The Strange Way We Eat: Bee Wilson’s ‘Consider the Fork’

It’s a piercing, sharp weapon associated with the Devil. How did this unlikely tool become the West’s most popular and indispensable utensil? Bee Wilson on its history in Consider the Fork.

The politest way to eat was with a fork.

Among the English upper classes of the mid-20th century, the “fork luncheon” and the “fork dinner” were buffet meals at which the knife was dispensed with altogether. The fork was polite because it was less overtly violent than a knife, less babyish and messy than a spoon. Forks were advised for everything from fish to mashed potatoes, from green beans to cream cake. Special forks were devised for ice cream and salads, for sardines and terrapins. The basic rule of Western table manners in the 19th and 20th centuries was: if in doubt, use a fork. “Spoons are sometimes used with firm puddings,” noted a cookbook of 1887, “but forks are the better style.”

Yet we have short memories when it comes to manners. It was not so long ago that eating anything from a fork had seemed absurd. As a kitchen tool, the fork is ancient. Roasting forks—long spikes for prodding and lifting meat as it cooks—have been around since Homeric times. Carving forks, to hold meat down as it is cut, are medieval. Yet forks for eating as opposed to forks for food preparation only started to seem a good idea in the modern era. The table fork is far less time-honored than such objects as the colander, the waffle iron, the bain-marie. In the great scheme of things, eating with prongs is a novelty. 

In the parts of the world where forks are not used, they seem profoundly alien instruments—little metal spears that, unlike chopsticks or fingers, clash with food as it enters the mouth. Yet in the West, we use them so universally, we think nothing of them.

In the contemporary Western world, unless we are eating sandwiches or soup, almost every meal we eat now entails a fork. We use the fork to spear vegetables and to steady meat as we cut it; to pick food up or to chase it around the plate; to twirl spaghetti; to flake fish; to build up fragments of different foods into a single choice mouthful; or to hide pieces of unwanted cabbage from our parents’ beady eyes. Children play with forks, using the sharp tines to reduce green beans to a mush, or to turn potatoes pink with ketchup. In a formal mood, we may even use a fork to eat a slice of cake, crumb by crumb. At fancy dinners or weddings, we still worry about which ornate fork to use for which course, but forks are also found at the most casual of meals, for the kind of basic snacks for which knives would be out of place. Office workers sit in the park eating pasta salad with a disposable fork, with half an eye on the crossword. Even kebab-eaters, reeling from the pub, will grasp a plastic fork to spare their fingers from the grease.

We take forks for granted. But the table fork is a relatively recent invention, and it attracted scorn and laughter when it first appeared. Its image was not helped by its associations with the Devil and his pitchfork. The first true fork on the historical record was a two- pronged gold one used by a Byzantine princess who married the doge of Venice in the 11th century. St. Peter Damian damned her for “excessive delicacy” in preferring such a rarefied implement to her God-given hands. The story of this absurd princess and her ridiculous fork was still being told in church circles two hundred years later. Sometimes the tale was embellished. The princess died of plague: a punishment, it was said, for eating with a fork.

Six centuries later, forks were still a joke. In 1605, the French satirist Thomas Artus published a strange book called The Island of Hermaphrodites. Written during the reign of Henri IV, it made fun of the effeminate ways of the previous monarch, Henri III, and his court of mollycoddled hangers-on. In the 16th century, “hermaphrodite” was a pejorative term, which might be applied to any- one you didn’t much like. In mocking these courtiers, one of the worst things Artus could think of was that they “never touch meat with their hands but with forks,” whose prongs were so wide apart that the hermaphrodites spilled more broad beans and peas than they picked up, scattering them everywhere. “They would rather touch their mouths with their little forked instruments than with their fingers.” The implication is that using forks was—like being a hermaphrodite—a kind of sexual abnormality. To Artus, the fork was not just useless—it was obscene.

It was not that spiky fork-like instruments were unheard of before then, but their use was limited to certain foods. In ancient Rome, there  were one-pronged spears and spikes for getting at hard-to-reach shellfish, for lifting food from the fire or impaling it. Medieval and Tudor diners also had tiny “sucket” forks, double- ended implements with a spoon at one end and a two-pronged fork at the other. As sugary sweetmeats or “suckets” became more common among the rich, so the need for these forks increased. In 1463, a gentleman of Bury St. Edmunds bequeathed to a friend “my silvir forke for grene gyngour” (candied ginger). The fork end was used to lift sticky sweetmeats out of pottery jars; the spoon end was used to scoop up the luscious syrup. When bits of sweetmeat lodged in the teeth, the sucket fork doubled as a nifty toothpick. But this was not at all the same as a fork in the modern sense—an individual instrument to enable people to eat an entire meal with- out handling the food.

Forks in our sense were considered odd until the 17th century, except among Italians. Why did Italy adopt the fork before any other country in Europe? One word: pasta. By the Middle Ages, the trade in macaroni and vermicelli was already well established. Initially, the longer noodle-type pastas were eaten with a long wooden spike called a punteruolo. But if one spike was good for twirling slippery threads of pasta, two were better, and three ideal. Pasta and the fork seem made for one another. It is a joy to watch a table of Italians eating long ribbons of tagliatelle or fettuccine, expertly winding up forkfuls of pasta, like slippery balls of yarn. Having discovered how useful forks were for eating noodles, Italians started to use them for the rest of the meal, too.

