Sunday, January 18

The Lowly Fork, Latecomer to the Western Table

Your ears may still be ringing with the parental interdiction "don't eat with you hands!" bellowed across the formica clad breakfast nook. You, sporting your Oshkosh jeans or Strawberry Shortcake socks, thought your parents were simply revealing the plain truth, but little did you know that throughout most of western history, most people used their hands and hardly anyone used a fork. Although experts differ on dates, up until the 18th or 19th century, digging in freestyle was the fact and fashion, and people who didn't use their digits were suspect.

As far back as the reign of the Romans, the most common table implements used throughout Europe were knives, spoons, and bits of bread used to push things around and soak up soup or gravy. Forks had been used in the kitchen as a cooking implement for centuries, but only the eccentric and wealthy dabbled with tines on a handle at the dining table.

According to Reay Tannahill's Food in History, special forks are known to have been used in Greece and Byzantium as early as the 10th century, but only for the elite. The first widespread dining-table adoption occurred in Italy, starting in the 13th century by aristocrats and as late as the 16th century by wealthy merchants.

In the 16th century, Italian manners were considered to be the most refined in Europe, and in 1533 Catherine de Medici brought forks (along with her entire kitchen and staff) with her to France when she was was married. But even with that kind of an introduction, ubiquitous fork use across all economic lines didn't catch on in northern Europe until the 18th and 19th century.

As late as 1897, seamen in the British Navy were forbidden forks and knives because they were considered an emasculate affectation that was bad for morale. And although we were slightly ahead of the English curve, the fork only became de riguer at every American dining table a few decades earlier after being embraced by squeamish 19th century doyennes of etiquette.

Failure to use a fork is a deficit in manners, no doubt, but the next time you're tempted to snatch a shrimp or palm some pan-dowdy don't beat yourself up for being an animal. After all, it's only been decades since the fork showed up at our gastronomic rodeo.

6 comments:

  1. How did you know about my Strawberry Shortcake socks?

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  2. I saw you wearing them last week...

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  3. You have some seriously good stuff in this blog man... just ran across it today... and funny to boot!

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