The fork emerged as an eating utensil roughly 1,000 years after the knife and spoon.
In a way, dining with the fork prophetically symbolized the ever growing distance we collectively began traveling from personally cultivating food, culminating in the transition from an agricultural society to the Industrial Revolution, to massive supermarkets, in a highly specialized and technical culture.
The Romans ate primarily with their fingers.
“Diners would lie on their sides – leaning on their left elbows – facing the table. Their servants or slaves would serve the food from the empty fourth side of the table. Diners would then eat the food with their fingers or, if necessary, with a small knife.”
Forks were in use in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, but they weren’t used for eating. They were long cooking tools used for carving or hoisting meats from large pots or the fire.
In “The Uncommon Origins of the Common Fork,” food author Chad Ward — “An Edge in the Kitchen”– explains that forks for dining only started to appear in the noble courts of the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire in about the 7th century and became common among wealthy families of the regions by the 10th century.
In 1004 Maria Argyropoulina, Greek niece of Byzantine Emperor Basil II, arrived in Venice for her marriage with a case of golden forks to use at the wedding feast. She was condemned by the local clergy for her decadence.
St. Peter Damian, a hermit and ascetic, criticized her by saying, “[S]uch was the luxury of her habits … [that] she deigned not to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth.”
Ward claims that by the late Middle Ages the spread of forks can be tracked by their appearance in city inventories and as items of value bequeathed in wills.
“These suckett forks were used primarily for eating candied fruits in syrup or foods likely to stain the fingers. According to some sources, eating sweets with a fork was a practice common among courtesans, causing the Church to ban forks as immoral.”
One diner in Maine complained that, “Eating peas with a fork is as bad as trying to eat soup with a knitting needle.”
In his 1824 memoir, wealthy English silversmith Joseph Brasbridge confessed to his dinner host, “I know how to sell these articles, but not how to use them.”
And Ward notes that as late as 1842 Charles Dickens commented that fellow passengers on a Pennsylvania river boat, “thrust their broad bladed knives and two-pronged forks further down their throats than I ever saw the same weapons go before, except in the hands of a skilled juggler.”
By the time of the first World’s Fair in 1851, Ward says the fork reigned supreme and required a new set of rules to help the confused or socially self conscious.
The fork arrived and modern dining began. As one 1887 book of manners put it:
“The fork has now become the favorite and fashionable utensil for conveying food to the mouth. First it crowded out the knife, and now in its pride it has invaded the domain of the once powerful spoon. The spoon is now pretty well subdued also, and the fork, insolent and triumphant, has become a sumptuary tyrant. The true devotee of fashion does not dare to use a spoon except to stir his tea or to eat his soup with, and meekly eats his ice-cream with a fork and pretends to like it.”
September 21st, 2012