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Eating out of hand.

The next time you stuff yourself with a huge meal and leave the dining room table in guilt and your diet in ruins, consider this fact: each year the ordinary person eats about 1,417 pounds of food. That's about 4 pounds of food every day. And during one year of consuming a lot of extra calories and cholesterol, the ordinary person also ingests about 9 pounds of chemical additives.

Blame it all on the invention of the fork. To paraphrase the French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal: if the fork had not been invented, and if Cleopatra's nose had been shorter, the whole face of the world--and our figures--would have changed. Well, we can't actually blame the fork itself, but perhaps if we understood the fork a little better we might have a clearer understanding of ourselves at the dining table.

Our word "fork" comes from the Latin furca and the Old English forca. Small forks used for eating first appeared in Tuscany in the 11th century, and they were still a rarity in Italy by the 14th century. In 1611 an English traveler, Thomas Coryate, returned from a visit to Italy with several forks (put inadvertently, of course, into his travel bag when he left a wayside inn) and tried to create some interest in them. But most people called him affected for using so odd a device to put food into his mouth. Throughout the England of that era most folks scorned the new-fangled gadgets as a foreign novelty, really quite gauche, and derided those who used them. Many British clergymen were vehemently opposed to forks; they believed that only human fingers were worthy of touching God's food. Often, when someone died after having used a fork, these clergymen preached that it was God's way of showing His displeasure over the use of such a shocking novelty, even though the victim might have died of the plague. The fork was first introduced in America in the 1630s, thanks to John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony.

Before the fork was invented people ate with their fingers, which was messy, but efficient. And even then--long before Emily Post or Miss Manners--there was a correct way to use one's fingers at mealtime. During the mid-1500s someone (there's always an expert know-it-all at the party) decided that refined people ate with only three fingers; commoners used all five. Soon the cognoscenti ate with only the first three fingers. This clearly distinguished the lower class from the upper class, but there's speculation that a separate class, the klutz class, developed: those who used the thumb, the ring finger, and the pinkie and kept the first and middle fingers extended. Well, no one gave specific instructions as to which three fingers to use. It took a while, but people finally got the proper fingers, and class distinction, sorted out at mealtime.

The Dutch humanist Erasmus, whose heyday was in the early 16th century, was among the first concerned about table manners. He insisted that diners never lick their fingers or wipe them on their coats. "Tsk-tsk-tsk," he said, or some similar admonishment. It was better, according to Erasmus, to wipe one's fingers on the tablecloth, a custom that certain people observe even today. (These are the people who also believe that parking lots are where you're supposed to empty the car's ashtray, and they also sit behind you in the movies and talk.)

Napkins, as we know them today, have not always been widely used. Early Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians used "serviettes," napkins the size of bath towels. In the 1700s it was acceptable at the table to use the serviette to also wipe off all utensils, as well as greasy fingers and lips. But apparently someone got sick and tired of washing all those huge serviettes, because the etiquette of the day soon encouraged people to first wipe their fingers on a hunk of bread to keep serviettes cleaner. And finally someone began to encourage the use of forks rather than fingers. The more people used forks, the less they needed large napkins, so napkins became smaller, to the relief of the drudges who had to wash all those serviettes. Perhaps they then had more free time to watch television--who knows?

Forks were still considered odd throughout Europe as late as the 18th century, when class distinction finally made them more acceptable. The French nobility began to use forks as a statement of refinement, and the use of fingers--even the proper three--began to be frowned upon.

Spoons and knives, of course, are much older than forks, and most people thought of those utensils as the most efficient, the only ones you would need to scoop up or spear food. The modern spoon as we know it dates back to the 18th century; table knives were introduced around 1600. Before that, people brought their own daggers to the table to serve as knives. This custom was most practical. When someone with an impressive dagger asked, "Would you be so kind as to pass me the cucumber sandwiches, please?" you can be assured that he had his fellow diners' full attention.

In France, in the 1630s, a refined man named Armand Jean du Plessis (better known as Duc de Richelieu, chief minister to Louis XIII) got tired of watching people stabbing their knives and daggers into chunks of food and then at the end of the meal picking their teech with the sharp ends of their daggers, which was customary. He ordered the kitchen staff to file off the sharp points of all house knives, and soon round-tipped knives became the latest thing.

When the fork had finally established itself, there was another problem: Europeans were annoyed with the new practice of cutting food into tiny bite-size pieces. To these impatient diners, cutting food into small bites slowed things down. The Chinese had always observed a different tradition, believing that it was barbaric to serve food that resembled the original animal and uncouth to carve up a carcass at the table. The Chinese took care of that unseemly chore out of sight in the kitchen and served food already diced and sliced, ready to eat. And because there was no need for knives and forks at a Chinese dinner, long thin sticks were used. The Chinese word for such implements meant "quick ones," or "quick sticks," and the English translation soon became "chopsticks."

Perhaps all this history and understanding of utensils will give some of us food for thought, which might make us cut back on the amount of excess food we put away at mealtime. And if we don't do this ourselves, some wild-eyed radical might come up with a plan to ban the fork. We can't let that happen. Forks don't make people overeat--people make people overeat.
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Title Annotation:forks
Author:Bohannon, John
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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