Dining Etiquette Series – Dessert, At Last!



Life is uncertain.  Eat dessert first. ~ Attributed to Ernestine Ulmer, 1892-1987

No doubt many people will agree with this famous quote. But, in the formal multi-course dinner, dessert is the last course, at least in the U.S. In European, and European-influenced, countries you might find that the dessert course is followed by a fruit course to finish the dinner with a refreshing palate cleanser, and then followed by coffee and a sweet (more about the “coffee course” next week). But, in most cases, dessert will be the sweet finale to a luncheon or dinner.

The Dessert Fork and Spoon—and How to Use Them

In formal and business dining, whether in a private home, restaurant or grand ballroom, you will often find that your dessert fork and spoon are already part of your table setting when you are seated. They will be positioned horizontally above your charger or dinner plate; the fork will be underneath the spoon with its handle facing left, and the spoon will be above the fork with its handle facing right. When your dessert is served, the waiter will slide your dessert fork and spoon down to either side of your place – the fork on the left side and the spoon on the right side. If your waiter does not perform this courtesy, you should do so yourself, taking the fork by the handle with your left hand and taking the spoon by the handle with your right hand. Remember to slide, rather than lift, the fork and spoon smoothly into place. Alternatively, your server will bring out a fork or spoon, or both, with your dessert and place them on either side of your plate.

Special ice cream spoons, forks and “sporks,” should be used in informal and casual dining only.”

As with the dinner fork and knife, Americans and Europeans use their dessert utensils differently. The rule of thumb in both styles of dining calls for food served on a plate to be eaten with a fork and food served in a bowl to be eaten with a spoon. In the Continental style, both the fork and spoon are typically used when eating dessert.  

In the Continental style, the fork is used to spear and secure the dessert while the spoon is used to carry a bite of dessert to your mouth. Such an approach comes in handy especially when eating such desserts as poached pears or peaches, cheese cake, crème brûlée, and the like, which are served on your plate. This custom has prompted both a dessert fork and spoon to be included in many table settings.

The American style employs the use of either the fork or the spoon, but usually not both. However, it’s not only polite to try different methods of dining, it’s also educational. The U.S. has long been a melting pot of different cultures, so we Americans should not be afraid of trying, and even embracing, new and different customs. Conversely, those who visit the U.S. or have moved here from other countries should keep an open mind and try the American way, where only a fork is used for firmer desserts, such as traditional cake and pie and only a spoon is used for ice cream and berries, for example, which are served in a bowl.

In both American and Continental dining, parfaits—elegant and creative concoctions made of ice cream, berries, syrup and other toppings – are served in a tall glass so the beautiful swirls and colors can be seen. A long-handled spoon, similar to an ice-tea spoon, should be provided.

When eating berries, ice cream and similar dishes, scoop up a small serving by pulling your spoon toward you, the opposite of the way you would eat soup. If you rest between bites, place your spoon on the underplate, rather in your bowl or parfait glass. If you are served a cookie with your ice cream or parfait, pick up the cookie and break off a bite-size piece, eat, and repeat until the cookie is finished – similar to the way in which you would eat a roll, by breaking off a bite-size piece, butter it, eat it and repeat the process until you have finished.

The Finger Bowl

At a very formal dinner or upscale restaurant, the server might bring you a finger bowl to clean your fingers before dessert. As I pointed out in my blog entry, “The Place Setting,” February 5, 2013, while this is no longer a common accouterment to most dining setups, you might come across its use at some formal dinners or certain establishments. The waiter, or server, will place the finger bowl (which usually has a slice of lemon or flower floating in it) to the upper left of your dinner plate. If he or she places the finger bowl in the middle of your place setting, directly in front of you, you should move it yourself to the upper left once you have used it.  

To use the finger bowl correctly, simply dip the tips of your fingers into the bowl and wipe them gently on your napkin. Your napkin should remain in your lap as you dry your fingers; don’t lift your napkin so everyone can see you drying your fingers.

Dessert or Pudding?

The British call dessert “pudding,” while we Americans consider pudding to be the sort of thing we mix up from scratch or from a box of Jell-O Pudding and Pie Mix. This is an important distinction to know if you travel to the United Kingdom or if you are dining with someone who is visiting from Great Britain or has been brought up in British traditions. Knowing the difference is important; you wouldn’t want to pass up dessert because you think your British friend or colleague is suggesting that you have pudding for dessert! Conversely, you want your British guest to understand what you are offering.

Now, what about that cup of coffee? Join me next week to find out!

Until next time,


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