TCS Daily

Stick a Fork In It!

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - October 6, 2004 12:00 AM

...when any man offered sacrifice, the priest's servant came, while the flesh was in seething, with a fleshhook of three teeth in his hand; and he struck it into the pan, or kettle, or caldron, or pot; all that the fleshhook brought up the priest took for himself...

--I Samuel 2: 13-14

Every time I eat in a Chinese restaurant I look around me at all the diners who choose to use chopsticks and I thank God for one of civilization's giant achievements -- the dinner fork.

Don't get me wrong. I have the greatest respect for the Chinese and their cuisine and their ancient civilization, but, if they are so smart, why didn't they think up the fork? I mean, it's just the greatest.

Next time you're at table, just take your fork in hand. Examine it. What a superb piece of technological evolution -- the balance, the curve of the tines (usually four tines, sometimes three; more about that later), the way it holds the steak in place for the ministrations of the knife, the way it secures that bit of potato.

And spoons! The fork's steady, reliable cousin. Spoons are great. But we'll talk about them some other time.

As the Old Testament passage above indicates, the idea of a fork-like utensil dates back to the earliest times. The ancient Greeks used large kitchen forks to help hold meat in place for carving. But it seems to have taken a long time for the idea of a personal fork for use at table to evolve.

There is evidence that forks were used by Middle Eastern royalty in the 7th Century A.D. and probably earlier. They became identified with Byzantine royalty and their use then spread to wealthy families in Byzantium. But for the fork's introduction in the West we can thank the Italian nobility.

In the 11th Century a Byzantine princess was married into the family of the Doge of Venice. From her wedding feast on, she caused a scandal. She would not eat with her fingers (the thumb and first two fingers, as was the refined custom) and instead would have one of her servants bring her a golden two-tined fork with which she speared selected morsels which had been cut small for her.

The Venetian court was aghast. The Venetian clergy took umbrage. Eating with the fingers was the way God intended man to nourish himself. When the princess died of some wasting disease, the Bishop of Ostia commented on her "excessive delicacy" and implied that her demise had been God's referendum on the fork.

But this Byzantine babe had started something. Perhaps some Venetian nobleman took a good look at the fingernails of one of the other courtiers dipping into the communal meat plate at some banquet and started thinking. At any rate, fork use began spreading slowly, slowly, throughout Italy over the next couple of centuries until it had reached down even to the lower classes.

In 1533, Catherine de Medici came to France to marry the future King Henry II. She brought her forks with her. The French, if you can believe it, thought the use of these strange instruments was rather effete. But they caved more quickly than the Italians. Let's face it, the device's efficacy is so self-evident.

And let's give the French their due. They not only adopted the fork, they perfected it. They were the ones, (in the late 17th century) who added that very thoughtful and important curve at the business end, and more importantly, they came up with four tines instead of the usual two, so less good stuff dropped off. In fact, the four-tine design made the fork a kind of pseudo spoon. Try eating corn or peas with a two-tine fork.

In 1611, an Englishman named Thomas Coryat wrote about his extensive travels in Italy and noted that the Italians

"doe alwaies, at their meales use a little forke when they cut the meate; for while with their knife, which they hold in one hand, they cut the meate out of the dish, they fasten their forke which they hold in their other hande, upon the same dish, so that whatsoever he be that sitteth in the company of any others at meate, should unadvisedly touch the dish of meate with his fingers, from which all at the table doe cut he will give occasion of offence unto the company as having transgressed the lawes of good manners..."

Coryat must have secured at least one fork while in Italy, for he began using it in his other travels in Europe and upon his return to England. The practical hygienic aspects of this technology broke through traditional English reserve about adopting anything from the Continent. As Coryat observed, "the Italian cannot by any means endure to have his dish touched by fingers, seeing all men's fingers are not alike cleane."

Five years later, in Ben Jonson's play The Devil is an Ass, one character asks, "Forks! What be they?" He is answered, "The laudable use of forks, brought into custom here as they are in Italy to the sparing of napkins..."

So the fastidious thing began to catch on. Less gravy on your doublet if you used one of those tined thingamajigs. The better classes in England and Europe had long taken to traveling with cases of dining cutlery (it was still rare for the host to provide utensils). These usually consisted of elaborate wood or leather cases containing a dozen knives and one serving fork.

But soon, sets including forks became the custom. In the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, one can see what is believed to be the earliest fork made in England. The two-tined silver fork bears the crest of John Manners, 8th Earl of Rutland, and was made in 1632-3.

By the middle of the 17th century in England, dining forks were considered evidence of wealth and luxury. Their handles were often beautifully wrought from ivory, gold or semi-precious stone.

Early taverns and inns did not provide silverware, so travelers often carried a sort of holster including a fork, knife and spoon. Even into the 19th century in England there were curious vestiges of the early prejudice against use of a fork. Some thought it unmanly, and many preachers continued to follow the lead of the Bishop of Ostia in seeing the use of forks as ungodly.

The basic business end of the "modern" fork is merely a variation on the designs evolved in France in the late 17th century. Whether you're using it to skewer a chicken breast while cutting it, scoop up a bit of mashed potatoes and gravy, or section out a piece of tender fish to pop in your mouth, stop, think and appreciate one of the great examples of simple, useful technology.


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