At one point in time, there was a fork in the road and some people decided to eat with it.
Okay, that may be oversimplifying things a bit too much.
Cooper-Hewitt’s Sarah Coffin curated the museum’s “Feeding Desire” exhibition and has spent over thirty years researching the topic. She explains the fork was late to join the knife and spoon to complete the West’s cutlery trio. “Both the knife and spoon really have ancient origins. The spoon was the first thing people put into their mouth. The fork started its existence as a utensil to hold a piece of meat or to hold something while you carved it. Its entrance into individual usage comes really as a dessert object.”
Forks were used as cutlery in the Byzantine Empire and made their way west during the eleventh century when a Byzantine princess married the doge of Venice. She brought a two-tined gold fork with her to eat fruits preserved in syrup and sugar, known as suckets. Although this may simply seem like a logical way to eat a sticky sweetmeat, the church considered it scandalous.
Coffin explains, “The fork was associated with the life of luxury and sweets. This somehow got translated by the church as being a negative form of decadence. It wasn’t associated with Christian values on the grounds that it wasn’t essential to life. Instead, it was perceived as something that would be used by a seductress of the East.”
In addition to sweets from the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, other foods from the East continued to shape European cuisine, though not necessarily the way they ate it. Although pasta was embraced when it was introduced from China, Coffin suspects that instead of learning how to use chopsticks, Italians preferred to repurpose an implement they already had. In order to eat long noodles, they used a toothpick-like utensil called a punteruolo. It was made more efficient by the addition of another prong. By the fifteenth century, forks were quite common amongst the upper class and wealthy merchant class in Italy.
Frequently mocked and perceived as ridiculous, northern Europe was reluctant to use the utensil for years but it eventually gained acceptance. By 1700, forks were used throughout Europe and individuals would carry their own cutlery set for personal use.
“Usually, there is a functional reason why trends stick,” says Coffin. Not only was the fork more sanitary than eating with bare hands, it was a safer alternative to consuming meat by placing it on the tip of a sharp knife. Also, people often wiped their soiled hands on tablecloths when they were finished eating. Although forks were pricey, they could easily be washed and cost less than the laundering and staff needed to maintain the expensive textiles.
Forks continued to take shape according to styles in cuisine; they became more spoon-like with purees in fashion in eighteenth century France. Entertaining styles also shifted and, instead of individuals bringing their own cutlery, it became something that was provided by the house. As Coffin explains, “It became the status symbol of the house rather than the guest.”
The usage of the utensil expanded to lower classes in the nineteenth century due to innovation and discovery. They became an affordable option following the invention of electroplating in England during the 1840’s. Around the same time, silver was found in the Comstock Lode and other places throughout the west, making it less expensive in the United States.
“Suddenly, there was a boom of ingenuity to create the most interesting and efficient fork for every single type of food so nobody could say Americans weren’t as sophisticated as their European counterparts,” says Coffin.
Whereas the fork itself used to be a status symbol, now wealth and class were demonstrated by the knowledge of which fork was appropriate and where it belonged on the table. There were forks for everything--cherries, pickles, scallops, lobsters, lettuce, even ice cream. (Although that is not entirely as absurd as it sounds since ice cream was usually frozen solid due in to it being kept in blocks of ice to maintain a cold temperature.)
In the United States, one dinner pattern could contain 146 unique pieces. This was a great contrast to Europeans, who had vastly fewer options. “The fact is the French--for whom culinary concerns are paramount--had very few other, with the exception of fish knives and forks and a few dessert and salad forks,” Coffin tells me. She adds, “I think it really was a combination of American marketing and American interest in really functional things. Generally, the shape of the fork served the purpose of more gracefully conveying the food to your mouth.”
The belief that people should be seen eating with a fork went on well into the twentieth century in the United States. With so many fork options, many felt a sense of angst when sitting down to a posh dinner party. While serving as Secretary of Commerce, in 1925 Herbert Hoover demanded that people put a fork in their enthusiasm. (Perhaps just one functional one, please!) He legislated a limitation on the number of flatware pattern pieces. At the time of the legislation, multiple factors contributed to the decline in the number of fork options--entertaining styles shifted, more people went to nightclubs. With the Depression, economic factors also became an issue and less lavish parties were thrown.
Darra Goldstein, who co-curated “Feeding Desire” with Coffin, describes a nervous condition known as “fork anxiety” that is still pervasive and emblematic of American class stratification, despite the decreased number of options.
Although it has really only been prevalent for the past three hundred years, progressive chef Grant Achatz declared silverware to be “barbaric.” Others have recently innovated the fork, with some available to monitor eating pace and even emit a scent to flavor food. Such things may sound unnecessary or even silly--much like the fork itself when it was introduced not so long ago.