Trivia 031: A fork in the table

One of the great things about living up in the Pacific Northwest is that we have lots of good Asian food. This week I went to a couple of really great places while visiting with some friends. However, things are a little bit different once you start getting east of the Cascades. In particular, where I live, we have one single Chinese restaurant. You can tell what kind of people they expect to visit it based on the fact that they do not give you chopsticks when you go there unless you explicitly ask for them.

Now, I am no stranger to eating with chopsticks, having grown up using them. When I was a child, we had a storybook called How My Parents Learned to Eat, about an American sailor falling in love with a Japanese woman, and both had to learn to eat with the other’s utensils. My parents more or less threw us to the wolves and had us figure out how to use them ourselves. I actually used them in completely the wrong way and had to retrain myself in college. But a fork and knife? That’s pretty easy.

Although forks have been around since the 2000’s BC, in ancient China, they were slow in making their way west. The Byzantine Empire began using forks in the 4th century, and it spread throughout the Middle East by the 10th century. But it wasn’t until the 11th century that it started gaining popularity in Europe. They were still quite rare, however, and it was normal for people to keep their own knife and fork in a special box called a cadena, and bring it with them if they went to a dinner party.

It took a while for them to catch hold, not in the least because religious scholars saw the fork as sacrilegious. It was seen as a sign of vanity and luxury, to not want to touch the food with your own hands. In fact, some speculate that imagery of the devil holding a pitchfork may be due to this idea. King Edward I of England only owned seven forks, despite having thousands of knives. Similarly, King Charles V of France only had twelve forks.

As forks began to gain acceptance, the designs of cutlery changed. In particular, knives lost their pointed tips, and became rounded at the end. According to Chad Ward of Leite’s Culinaria:

The rift started, by some accounts, with Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister to France’s King Louis XIII, who was so disgusted by a frequent dinner guest’s habit of picking his teeth with his knife that l’Éminence Rouge, as Richelieu was known, had the tips of the offender’s knives ground down to prevent it happening. Always desperate to follow fashion, others in the court soon did the same. Whether the story is true or not, once forks began to gain popular acceptance there was no longer any need for a pointed tip at the end of a dinner knife to hold and spear the food. In 1669, King Louis XIV of France decreed all pointed knives on the street or the dinner table illegal. Not only were new knives to be made with rounded tips, all existing table knives were to be rounded off to reduce the potential for violence. The new style of knife rapidly spread to other European countries, including England.

As a result, colonists in America, who did not have very many forks or sharp-tipped knives, had to scoop up their food with a spoon. As a result, they adopted the tradition of holding the food down with their spoon in their left hand, while cutting it with their right. Then they could switch the spoon to their right hand to scoop it up. In Europe, they keep the fork in their left hand throughout.

But, by the late 1800’s, forks had become fashionable and dominant, and still grace our tables today. At least until we switch completely to chopsticks, like China did in the ~200’s BC.

If you know anyone who would like to receive these, please have them send an email to [email protected]. And if you don’t think chopsticks are the superior utensil, let me know and I can take you off the list.

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