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HomeFood Articles'D' to 'O' Food History >  Forks, A Short History

 

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HISTORY OF THE FORK

 

The Art of the Table
by Suzanne Von Drachenfels

"It is coarse and ungraceful to throw food into the mouth as you would toss hay into a barn with a pitchfork." Anonymous

The word fork comes from the Latin 'furca' for "pitch fork." The two-prong twig was perhaps the first fork. In Egyptian antiquity, large forks made of bronze were used at religious ceremonies to lift sacrificial offerings. One of the earliest dinner forks is attributed to Constantinople in 400 A.D.; it can be seen in the Dumbarton Oaks collection in Washington, D.C. By the seventh century, small forks were used at Middle Eastern courts; one such fork, a small, gold, two-pronged tool, came to Italy in the eleventh century in the dowry of a Byzantine princess who married Domenico Selvo, a Venetian doge. After witnessing the princess use the fork, the church severely censured her, stating that the utensil was an affront to God's intentions for fingers. Thereafter the fork disappeared from the table for nearly 300 years.

 

In England the fork was slow to gain acceptance because it was considered a feminine utensil. The exception was the 'sucket' fork, a utensil used to eat food that might otherwise stain the fingers, such as "a silvir forke for grene gynger" noted in an inventory taken in 1523 of Lady Hungerfords effects. The sucket fork was wrought with two prongs at one end of the stem and a bowl at the other. The fork end was used to spear food preserved in thick, sticky syrup, such as plums and grapes, and the spoon end to convey the syrup to the mouth.

When Catherine de Medici married Henry I in 1533, her dowry included several dozen dinner forks wrought by Benvenuto Cellini, the great Italian silversmith. The fork began to gain acceptance in Italy by the late sixteenth century, a period when upper-class Italians expressed renewed interest in cleanliness. However, the French court considered the fork an awkward, even dangerous, utensil, and the nobility did not accept it until the seventeenth century when protocol deemed it uncivilized to eat meat with both hands. The way to use the fork remained a mystery, and many sophisticates, notably King Louis XIV, continued to eat with fingers or a knife.

In 1608, Thomas Coryate, son of the Rector of Odcombe, took the "grand tour" of Europe, and on his return published a narrative that included the Italian custom of eating with a fork. Thereafter, Coryate's friends jokingly called the young traveler Furciferus, "Pitchfork."

"I observed a custome in all those Italian Cities and Townes through which I passed that is not used in any other country that I saw in my travels, neither doe I think that any other nation of Christendome doth use it, but only Italy. The Italian, and also most strangers that are cormorant in Italy, does alwaies at their meales, use a little fork when they cut the meate . . . their forkes being for the most part made of iron or steel, and some of silver, but these are used only by gentlemen. The reason of this their curiosity is because the Italian cannot endure by any means to have his dish touched by fingers, seeing that all men's fingers are not alike cleane. Hereupon I myself thought to imitate the Italian fashion by this forke cutting of meate, not only while I was in Italy, but also in Germany, and often-times in England since I came home."
Thomas Coryate, ‘Coryat's Crudities’ (1611)

The modern table setting is attributed to Charles I of England who in 1633 declared, "It is decent to use a fork," a statement that heralded the beginning of civilized table manners. But it wasn't until almost a century later that the fork gained acceptance among the lower class. In England, the acceptance of the fork encouraged preparation of continental recipes, such as 'olios' from Spain, a dish made with stewed meat taken with a fork as opposed to mashed food eaten from the blade of a knife. Because the average family owned a limited number of forks, historians suggest that the service of sherbet midway through a meal gave the servants time to wash the forks used earlier on.

 

The first dinner forks were made with two flat prongs. The earliest two-prong fork to bear an English hallmark and engraved with a coat of arms dates to 1632 and is attributed to the Earl of Rutland. It can be seen today in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. In the seventeenth century, fork tines were made of case-hardened steel and were fast to wear down. To promote utensils with longevity, early fork tines were extra long in length and made with sharp pointed tips.

But when it came to spearing certain foods, such as peas and grains, the widely spaced two-prong fork was impractical, and between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the tines increased in number from two to three and then to four. Moreover, from the late seventeenth century to the mid-eighteenth century, the profile of the fork changed from flat to slightly curved, a shape that accommodated a scoop of soft food, such as peas. But three- and four-prong forks were slow to reach North America, where people continued to eat from a knife blade food that was difficult to spear with a two-prong fork, such as mashed potatoes and gravy.

The way to use the dinner fork remained a mystery well into the eighteenth century. Joseph Brasbridge, a retail silversmith in Fleet Street, wrote of his confusion in a customer's home, "where the cloth was laid with a profusion of plate.... I know how to sell these articles, but not how to use them."

The New York Ladies' Indispensable Assistant, published in 1852, gave general advice on eating with a fork, knife, and spoon:

    "If silver or wide pronged forks are used, (for fish), eat with the fish fork in the right hand—the knife is unnecessary. . . . If possible, the knife should never be put into the mouth at all, let the ledge be turned down. . . . The teeth should be picked as little as possible, and never with fork or fingers. . . . Eat peas with a dessert spoon; and curry also."

In the nineteenth century, mass production and the invention of the electroplating process made silver forks affordable to a rising middle class who wished to emulate the nobility and eat with forks made for specific foods, such as berries, birds, cake, cold meat, cucumbers, fish, ice cream, lettuce, lobster, oysters, pickles, salad, sardines, shellfish, strawberrys, souffle, terrapin, tomatoes, and to pass sliced bread at the tea table. Although fork handles were normally made of silver or silver plate, in the nineteenth century organic materials were also used, such as bone, mother-of-pearl, and ivory (the latter often tinted green). Fork tines were shortened and closer together, and remain so today. No longer did fingers touch food, except to pick up small fruit, such as grapes. Nor did servants wash forks during a meal for use with another course.

Today, depending on need, a set of flatware may contain five forks: dinner fork, fish fork, luncheon fork, salad or dessert fork, and seafood fork. But the collector may amass specialized forks—for eating lobster, fruit, dessert, ice cream, pastry, strawberries, snails, and oysters—from antique shops and specialty stores.

The shapes of the fork tines accommodate particular foods. Forks wrought with long tapered tines, such as a dinner fork, are made to spear thick morsels of food, such as steak. Forks with a wide left tine and an optional notch, such as a salad fork, fish fork, dessert fork, and pastry fork, provide extra leverage when cutting food that normally does not require a knife. Forks with curved tines, such as the oyster fork, are made to follow the shape of the shell.
 

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