Grandpa Kerth, my father's father, died when I was very young, so I have few memories of him.
He was not a giggling-bounce-on-the-knee grandpa. He was a stern German immigrant with an accent so thick I could barely understand him. As a result, I tried to steer clear of him any time he came to visit us, or we went to visit him.
My only clear memories of him happened at the dinner table, when it was impossible to elude him any longer.
I remember that he held his fork in his left hand with the tines pointing downward as he pinned his meat to the plate, and after cutting off a slice with the knife in his right hand, he used his left hand to raise the fork to his mouth with the tines still pointing downward.
Mom had already taught me that it was impolite to eat food in that way. She insisted that the proper way to eat a forkful of meat after it had been sliced was to put down the knife next to the plate, then switch the fork over to the right hand and raise it to your mouth with the tines facing upward.
"But that's not how Grandpa eats," I said. It seemed easier to do it his way, without all that hand-changing. Mom's way seemed awfully labor intensive.
"Well, Grandpa is from Germany," Mom said. "That's the way they do it over there. But over here we have different manners."
Years later I heard someone use the phrase "the English style" to describe Mom's "mannerly" style of eating. And much later when I went to England, I noticed that most everybody ate the way Mom taught me. At least, everybody who was "refined" beyond working-class habits.
In Ireland, by contrast, most folks ate as Grandpa Kerth ate—they would spear a gobbet of meat with the tines facing downward, then they would use the knife to slather potatoes and turnips and cabbage on top of it before raising the downward-pointing fork to the mouth with the left hand.
But then, I guess you would expect an Irishman to do whatever an Englishman frowned upon, wouldn't you?
Whenever we ate dinner at Grandpa Kerth's house, he would dole out the food on everybody's plate. Everybody got the same share, including an intimidating flump of mashed potatoes the size of a little kid's head. When I ate all I could and whined that I couldn't eat any more, he ordered me to sit at the table until it was all gone, and Dad was powerless to convince him that he had given me too much for a little kid to handle. Grandpa scowled at him, and Dad backed down.
And I sat for the rest of the evening at the table, choking down tear-bathed potatoes, convinced that avoiding Grandpa was a pretty good strategy after all.
But my most vivid memory of Grandpa was watching him slice a loaf of bread at the table.
He would hold the bread against his heart, and then he would carve off a slice with a sharp knife by sawing away at the loaf. No breadboard for him. When the blade reached his chest, he would pin the slice of bread to the knife with his thumb and hold it out for you to take. It was a quick, efficient, dangerous operation that was fascinating to watch.
On the way home, Mom was quick to point out that this, too, was a style of dining-table behavior that I was forbidden to try, for obvious reasons.
"But why does he do it that way?" I asked.
This time it was Dad who gave me the answer. "Grandpa was a shoe maker," he said. "He ate at his bench. There was no room on the bench to slice bread, and the bench was dirty from the tools, leather and oil that he worked with, so cutting the bread against his chest gave him a clean slice of bread."
It made sense to me, and I remember that I occasionally saw Dad cut bread that way, too. Dad worked in a steel mill, and I guess he found the system useful in a shop that was filled with oil and metal shavings.
It reminded me that life for some people—probably for many people a generation or two older than my pampered life—presented a lot of hardship to overcome through the day. A heaping plateful of food was a blessing to them, not a curse to cry over. And a loaf held over the breast as you sliced it with a sharp knife was a perfect metaphor for how fragile a heartbeat can be when life is hard.
And that is why, one time on a wilderness canoe trip with some friends, I found them staring at me as we stood on a rocky point where we had pulled up for a shore lunch, and they gaped as I sliced a loaf of bread against my chest.
It was an artificial austerity we had imposed upon ourselves as a break from our pampered lives—parking our cars and climbing into canoes, where we pushed ourselves through the world with paddles, and cooked over open fires, and slept on the damp ground, and the only toilets were shadowy spots behind bushes and fallen logs. We were soft people, pretending that life was hard.
At lunchtime, with loaves unsliced and no breadboard, it paid to know how to use a knife and a chest to make a sandwich.
"Well, that's certainly a new way to slice a loaf of bread," one of my friends joked.
I smiled and thought, "No, it's not new at all. It's old. Very old, indeed."
- - -The author splits his time between Naples and Chicago. Not every day, though. Contact him at email@example.com. Why wait a whole week for your next visit to Planet Kerth? Get T.R.'s new book, "Revenge of the Sardines," available now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other fine online book distributors. His column will appear every Friday.