A History of Western Eating Utensils, From the Scandalous Fork to the Incredible Spork

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Last weekend I went on my first backpacking trip and was introduced to what might be called the super-spork. Superior to the spoon/fork combination found in school cafeterias, which is usually a poor substitute for either implement (just try eating spaghetti with a spork), this Swiss Army Knife of tableware had a spoon at one end and a fork at the other, and one of the outer tines of the fork was serrated to be used as a knife. The latest evolution in eating implements got me wondering about the history of the utensils we usually take for granted.

I found part of my curiosity satisfied in  an article about the origins of the fork, by Chad Ward, at Leite's Culinaria. It turns out the fork is a relatively new invention. Although the first forks were used in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, the two-tined instruments were used only as cooking tools at the time. It wasn't until the Middle Ages that a smaller version was used for eating by wealthy families of the Middle East and Byzantine Empire.

Spoons, by contrast, have been used as eating utensils since Paleolithic times. According to an online gallery of food technology at the California Academy of Sciences, prehistoric people used shells or chips of wood for spoons. The ancient words for spoon suggest which materials were used in different areas: the Greek and Latin words are derived from cochlea, meaning a spiral shell, while the Anglo-Saxon word spon means a chip of wood. By the Middle Ages, royalty and other wealthy people used spoons made from precious metals. In the 14th century pewter became commonly used, making spoons affordable to the general population.

Knives have also been used, not only for eating but as tools and weapons, since prehistoric times. Because of their potentially violent use (and possibly because Cardinal Richelieu, the king's chief minister, found it disgusting when diners used the point of their knives to clean their teeth), King Louis XIV of France decreed in 1669 that knives brought to the dinner table have a ground-down point. This may have contributed to the difference in how Americans and Europeans use their silverware, which I'll get to in a few paragraphs.

But first back to the fork, which has the most checkered past of all eating utensils. In fact, the seemingly humble instrument was once considered quite scandalous, as Ward writes. In 1004, the Greek niece of the Byzantine emperor used a golden fork at her wedding feast in Venice, where she married the doge's son. At the time most Europeans still ate with their fingers and knives, so the Greek bride's newfangled implement was seen as sinfully decadent by local clergy. "God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers," one of the disdainful Venetians said. "Therefore it is an insult to him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating.” When the bride died of the plague a few years later, Saint Peter Damian opined that it was God's punishment for her hateful vanity.

Fast forward a few centuries, and forks had become commonplace in Italy. Again, international marriage proved the catalyst for the implement's spread—Catherine de Medici brought a collection of silver forks from Italy to France in 1533, when she married the future King Henry II. In 1608, an English traveler to the continent, Thomas Coryate, published an account of his overseas observations, including the use of the fork, a practice he adopted himself. Although he was ridiculed at the time, acceptance of the fork soon followed.

At the beginning of the 17th century, though, forks were still uncommon in the American colonies. Ward writes that the way Americans still eat comes from the fact that the new, blunt-tipped knives imported to the colonies made it difficult to spear food, as had been the practice. Now they had to use their spoons with their left hand to steady the food while cutting with the right hand, then switch the spoon to the right hand to scoop up a bite. The "zig-zag" method, as Emily Post called it, is particular to Americans.

By the 1850s, forks were well established in the United States, where they have been used ever since. Although chopsticks (which I'll cover in a future post) and inventions such as the spork (which was trademarked in the 1969 but probably has been around for at least a century) have made inroads, it doesn't appear that we will change the way we eat any time soon.

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