The knife is the king, and the big fork is the queen. Each spouse has a sidekick—the spoon (a duke) for the king, the salad fork (a lady-in-waiting) for the queen.

Those are the roles I assigned the flatware whenever I’d find myself at a restaurant as a child. I would put the royal quartet in various domestic tableaux—for instance, taking a soak in the pool, which was my water glass. Or I’d have the respective couples (Lord Spoon and Dame Saladfork were of course married to one another) settle down to sleep under napkin duvets and with their tines, blade, and scoopy thing resting on pats of butter for pillows.

I don’t remember what the four of them talked about, and only the character profile of the spoon remains clear to me. He was a dim-witted, happy-go-lucky Barney Rubble type.

I’m sorry to report that the dynamic of my tabletop world was tiresomely heteronormative. The knife never ran away with the spoon.

Kids have a reputation for being creative, but the childhood games of my own devising were uninspired and derivative. The name of my imaginary friend, for instance, was Invisible Zachary. And that’s all he was, too: a doppelgänger only I could see.

Okay, well, he could fly, but still. The fact remains that you can have an imagination and be unimaginative at the same time. Look at J.K. Rowling.

Rather than crediting kids for their extraordinary creative powers, it seems more accurate to say the under-10 set have an enviably strong sense of play. I don’t know where it goes. I guess it gets stamped out by society. One minute your dining utensils are monarchs of a kingdom stretching as far as the tablecloth can reach. The next minute they’ve been overthrown by an authoritarian etiquette coup and incarcerated in the prison of a place setting.

I learned the proper arrangement for silverware—from left to right: salad fork, regular fork, plate, knife (with blade turned toward plate), and spoon—during a unit on table manners my class underwent in fifth or sixth grade. I attended a private Christian school and I suppose the instructors figured, Well, we’re not going to teach science. The students might as well learn how to fan-fold a napkin.

I have mixed feelings about the rules of etiquette. On the one hand, I can appreciate how they bring some order to the chaos of living. I understand what Joan Didion means in The Year of Magical Thinking when she finds, while mourning the loss of her husband, an admirable specificity, sensitivity, and “matter-of-fact wisdom” in Emily Post’s prescriptions for the treatment of grief. In Didion’s account, Post seems to advise tending to the bereaved with a lot of tiptoeing around while carrying a little tray bearing small amounts of hot tea and broth.

The trouble with etiquette, of course, is when people get all snooty and elitist about the whole thing, using their supposedly respectable manners as a drawbridge to keep out the riffraff who don’t know what to do with an oyster fork, perish the thought.

It’s a shame, by the way, I never encountered an oyster fork when I was a kid, because that utensil looks to me like the illegitimate offspring of the King and Dame Saladfork, and my noble flatware game might have benefited from some succession drama.


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