Notes, thoughts, and news on synthetic biology.

Medieval Tines: A Brief History of the Fork


You may have seen the recent news of a sensor-filled smartfork that vibrates to warn you if you're eating too quickly.

The Slow Fork

I'm going to reserve judgement on the merits of the smartfork, invented by the French company Slow Control and marketed by HAPILABS, but I think it's interesting to look at this cutlery innovation in the context of fork history, from its origins in Ancient Egypt to the two-in-one spork and beyond. Forks weren't always the well-designed ergonomic tools for shoveling food into your face that they are today. In the 11th century, a Byzantine princess marrying a Venetian aristocrat scandalized Venice by using a fork to eat at her wedding feast. A member of the local clergy condemned this uptight behavior, saying “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating.”

After the princess's untimely death, forks remained unpopular in Europe, but eventually spread throughout the continent, gaining popularity over the centuries. In "A Feast for Aesculapius: Historical Diets for Asthma and Sexual Pleasure" in the Annual Review of Nutrition, historian Madeleine Pelner Cosman describes one aspect of the slow cultural and religious shift in fork etiquette and its relationship to the sensual experience of food:

Almost all medieval feast foods were conveyed to the mouth by elaborate, and often elegant, finger choreography...However, both pinky fingers were extended, never touching food or gravy or sauce, reserved as spice fingers. Dipped into the salt, sweet basil, cinnamoned sugar, or ground mustard seed, then raised to the tongue, the spice fingers displayed a feaster's digital finesse while adding another sensual pleasure: touch of food's texture.

Some modern polite extensions of pinky fingers, serving no physical pur­pose, are cultural remembrances of medieval spice fingers. In fact, a medieval clerical encouragement for use of the fork was to eliminate the pleasure of touch. The fork was generally ignored until the late 16th century as a super­fluous and foppish metallic intrusion between sensual food and willing mouth. Using a fork reduced the "feel" of food. As St. Thomas said, in matters of food and sex, gluttony and lust are concerned with the pleasure of touch.

Given the ceremonial, spiritual, and sensual importance of food-delivery technologies in Europe and around the world, what does the robo-fork say about our moment in time? How will we eat in the future?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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