finger/fork buffets

Since I'm on (AmE) vacation/(BrE) holiday at the moment, I'm taking the opportunity to go through my blog inbox in order to try to reduce the backlog of requests.  Here's a year-and-a-half old one from Chas:
I was reading an Englishman's blog today and encountered the phrase "a champagne reception and fork buffet supper."

Now I have visited the UK, attended part of high school in Jamaica, have various British friends, and even do some freelance editing for a London-based publisher, for whom I beat the prose of British academics into conformity with the Chicago Manual of Style for the North American market.

But I never was invited to a fork buffet supper. The phrase gives me visions of a long table covered with dozens of glistening forks -- and nothing else.
Part of the reason for choosing this one to respond to now is that I can pretty much get away with just writing what I wrote to Chas.  So, to quote myself:
I've never seen fork buffet in the wild, but there are 24,000 Google hits for it.  It's the companion to the term I have heard a lot, finger buffet--i.e. a buffet of finger foods (51,800 hits). 
The OED can be called on to add:
fork supper (also -buffet, -dinner, -lunch(eon, etc.), a meal served at a buffet, etc., consisting of food suitable for eating with fork alone, making the provision of set places at table unnecessary.
The question that I haven't answered is 'what would this be called in AmE?'  Notice that Chas didn't offer an easy equivalent--I don't know that there is one.  I've come across the term standing buffet, but this can as easily (if not more easily) be finger foods, rather than fork-foods.  For a finger buffet, I'd imagine that an AmE invitation would say  'hors d'oeuvres will be served' or  'finger foods will be served', or some such thing.  I ask people in the US with more recent experience of these things to help out in the comments.

(Though, it must be said, I have very recent experience, since I went to a buffet lunch (with forks) after a funeral today. Unhelpfully for us, it was just called lunch.)


  1. I'm not sure that there is any distinction in AmE between those two kinds of meals -- or to be more precise, I'm not sure that there are, as a matter of cultural norms, any such meals in America at which plasticware or silverware (depending on fanciness) are not provided, regardless of what the foodstuffs on offer may be.

  2. Fork buffet seems redundant to me. I'd assume a buffet involved forks. If it's finger food, I'd say "sandwiches" if it were sandwiches or "nibbles/hors d'oeuvres/snacks" if it weren't.

  3. I've been organising public events recently and British hotels let their words' meanings range widely. Buffet can mean that the food is just abandoned on a table from which you have to rescue whatever you want to eat and in any old order. Cold puddings/desserts are placed within inches of sizzling bains marie containing the main course which was apparently cooked at breakfast-time. Knives and forks are always placed on some side-table miles from the rest of the stuff and plates are stacked away from the food you'd want to put on them. Staff will lurk suspiciously as you enter the room but then disappear for the rest of the meal. At another hotel, we were promised a buffet and found that we were queueing, cafeteria-style, to be served by chef-hatted employees skilled in ruthless portion-control. One place promised a fork-buffet which turned out to be a sit-down meal with knives and spoons too. For some, buffet is cold food, hot buffet oymoronic. I note that a buffet is also a piece of furniture as well a type of railway-carriage/railroad-car. The word's origins are obscure, but it seems to come from the way that people, eager to get some of the dwindling reserves of food, tend to bump into each other. In otherwise orderly Scandinavian countries, such preprandial bumping (or buffetting) became such a problem that the government had to set up state-owned buffet-regulators, or smorgasboards.

  4. Slightly OT and non-linguistic, but I am continually amazed by my (American) husband's ability to eat almost any food with a fork alone, using the side of it to cut with. Of course, he's not hampered by my British compulsion to turn my fork upside down to eat, but even so, he's a loss to the diplomatic circuit. I've never heard of a 'fork buffet' and if I have heard of a 'finger buffet' I would have assumed it was an American term (and with even more disconcerting a mental picture than the fork one). I think it's probably catering technical speak that's escaped into the wild.

  5. I was treated to a "cold buffet" the other night - sarnies, chopped-up pork pies, mini Scotch eggs, salad, etc. I haven't particularly come across the term "fork buffet", but to me, that implies a hot meal that requires cutlery, rather than a cold meal which may or may not.

    @Paul Danon: I am never surprised when buffets are served by staff - the term, surely, refers to food laid out on a long table from which diners may choose, as opposed to food brought to one's table either on a plate or in dishes.

  6. I've never heard of a fork buffet; (I'm English). Normally it's just called a buffet.

  7. (BrE) I have been invited to 'fork suppers' - stand-up meals served buffet-style, and also to buffet dinners where one gets a seat and a set of cutlery but has to queue up to be served by the portion-controllers described earlier. My daughter's wedding dinner was served buffet style but I insisted that there should be sufficent for second helpings to stoke up for the dancing.
    'Finger buffet' has always seemed a bit naff to me! It sounds as if the food has been rummaged through before you get to the buffet table...

  8. @ Mrs Redboots: So pleased you enjoyed your cold buffet the other evening. Here's a probe. If the staff lay-out the food and then retreat outside for a smoke by the dumpsters leaving you to help yourself, it's a buffet. If the same staff dole-out the food to you from under those funny hot orange lights, it's a cafeteria. If, between cigarettes, they actually bring you the food at your table, it's a restaurant. If you bring your own food, it's a picnic.

  9. If you Google "finger fork buffet" (in Google UK, at least) you'll find any number of caterers who offer them, and can see how the experts define the difference between the two.

    A "finger buffet" typically includes things like sandwiches, samosas, chicken goujons, vol-au-vents, and basic party nibbles like crisps and nuts. Things for people to graze on while they chat and mingle.

    A "fork buffet" is a bit more formal and more obviously a meal. Things like sliced meats, salads, pasta, and quiche seem to be the common options. You'd expect the guests to take their plates back to a table.

    Some caterers seem to count full-on cooked meals (cottage pie, lasagna, chicken breasts) under "fork buffets", others don't.

  10. @Paul: I think most Americans would call the mean where you bring your own food (or a dish for the group) a potluck. A picnic is a meal carried to an outdoor location (back yard, park, etc) to be eaten. If invited to a picnic, I would not know whether to bring food unless you told me it was potluck (noun or adj.).

  11. Traditionally (well, in my experience anyway), you're expected to bring food and booze to a British picnic even if you're not "hosting".

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  13. The BrE equivalent to "potluck" is "bring-and-share" meals. Or, according to one Methodist friend, a "Faith tea!" I have heard AmE refer to this sort of meal as "stone soup", but not quite sure why.

  14. Stone or Nail Soup:

  15. We have actually done potluck before--so could I ask for potlucky comments to go thataway?

  16. AmE: In my older (1950s) housekeeping books and cookbooks, all US-published, the hostess is instructed to choose food for a buffet that can be eaten with only a fork. Hot foods must be kept hot (steam or Sterno under the dish, or an electric hot surface) and cold foods cold (nestled in a bowl of ice ideally).

  17. I have attended a lot of events in the US and have found that when anything more than canapes are served, they call it "heavy hors d'oeuvres." At such "heavy" events, there are several stations serving foods that require a small plate and fork.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)