Sunday, October 30, 2011


Let’s open Fibber McGee’s closet and see what falls out - hey folks, watch out - that’s a fork! says that the kitchen fork goes back to the ancient Greeks.  I’d think it went back to the first ancestor of ours who found a pointed, forked stick came in handy for grabbing his chunk of meat out of the fire. Table forks didn’t come into regular use until the seventh century, and it took several centuries more for the use of them to spread across Europe. The tool of choice - not counting fingers - was always the knife. Anyone who could afford even a crudely made knife used it to cut and then bring food to his mouth. In days of old when knights were bold, it became less and less desirable for folks to come armed to the table. It made for some nasty dinner hours. Thus the fork, handily provided by a genteel host or hostess, came into favor.

Forks started out two-tined, like the forked stick, and then tines were added to make handling food that much easier. In the Victorian era’s spirit of invention where dining became an all-evening event, the upper echelons of society came up with all manner of forks. They did it because they could, and because it provided a bit of one-upmanship in a time when it sometimes seems like that was all those folks had for amusement. I suppose it did make serving and eating easier. One wouldn’t want to eat the meat of an oyster with a dinner fork, or serve a slice of roast beef with a pickle fork, now would one? 

With all those forks - not to mention spoons and knives of various sorts - the Victorians also came up with what they decided was the proper setting for a table: knives and spoons to the right of the plate, forks to the left, glass ware of all kinds, starting above the point of the knife and working to the right, et cetera, et cetera, and so forth.  There were rules for the placement of salad dishes and bread plates, for wine and water glasses, for side dishes and centerpieces. No wonder Upstairs needed all that help Downstairs. It became good manners - and also a good idea - to wait until your hostess took the first bite of any course: you could look to see what fork she used and then do the same without fear of embarrassment. It’s still a good idea today, though now we use table and serving forks of a lot fewer sizes.  Even at a state dinner at the White House they don’t eat as many courses as did some of those elite Victorians, but if you get invited to one and are unsure of the table protocol, be sure to watch the First Lady.

I’m not sure if it is a step in the right direction, but today they’ve come up with the ‘spork’: a utensil combining a spoon and a fork. And then they went a step further to deliver the ‘sporf’. This last one combines a fork, a spoon, and a knife. I think I’d be dribbling my soup through the ‘tines’ of either utensil, or slicing my cheek with the knife part of the sporf.  Until I’m on a rocket ship to Mars where space is at a premium, I think I’ll pass on those.  

Heaven help us, there’s even an Ode to the Fork.  In a spirit of silliness, I googled “ode to the fork” and, I kid you not, up popped a very poor poem with that title.  It reads like a columnar run-on sentence, but someone - the poet is not named - felt passionate enough about his fork to pen an ode to it.  Ah well, I do suppose that such a sturdy, utilitarian object deserves some recognition.  We use it with hardly a thought for its presence: there is no National Fork Appreciation Day, alas.  So give a passing ‘thank you’ to your fork as you have your dinner this evening, and tell this tale to the other folks at the table.  If nothing else, it will make for some interesting conversation.

Addendum: I just read a marvelous, much more extensive essay on the fork. Sara Goldsmith has written The Rise of the Fork, and I do recommend it to you.   June 20, 2012 


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