the sensible way, not the socially acceptable way.

She countered my argument rather skilfully.

"Is it sensible to eat mashed potatoes by forming them into a crater," she said, "and pouring your gravy into this man-made lake, and then bombing the sides of the lake with sprouts like Barnes Wallis's bouncing bombs until the gravy comes pouring out?"

This was indeed my favourite way of eating mashed potatoes.

"It's fun to eat it that way," I said. "Obviously it's boring to eat mashed potatoes at all, so any way of making it more interesting and fun for children is scientifically sensible..."

"Just eat up your peas," she said. "And don't squash them all with the back of the fork and then scoop the mess up! Eat them properly."

I can't remember now what her proper way of eating peas was, as over the year I have been influenced by other strong-minded women at the table, mostly wives, often mine. But I still cling to my belief that eating methods should be governed by logic, even if they so clearly are not. Think only of the British and boiled eggs. It seems to us British quite sensible to eat boiled eggs by cracking them open in an egg cup. And yet the rest of the world does not even have egg cups...

In a French market two weeks ago I did notice something for sale which at first looked like an egg cup. It was a plate with the familiar half globe stuck on it. Then I noticed that the dish was marked olives, that there was another, smaller half globe, and that one receptacle was for cocktail sticks, the other for discarded olive stones. Sensible.

But not as sensible as the bit of pottery we encountered a week later in a farmhouse B&B on the Anjou-Normandy border. Serving the breakfast, the farmer put on the table a brown pot with a chunky top. He lifted the top out and revealed that it had butter hanging underneath it. He then reversed it like a conjurer on to the table.

"But what...?"

"It's an old country device," he said, "invented before they had fridges. The pot is full of water. The butter, which is hard enough to stick to the cleft in the underneath of the lid, is suspended in the water overnight until it is needed. The water surrounding the butter prevents any oxygen reaching it and thus keeps the butter fresh and stops it going rancid. In the morning you just lift it out and - voila!"

My wife and I were impressed, so much so that we asked a kitchen shop in the local town if they had one. They had never heard of it. Nor have I met anyone since then who knows what it is. So if anyone out there...


A reader writes: Just a minute! Was all this farrago just leading up to a request to readers for knowledge about a reversible Angevin butter dish?

Miles Kington writes: Yes, I'm afraid so.

A reader writes: You should be ashamed of yourself.

Miles Kington writes: Yes, I should be, shouldn't I?