Friday, May 5, 2017

UNDER THE KNIFE

Here's another one of the essays I wrote for our community magazine. It's a follow up on one I did a good while ago on The Fork. I don't think I'll follow up with an article on The Spoon: after all, the original 'spoons' were our hands. They're still in use today. 

your basic, utilitarian cutting edge

Knives, the cutting edge, have been around since man discovered that the sharp edge of a rock or flint would cut into an animal carcass. What would cut into an animal carcass would also be effective as a weapon for hunting, self-defense, and war, and as a tool for the dining table and the operating table. The cutting edge has been developed and enhanced, from the Stone Age to the age of lasers and waterjet cutting machines we have today.

not the sharpest knife in the drawer

But the knife we celebrate this month is the humble table knife. It is said that on a May day, 380 years ago, in 1637, the French Cardinal Richelieu, churchman and statesman, invented the table knife. “Invented” is probably not the correct word for his ordering the staff to round off the points on all the household’s knives. “Intuited” is probably closer to the mark. He realized that removing the stabbing points would improve table manners, making impossible the picking of teeth. It would stop the eating of meat off the knife points, and, most importantly, deter the occasional stabbing of fellow guests. Forks came into greater use at the table.
In later years, Louis IV banned pointed knives from any table, and banned them from use as a part of a person’s daily attire. Unless he had nefarious notions, a person no longer needed to carry his own knife. His host or his household would supply him with the proper table implements.

fancy or plain - always deadly

Knives for hunting and combat are legion, and as diverse as the cultures that invented them. (And let us mention, in passing, the wonderful Swiss Army knife. Among other blades and tools, there’s a table knife somewhere in there.) Knives for the kitchen are purpose-built, from the butcher knife to the boning knife. Most Michelin-starred chefs have sets of knives that they treat like pampered children. Most household chefs have a few “old reliables” they wouldn’t be without.
In most non-European cultures there are no table knives. Any food item, animal or vegetable, that would require cutting was cut into edible pieces in the kitchen. All that were required at the table were chopsticks, spoons, a rare fork or two, and facile fingers. Before Victorian times, table knives in the west were standard, and their blades were less sharp. In that era’s spirit of invention, where dining became an all-evening event, the upper echelons of society came up with all manner of spoons, forks, and knives. They did it because they could, and because it provided a bit of one-upmanship in a time when it now seems like that was all those folks had for amusement. They had dinner knives, fish knives, game knives, butter knives, and additional knives, as needed, for fruit, cheese or other foods. We’d think they could have used the same knife for meat, fish, or game – but no, each had its own knife.

Laguiole - one of the best steak knives in the world

Any good, sharp knife can be used for steak, but the steak knife, so named, came into common use, and to the table, with the advances in stainless steel after World War II. We’ve kept the butter knife on the table for use at a more formal meal, and on some expansive table settings there are table forks and knives for each of the main courses, to be removed with the empty plate. The rest of the unusual knives, as well as their fellow forks and spoons, are now to be found tarnishing in the silverware box or as collectables on eBay.



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