Fork, knife and spoon. The happy family of every mealtime, each serving its own specific function, working together in perfect harmony. But it hasn’t always been this way. And of the trio, the innocuous-looking fork has a remarkable and vivid history:
Knives and spoons have been around for millennia. They are pretty straightforwardly derived from two of the simplest possible tools – the pointy tool and the scoopy tool. These two tools (in addition to nature’s grabby tool: the hand) were satisfactory for any eating situation that ancient people could imagine. It wasn’t until the 7th Century that anyone thought that another dining implement might be necessary.
The fork: a curse from God?
The first evidence of a fork-shaped cutlery innovation comes from the Byzantines. Wealthy families started using straight two-pronged forks for spearing meat, similar to the carving forks of today. They proved to be a hit and the popularity of these rudimentary forks continued to grow throughout the upper classes of the Middle East, but their implementation in Western Europe was less successful.
In 11th Century, Maria Argyropoulina, niece of the Byzantine Emperor, came to Italy to marry into the Venetian nobility. As a wedding present, she brought with her a case of golden forks.
Unfortunately for Maria, the people of Venice were less than impressed with her gift, particularly when she whipped one out at the wedding feast instead of eating with her fingers. Appalled by what they considered a display of sacrilegious vanity, she was widely condemned by the Venetian clergy.
And when Maria had the misfortune of dying from plague two years later, Saint Peter Damian declared that this was God’s punishment for her vain and lavish eating habits.
Despite this ill-fated introduction, forks began to catch on amongst the social elite of Italy and then France over the next few hundred years. By the mid 1600s, hefty meat forks and dainty dessert forks for candied fruit were commonly used by the wealthy of Europe.
The fork: it’s not just for girls
A plaything of the rich, at this time the fork was still regarded with confusion and distrust by the population at large. The church remained suspicious of this ungodly and vain item, and its association with the Bourgeois upper classes was so strong that even up to the late 1800s, sailors refused to use the effeminate implement for fear it would make them appear less manly.
However, more and more people began to adopt the latest dining fashion and by the mid 1800s the fork was a permanent addition to dining tables throughout Western society.
As their use became more widespread, so fork design began to change. The straight prongs became curved (for added scooping capabilities) and somewhere along the line a bright spark added a third or even fourth prong to prevent food from slipping through the gaps. The modern table fork was born.
So the next time you see someone gobble down their dinner with their hands don’t think of them as a slob- perhaps they are simply doing their best to avoid being struck down by plague.
Answered by Nick Waszkoywcz
Image credit: Unbleached Brun on Flickr