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History of the Fork - Fine Dining Through The Ages
The forks we take for granted nowadays were not always a part of commonly used table ware. Generally, forks were used to carve slices of meat, chunks of cheese, or a wedge of bread, but forks as we know them now were virtually unknown as part of the normal table setting until well into the 17th Century.
Kitchen forks trace their origins back to the time of the Greeks, where they were used to hold the joint of meat during carving. These had two fairly large tines that both kept the meat from twisting away from the knife, and also allowed the slices to be served more easily than from the point of the carving knife.
By the 7th Century, the royal courts of the Middle East began to adopt forks at the table to eat with. From the 10th through the 13th Centuries, forks became fairly common among the wealthy in Byzantium, and in the 11th Century, a new Byzantine wife of a Doge of Venice brought forks with her to her new husband’s home.
The Italians, however, were slow to adopt them. It was not until the 16th Century that forks came into common usage in upper-class homes. They were still considered to effete for common folk to use.
In 1533, forks were brought from Italy to France when Catherine de Medici married the future King Henry II. The French, too, were slow to accept them, saying they were merely an Italian affectation. Eventually, however, they caught on.
An Englishman named Thomas Coryate is credited with bringing the first forks to England in 1608, after seeing them during his travels to Italy.
The English ridiculed forks. They were far too effeminate and unnecessary - why use forks when hands were available? Slowly, however, forks were adopted by the wealthy. They were prized possessions made of expensive materials such as silver, gold and ivory, often heavily carved and bejeweled to impress guests.
Small, slender-handled forks with two tines were the first to come into general usage, generally for sweet, sticky foods or things like mulberries, which were likely to stain the fingers.
By the mid 1600s, eating with forks became fashionable among the wealthy British, and forks were begun to be created solely for dining. These were still considered luxuries, though, and so became marks of social status and sophistication among the nobility.
Early table forks were modeled after the original kitchen carving forks, with two fairly long and widely spaced tines .As small pieces of food fell through the tines or slipped off easily, a third, and later, a fourth tine was added. The additional tines made dropping food less likely, and the curved tines served as a scoop so people didn’t have to switch to a spoon while eating.
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By the early 19th Century, four-tined forks had also developed in Germany and England and slowly began to spread to America. Eventually, forks became common usage for all diners, and status was more often marked by the quality and maker of the cutlery.
As cutlery came into ever wider usage, the types and uses of forks, knives, and even spoons became quite codified. It could take a bit of practice to navigate the place-settings of a well-appointed table without slipping up and using the wrong implement for any given course.
The Victorians raised cutlery use to almost an art-form, requiring a different type, size, and style of implement for almost every dish that graced the tables of the genteel diner. To make a blunder in one’s choice of cutlery was considered quite a gaffe.
The fate of the world hinged, in fact, on cutlery usage – at least according to one movie set in 1940s Italy. The plot revolved around making certain S.S. officers believe certain information fed to them by a (bogus) general. The private who volunteered to undertake this dangerous mission was a dead ringer for the real general, but lacking in certain social graces. The gracious lady whose villa was to be the meeting place was pressed into service to teach the man some table manners, so that he could charm the officers without messing up the forks.
I particularly remember the scene where the general's stand-in relents and decides he really must apply himself to learn his manners. We see the lady watching as her butler serves him asparagus, showing him how to properly serve and eat his portion. It was quite a performance with some very strange looking cutlery, made even more memorable by the cast members – Sophia Loren and Paul Newman. I’d watch them eat asparagus any day!
© 2009 Text by Elle Fredine, All rights reserved