Harrison Happenings: The history of forks, knives and spoons

To use one's fingers is not only the oldest practice, but also the most lasting one

It seems to me that documentaries on the history of forks and knives are sparse and hard to find. The long-time belief that it is sinful to eat with forks because they were considered to be replicas of Satan’s tool, as well as a dislike towards knives which were thought to resemble swords, might have something to do with it.

In Myers Encyclopedia it is mentioned that Pope Damiani, who lived in the 10th century, was charmed by a princess who, “delicately ate with her fingers”.

The Encyclopedia D’Alsace depicts a banquet table in the 11th century where still no forks and knives for individual use can be seen. In France they were mentioned first in an inventory Karl Vonder Weide wrote in the year 1379.

Later, in the 16th century, satires were popular in France which made fun of the use of forks at the French court of that time.

There are also reports of a bitter controversy at the monastery St. Maur, also in France, between older and younger monks, since the older ones still thought the use of forks to be sinful.

In the Encyclopedia Italia,  however, “forchettas” are mentioned, but still only for the use of preparing individual portions, not to eat with them. Existing drawings of those Roman forks show them with two, three or even four prongs.

Later, when forks were evolving from mere kitchen tools to dining utensils, they became smaller and smaller and started to look like today’s forks. From then on, they were not only used to eat meat, but also salads and fruit and other foods. Of course, this was not yet general practice, in fact, it took much longer before it became popular among common folks.

But what about the humble spoon? Apparently it was always there in one form or another and kind of taken for granted. But that brings us to an even more basic tool to eat with: our fingers!

Personally, I lean towards the remark made by Pope Damiani so long ago, who thought it looked very “delicate”. To use one’s fingers is not only the oldest practice, but also the most lasting one and not only by “common folks”.

In some very respected European restaurants, for instance, chicken legs, asperagus, artichokes and the likes are often still being served with little paper sleeves to hold them by and small bowls of lemon water are provided to clean your fingers with afterwards.

And what about wiping your plate with a piece of bread at the end of a meal? For many of us this was, and still is, the best part of it! Again, I think that it is perfectly acceptable as long as it is done “delicately”. And I have not yet mentioned all the take-out foods from natchos to pizza to “finger-lickin’ good” chicken, so popular all over the world!

Of course, there are entire countries whose people, by tradition, continue to eat with their fingers and are masters of it. If you ever had a chance to watch someone take a bit of rice from a bowl, turn it into a small ball, dip it into a sauce and pop it into the mouth, you know what I mean. According to the latest information, only restaurants in India who cater to customers from abroad, offer the cutlery of the western world.

Almost everybody else enjoys to eat in the traditional way.

In Canada, we all have many chances to see the ways of other cultures, or even to learn them. It certainly is one of the benefits of multiculturalism!

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Read Ruth Altendorf’s previous column: A little lesson in chopsticks