Avoid holiday disagreements with four simple rules for sharing the carving duties.

In pop culture, the honor of carving a holiday turkey always seems to fall to the patriarch of the family, like Clark Griswold or Bob Cratchit. That tradition is likely based on Medieval practices, says Mister Manners etiquette columnist Thomas P. Farley, citing a Middle Ages etiquette guide from 1508 that details carving techniques as part of the official code of chivalry. "In an age before forks were common, the carver was expected to cut the pieces of meat small enough to be eaten with a spoon or with one's fingers," says Farley. "Forks did not become prevalent on tables in Northern Europe or the American colonies until the 17th and 18th centuries. Knives, however, were often elaborate and jeweled, and their exquisite workmanship, by talented cutlers, was a point of pride for the bearer. Newlyweds would often receive a carvery—a complete boxed set of knives—and the groom was expected to possess the skills of carving."

But as fine dining etiquette has developed over the last five centuries, the rules of turkey carving have evolved, too. We shouldn't assume that the task falls to a man, says Farley: "There is no reason for one gender to have the monopoly on carving." But if your family is having trouble deciding whose turn it is to do the honors, follow Farley's advice for getting the carving knife into the proper hands.

woman carving thanksgiving turkey at table
Credit: VioletaStoimenova / Getty Images

The host has the right of first refusal—even if older family are in attendance.

As the host, you have every right to carve the turkey—assuming you're interested. "The task of carving the turkey is a weighty one and a role to be taken very seriously," says Farley. "If the hosts of the party are unfamiliar with how to carve or wish to honor family tradition, offering first dibs to the clan's patriarch or matriarch—if either one is so inclined—is a deferential and entirely appropriate bequest."

Settle arguments politely.

"If more than one person is interested in carving, the host may suggest one or more guests share the duty," Farley says. "If there are a few people who have been in the queue year-in and year-out only to be shut out by a self-appointed official carver, the host should suggest the would-be carvers split the duty with the veteran carver. Two additional ways to settle the matter include alternating years or arranging a contest with the previous year's wishbone."

Skip the carving show.

"It is entirely appropriate to celebrate not just the bird, but also the pageantry involved in its carving by doing it tableside," says Farley. "That said, if your family is of the sort that cares more about eating than it does about theater, carve the turkey in the kitchen and bring the platter to the main table only after the slicing is complete."

Let the host decide.

"If there is likely to be disagreement on all of this, the person who basted, trimmed, and cooked the turkey has the final say," Farley says. "It is indeed the person who cooked the bird who should be empowered to make the decision about who gets to carve it."


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