Last week, Laurel Zuckerman asked your Foreign Parts correspondent a very good question:
Dear Foreign Parts Correspondent, Here is a question that has baffled me for a quarter century: Why is it considered uncouth, uncultured and disgusting to CUT YOUR LETTUCE ? I must warn you: I have asked numerous highly-intelligent and well-informed people and no one has been able to provide a decent answer yet.
I am happy to report that I believe I have found the answer. To get it, I polled a bunch of French friends, one of whom worked as a personal assistant to former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin at Matignon.
This is what they told me.
First, no one thought it was disgusting to cut lettuce with a knife, but all agreed that it is "not correct." Everyone had, at one point or another, seen people (even French people!) cutting lettuce in this fashion and although they identified the behavior as "not good manners," they didn't — and wouldn't — make a fuss about it.
Mindful that Laurel's real question was "Why?" and also aware that I was the only person à table who hadn't finished her salade (all eyes were now on my technique), I blurted, "Mais pourquoi?" At first, nobody knew pourquoi. Several people shrugged their shoulders and threw out the French equivalent of "because I said so" — "c'est comme ça." But the friend who had served at Matignon and another friend, who is a terrific cook, had a real answer: "Because lettuce is never to be cut. It must be shredded."
"What do you mean, shredded?" I asked.
Shredded, they said. With two hands, not with a knife and fork or anything metallic. Lettuce, they explained, becomes tainted when put in contact with metal, which speeds oxidation.
I looked it up, and they are correct — lettuce will indeed turn brown when put in contact with metals. Which is why salads are always served in France pre-shredded, so you won't be tempted to use that nasty metal knife on it.
I was proud that I had solved the knife-and-lettuce mystery, but as I was emboldened by several glasses of a rather silky Madiran and I had a former employee of the French equivelent to 10 Downing Street in my clutches, I asked him to demonstrate his best Franco-certifed salad-eating technique.
He took up my challenge (and my fork) with aplomb and, using one hand, pierced a lettuce leaf and wound it expertly around the utensil.
He did this so beautifully that I felt the need to crush his lovely French table manners — so I challenged him to go to my favorite Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, Sang Tung, and eat a dried fried chicken wing (the specialty of the house, served with a very sticky sauce) using only a pair of chopsticks.
He had the good grace to agree that it would be difficult for someone who wasn't raised using chopsticks. But I have no doubt that he could do it.