As I hurtle towards my 800th post, it becomes abundantly clear that I ran out of good questions some time ago. The optimists among you, however, and the fork lovers, come to think of it, may consider it both a travesty and a surprise that I haven’t covered the exciting world of forks before, although I may have done because my memory aint so good. Still, there’s a whole range of cutlery to investigate. So that’s something to look forward to in the next 100, isn’t it? What were we talking about, again? Ah, forks! Wonderful, wonderful forks. What is a fork? Yes, we’re actually doing this. A fork is a piece of cutlery with several narrow tines on the end. You see, you see? I betcha didn’t know the prongs of a fork were officially known as tines, did you now? You see, you’re already enjoying this look at forks, aren’t you? There’s also a place named ‘Forks’ in Washington. I hear it’s where some of Twilight was set. Oh, sorry, ‘Twilight’, for anyone who doesn’t know is a… well, all you need to know is that’s a big, big pile of shite you should avoid at all costs…
We don’t know much about history, and we sure don’t know much about forks. Forks are the most recent addition to the world of cutlery. We know the word ‘fork’ comes from the Latin furca, meaning ‘pitchfork.’ Some of the earliest evidence we have of forks being used as instruments of eating at the table goes back to Ancient Egypt. Bone forks were found at Bronze Age burial sites and across the tombs of various Chinese dynasties. In the Roman Empire, forks were made of bronze and silver, with their uses dictated by local custom, social class and the nature of the food.
The personal table fork was, probably, invented in the Byzantine Empire, becoming common across the Middle East by the 10th century. It was introduced to Europe by Theophano Sklereina, and yes, the idea of a woman displaying a strange new piece of cutlery to an excited crowd does sound strange, but came as welcome relief to all the knife owners who, up until that point, had been trying to cut up their steaks with a knife and a spoon. It’s said that Mrs. Sklereina brought a fork to an Imperial Banquet in 972, with astonished onlookers gawping in wonder at the fantastical instrument she wielded. Seriously. Simpler times…
The fork’s popularity grew during the 16th century in large part down to Catherine de Medici. After her marriage to Henry 2, she brought the fork to tables wherever she went. She was quite the trendsetter. The fork certainly took hold of Italy, because, until then, pasta was eaten with a long wooden spike, which yes, is hard to imagine. However, the fork in Italy became an instrument only of the highest order. It was deemed proper for a guest to arrive with his or her own fork and spoon enclosed in a box named a cadena, a tradition that soon became a part of French and Portuguese cultures. The fork became a much admired thing. In one faerie tale, each of the faeries invited for a christening is presented with a ‘splendid fork holder.’ Well, I mean, is there any other kind?
Also helping the popularity of the fork along were the changing hygiene standards many set for themselves. People, at this time, covered themselves in dirt to clog the pores to attempt to stop nasty germs and diseases getting in. People also blew their noses into their hands and then ate with the same hands. Many, disgusted by all this, saw the fork as a saviour. Free at last from dirt and filth. But not everyone was so enamoured by the new cutlery on the block.
Many were reluctant to the fork. Yes, I just did say that. Many saw it as ‘feminine.’ Many felt they were ‘unpleasant’ to use. Englishman Thomas Coryat, who spent much of his life in Italy, where the fork was prevalent, described the fork as an ‘unmanly Italian affectation.’ Many in the Roman Catholic Church disapproved of the fork. When Princess Theodora Doukaina wedded Domenico Selvo, she brought gold forks as part of her dowry. Venice was in outrage. St. Peter Damian said, “God in His wisdom has provided man with natural forks – his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them when eating.”
Theodora became a hated figure because of her forks. They also didn’t like the napkins she brought, either. At this point, you’re probably feeling rather sorry for her. She died two years after the marriage. Yes, you know what’s coming. Many called her death a ‘just punishment from God.’ Because she used a fork. A bloody fork. An actual bloody fork. Golly gosh…
The peppered use of the fork was a novelty until the late 18th century when it entered widespread use. By this point, it had become curved to combat peas, although I still prefer to stab at them wildly or use a spoon like a sane person. Or like an even saner person, not eat peas at all. Despite this popularity, it wasn’t until the advent of the Industrial Revolution that everyone, at last, had access to the wonderful fork. Mass production saw to that particular glass ceiling. Although since we’re going down the order, I suppose ‘glass floor’ would be more appropriate.
Those plucky Victorians saw to the fork as the cutlery item, soon seeing them surpass the knife as the most popular item in the kitchen drawer. Soon, they had a multiple of varieties coming out of their ears, not literally of course, and to this day, the fork has remained on top. Ruling forever more, indeed. But will it ever be usurped?
Perhaps you think not, but remember, at one point in our history, the fork seemed the silly thing. Trying to break the established order into little pieces. And it did. So maybe, just maybe, when the next big silly thing shows up, just maybe it will be the thing that replaces the fork…
For me, that will be a sad day. The fork isn’t just a little utility in our drawers, it’s a wonderful little hero that revolutionised the world of eating, the world of hygiene, and our lives, forever more. Why are forks so wonderful?
Because they’re forks, that’s why…
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