If you figger folks in ye olden days had it tougher than we do now, you don’t have to look further than the matter of forks. Oversimplifying like mad, one may say that Europe went from a state of no forks whatsoever, to the slightly more satisfying condition of two-pronged forks, to the multiply pronged jobbies we enjoy today.
Let us go back to the very beginning of fine dining in Europe. Here’s a Medieval feast. White cloth, pretty
dishes, probably wonderful food and wine or mead or whatever. But the guests were expected to manage the food with their knives and spoons, which they brought with them, and their fingers which they also brought with them and washed from time to time with fingerbowls and clean linen.
See how that table has knives set about here and there. There’s no soup or stew in evidence so folks
haven’t taken their spoons out.
Here's another picture. Her dinner is soup and fish and maybe a veggie. She has a spoon, I think, in her bowl and a knife, but she has no fork. It's 1656.
We are pre-fork.
Of course, there had been forks in the kitchen forever, poking roasts and holding meat down to be carved and fetching beets out of boiling water. Now the fork emerged into the culinary daylight and took a place at the table. It served two purposes there. It secured food so your knife could cut it. And the fork could be used to convey food to the mouth, a job that had heretofore been performed by the sharp point of a knife or the bowl of a spoon. Or, you know, fingers.
I have no doubt folks were nimble at this eating food off a razor-sharp knife tip. However, I’m glad I didn't have to teach a three-year-old the knack. Knives doubtless made food-fights in the nursery an altogether more deadly affair.
The table fork was originally looked upon with some skepticism when it arrived in Europe. Disfavor, even. In 972 forks entered Europe with the Byzantine bride (Wouldn’t that be a great title for a book? The Byzantine Bride?) of the Doge of Venice.
It struck Cardinal Peter Damian as nearly blasphemous, this over-dainty eating. As he put it, “… nor did she deign 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.”
One commenter said, “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating.” Nowadays he’d be a troll.
Despite such controversy forks, like so many other refinements, spread. They made their way from Byzantium to Italy and from Italy to France. They were carried that last step by Catherine de Medici when she married Henry II in 1533. She brought her own forks. A girl needs a few civilized necessities after all.
Forks of the fifteen hundreds were still, you understand, twiddly, mannered, two-pronged toys to pluck up sweetmeats and savory olives rather than robust eating tools for the masses.They were, and would be for at least another century, viewed as somewhat sissyfied.
In 1570 or so Montaigne could remark that he rarely used a fork. But move forward a century and in 1700 the fork was so common among fashionable folk that in Perrault’s fairy tale, La Belle au Bois Dormant, each of the fairies invited to Sleeping Beauty’s christening was presented with a splendid ‘fork carrying case’ for lugging the tableware about. As one did.
The fork hopped across the Channel round about that time. In 1611 Tom Coriat, English traveller, could remark that he was teased for always using a fork. By the 1700s, forks were an English commonplace.
The 1700s, in fact, were a period of considerable forment and experimentation in tableware. Two great changes had come about. First, table knives were no longer the instrument of potential mayhem that had delighted small fry. In 1669 King Louis XIV — who doubtless had his reasons — ordered all table knives must have blunt tips. This was a game changer. Since they could no longer double as a weapon, the new rounded table knives became broad and flat. They became, in short, useful for eating from.
I eat my peas with honey.
I’ve done it all my life.
It makes them taste quite funny
But it keeps them on my knife.
And in the 1700s the fork established itself as a three or four-tined instrument for scooping up food. It was no longer just a two-pronged poker and jabber.
This was an era of new tricks for both knife and fork. (The spoon just sorta kept on keeping on, though it was relieved of certain food shifting duties when the fork got its new tines. This may be why it ran off with the dish.)
This slow revolution happened in the Georgian and Regency period. People still ate off their knife or ate from the plate with a spoon through the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century. Eating off a knife started the period as robust and natural and perfectly polite. It only gradually became countrified and crude as Victorian times advanced upon us. Rich English silversmith Joseph Brasbridge could write in 1824, “I know how to sell these articles [forks], but not how to use them.”
In the race between knife, fork, and spoon, the fork was the winner.
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.
Florence Howe Hall, Social Customs, 1887
The new fork had all this exciting, expanded capacity. You could use it in the same old way to spear some tidbit or to hold down food while you cut it. But now you could scoop food into the front of it as if it were a spoon. You could pile food on the back of it as if it were a — I don’t know — a thing you pile food on.
Mad possibilities. Woohoo.
Sadly, in this time of great change, Europeans and Americans went their separate ways.
In the 1700s the Great Transatlantic Fork Divide was born.
There was the American style.
One theory is that Americans adopted a then-current French mannerism of handling tableware. The fork was held in the left hand to anchor the food. The knife, in the right hand, to cut it. (Bear with me here. I know it’s complicated.) Then the knife was put down and the fork transferred from left hand to right hand to do the actual eating.
Perhaps this French fashion was seen as particularly civilized and complex. Americans weren't backwoods barbarians after all.
Another theory is that a fork switch from left hand to right hand was just plain traditional. You have to do it if you’re using a spoon. First the left hand anchors food with the spoon to cut it. Then the spoon goes to the right hand to scoop and eat.
Because eating left handed with a spoon is uncanny and challenging and probably leads to nervous tics.
So maybe Americans clung to an established eating custom when them newfangled four-tined forks come along dag nab it.
Europe, faced with a new tableware situation, adopted a new and radical eating procedure. They kept knife and fork tranquilly in hand and ate left handed from the fork.
Which was held tines down.
You didn't scoop up food with the fork.You piled food on the back of the fork.
That must have been a snap for folks used to balancing peas on a knife.
Having established battling utensil philosophies, folks on both sides of the Atlantic have been secretly sniggering at each other about it ever since.
Which side are you on? American fork-switching or the streamlined European style?
Which is more logical?