Back in the Middle Ages, there was little ceremony around food. Even kings behaved like despicable gluttons at the table. True table manners emerge in upper-class, private dining room settings around the 1700’s.
Table manners are really about little dainty details. Sit up straight, don’t put elbows on the table, don’t slurp and so on. How many of us truly know which fork to use first and why? Does it really matter? No. But it is interesting. In fact, it is more than this. Studies show that people who do abide by strict table manners report a distinguishable sense of heightened confidence. For children, it can be a burden of sorts, or a source of playfulness. We pretend we are princes and princesses; in fact more well-behaved and proper than many of these throughout history.
So what do we do with that wedge of lemon sitting by the fish? Do we grab it and squeeze it with the fingers? This conundrum is similar to the one we face when eating spaghetti. Shall it be cut or twirled?
While it adds an appealing visual accent, not to mention a visual cue to activate taste buds, the lemon wedge is there mostly for practical purposes, at least when seafood is present. Lemon juices neutralize the odor of fish. There is no consensus about this, however, and many culinary historians claim this is quite unnecessary, especially since odor is not a problem once the fish is cooked and seasoned. They point out, instead, that the custom dates back to the middle ages (remember, when we were all gluttons at the table?) when people believed that lemon juice would dissolve fish bones should these be swallowed by accident.
Back to present times. First, look for a small cocktail fork. If none was provided, use the dinner fork. The lemon wedge, it turns out, is to be placed on the fork, by hand mind you, so that the prongs pierce it across the middle, wedge side. Then, one should move the fork above the fish while squeezing the lemon wedge against it with the opposite hand’s fingers, thus releasing the juices onto the fish, and only on the fish. The wedge is then discarded to one side of the plate, never directly on the table or on the bread dish.
The same procedure can be used when squeezing a lemon wedge into a drink. This time, however, the wedge is dropped inside the glass after squeezing. If the drink was served with a citrus slice however, the slice does not get squeezed, but rather eaten or ripped in half and dropped in the drink.
A small cocktail fork is usually made available when a shrimp cocktail is served, and this is the fork that must be used to squeeze the accompanying lemon wedge over the sauce, not the shrimp.
Breakfast is altogether more relaxed. The orange wedge that sometimes accompanies a traditional egg and toast breakfast can be eaten by hand, though some insist that while the rind may be removed by hand, the flesh should then be placed on the dish and picked up with a fork. Others suggest that it is merely there for looks and should be left alone. As an alternative, it can be dropped directly in a fruit juice glass, unsqueezed.
As a general rule, if food is served with a wedge of lemon, assume said wedge should be squeezed upon the contents of the dish; if it is served with sliced orange or lemon, first consider the nature of the meal and placement of the slices. At breakfast, follow above instructions. However, if the slices are placed directly on the food, they must first be set aside. The proper way of doing this is to gently slide the knife underneath and use the fork atop in order to shift the slice from its present position to the side of the dish. It is then held down with the fork, cut with the knife and consumed with the rest of the meal.
Of course, you may notice some of your eating companions pause to observe, in which case you have two choices: ignore them or initiate a conversation about table manners. Better be remembered for your eccentricity than for unsightly behavior.