The Furca (Latin for “Pitchfork”), the original name of the common table fork, is, as evidence shows, at least 4,500 years old.
And forks have been markers of civilization and “class” since then, as we learn in Giovanni Rebora’s 2013 book “Culture of the Fork: A Brief History of Everyday Foods and Haute Cuisine in Europe.”
F.F. sends me her collection of Civil War-era knives and forks, originally sold to the troops by a sutler or victualer (both gents were civilian merchants who followed the troops in their covered “Shop” wagons). In the times around 1860, soldiers were proud of their forks and knives because many bear the soldier’s marking and some are collected with custom handles. Soldiers were usually sold the less expensive slightly defective pieces. For example, the typical three tined fork may have one tine longer than the others.
You may wonder where F.F.’s spoons are, and they are not here because spoons were separate objects and not necessarily considered essential to eating. They were made of tinned metal, die cut in two pieces, bowl and handle, and riveted together. Cheaper than the knife and folk sets, if a soldier did not have the money, and still wanted to eat, he might buy a tinned spoon and use it for all utensils. This was possible because the bowl of the spoon had a sharper point.
Sadly, civilization was slow in learning to eat without the “hand to mouth” technique. It was not until the 4th century that forks “caught on” throughout the Byzantine Empire. Previously, a long wooden spike was used just perfectly, that is, until the neighboring Italians invented pasta. Then, in the 11th century, two- or three-tined fork became the style.
Not without controversy did the use of the fork spread in Southern Europe through the 11th century to the 16th century, but the fork met a tragic fate in the 16th century in Northern Europe and England because of its association with the “decadent South.” Thus, the use of a fork was considered foppish and unmanly.
If you were unmanly enough to use a fork, that fork typically had three tines, until the U.S. entered the fork war after the Revolutionary Period and developed the four-pronged fork in the early 19th century.
So, the fork, so ubiquitous today, was not so ubiquitous in the past. No matter how food was conveyed to the mouth, it has been a historical tradition to use the right hand, as that hand was considered cleaner. (Bathroom activities were undertaken with the left hand).
I remember the little paper container on the counter at the Ice Cream Shop in Deerfield, Ill., that held a balsa wood spork, a cross between a spoon and a fork, with which to sample ice cream. In England, such miniature sporks were seen in fish and chip shops and were called chip forks. The German version of the sampling fork used for potatoes is a Pommesgabel.
Whist I am speaking about the cultural differences indicated by the use of forks, I mention here that I was married to a Brit, and at his mother’s house, I was seen as unmannerly when I cut my food with my fork in the left hand and knife in the right. Then I flipped the tines over the same time as moving the fork to my right hand to eat.
“No,” said Adrian, “hold your fork with downward tines in the left hand and insert into the mouth with downward tines in your left hand.”
I tried, but then when I cut meat with fork and knife, fork tines down, and flipped it changing hands to eat, HORRORS!
“Furthermore,” said Adrian then, “do not impale your veg or the tatties with the fork, and worse than that, do not scoop with the fork tines upwards, and worse still, do not shovel with the fork. Try not to show the handles of the knife and fork; keep the handles in your palm. Do not treat a knife handle like a fountain pen.”
Quoth I, “What do I do with the peas? How do I balance them on the flip side of the fork on the way to the mouth?”
The American method was considered poor etiquette, obviously, when I lived in the U.K. However, it is the older way of eating with a fork, because as mentioned above, for generations food was delivered to the mouth in the right hand.
Still, my relatives in Germany considered it unacceptable to change the fork from hand to hand. The French, always different from anyone else, set the table with place settings featuring the folks with tines down. This was to show the family crest which, unlike any other country, was emblazoned on the back of the utensils or, what I would consider the back of the utensil!
This holiday season, if you set a formal table, you will no doubt show cultural insensitivity to your uncle, who will not discriminate between the dinner fork, the salad fork and the dessert fork. Your uncle will end up using one fork and one only to eat all your hard-prepared courses. No one had taught him manners, which tell us that in formal table settings, the cutlery is arranged to be utilized from the outside in, as you work through the courses and cutlery towards the dinner plate.
When it comes to the “class” angle shown by the use of the fork, my son, the child of a British parent but living in in California, may endeavor to teach his 2-year-old how the British eat, because in some circles, to eat “British” is a sign of one’s urbanity. Good luck teaching my grandson to mash peas on the back of a fork. A better solution may, however, be offered: Smash the peas into a fork-back laden with mashed potatoes, and the family may avoid finding peas all over the dining room for years.
Finally, legal battles have been fought based on the uses of forks.
In 2006, the Montreal-Philippines Cutlery Controversy made international headlines when a 7-year-old Filipino immigrant to Canada used the South Asian style of fork manipulation, using a fork to fill up the spoon. He was reprimanded by the school lunch matron, and the battle waged in the Courts for four years until the boy’s family was awarded $17,000 in moral and punitive damages because of the school’s cultural insensitivity.
The Value of F.F.’s Civil War collection is $300.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.