When Thomas Coryate, an Elizabethan traveler, journeyed around Italy sometime before 1608, he noticed a custom “that is not used in any other country,” namely, a “little fork” for holding meat as it was cut. The typical Italian, noted Coryate, “cannot endure to have his dish touched with the fingers, seeing all men’s fingers are not clean alike.” Although it seemed strange to him at first, Coryate acquired the habit himself and continued to use a fork for meat on his return to England. His friends—who included the playwright Ben Jonson and the poet John Donne—in their “merry humour” teased him for this curious Italian habit, calling him “furcifer” (which meant “fork-holder,” but also “rascal”). Queen Elizabeth I owned forks for sweetmeats but chose to use her fingers instead, finding the spearing motion to be crude.

In the 1970s, real men were said not to eat quiche. In the 1610s, they didn’t use forks. “We need no forks to make hay with our mouths, to throw our meat into them,” noted the poet Nicholas Breton in 1618. On the cusp of the 20th century, as late as 1897, British sailors were still demonstrating their manliness by eating without forks. This was a throwback, for by then forks were nearly universal.

By 1700, a hundred years after Coryate’s trip to Italy, forks were accepted throughout Europe. Even Puritans used them. In 1659, Richard Cromwell, the lord protector, paid 2 pounds and 8 shillings for six meat forks. With the Restoration, forks were firmly established on the table, alongside the new trifid spoons. Not wanting to dirty your fingers with food, or to dirty food with your fingers, had become the polite thing to do. The fork had triumphed, though knives and spoons continued to outsell forks until the early 19th century.

Why did Italy adopt the fork before any other country in Europe? One word: pasta.
‘Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat’ by Bee Wilson. 352 pp. Basic Books. $27. ()

The triumph of the knife and fork went along with the gradual transition to using china dinner plates, which were generally flatter and shallower than older dishes and trenchers. When bowls were used for all meals, the ideal implement was a spoon with an angled handle for digging deep, like a ladle (the fig-shaped spoons of the Middle Ages usually had stems pointing upward). A knife or fork with horizontal handles does not sit naturally in the curved structure of a trencher or a pottage bowl. They need a flat surface. Try to eat something in a deep cereal bowl using a knife and fork, and you will see what I mean; your elbows hunch up and your ability to use the cutlery is severely restricted. Flatness is also necessary for the elaborate semaphore of knife-and-fork table manners that reached their apogee in Victorian times. The plate becomes like a dial, on which you communicate your intentions.

It is sometimes said that the earliest forks were all two-pronged. This is not so. Some very early forks have survived with four prongs (or “tines”), others with three, and a greater number with two. The number of prongs was an indication not of date but of function. Two prongs were best suited to impaling and stabilizing food—mostly meat—while it was cut (like the carving forks still sold as a set with carving knives). Three prongs or more were better if the fork was to be used as a quasi-spoon, for conveying food from plate to mouth. There were even experiments to push it to the limit with five- pronged forks (like the five-bladed razors that took over from the old two-bladed and three-bladed ones, claiming hyperbolically to be the most “technologically advanced” way for men to shave), but this was found to be too much metal for the human mouth to hold.

In the 19th century, two distinct methods emerged for handling a knife and fork. The first was christened by the great etiquette guru Emily Post as “zigzag” eating. The idea was to hold your knife in the right hand and fork in the left as you cut up everything on the plate into tiny morsels. You then put the knife down, seized the fork in the right hand, and used it to “zigzag” around the plate, scooping up all the morsels. At first, this method was common throughout Europe, but it later came to be seen as an Americanism, because the English devised a still more refined approach. In English table manners, the knife is never laid down until the course is finished. Knife and fork push against one another rhythmically on the plate, like oars on a boat. The fork impales; the knife cuts. The knife pushes; the fork carries. It is a stately dance, whose aim is to slow down the unseemly business of mastication. Both the Americans and the British secretly find each other’s way of using a fork to be very vulgar: the British think they are polite because they never put down their knives; Americans think they are polite because they do. We are two nations separated by common tableware, as well as by a common language.

In the four hundred years since Thomas Coryate marveled at Italian meat-forks, our food has changed immeasurably, yet our dependence on the fork largely has not; we use them more now than ever. Like the colander, in use since ancient times, it is an example of a kitchen technology that has stuck. Although we may abandon it to munch a hamburger or to attempt to use chopsticks in a Chinese restaurant, the fork is entirely bound up with our experience of eating. We are so used to the sensation of metal (or plastic) tines entering our mouths along with food, we no longer think anything of it. But our use of forks is not inconsequential—it affects our entire culinary universe. As Karl Marx observed in the Grundrisse, “The hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down raw meat with the aid of hand, nail and tooth.” Forks change not just the how of eating but the what.

Which is not to say that forks are always superior to other methods of eating. As with every new kitchen technology from fire to refrigeration, from eggbeaters to microwaves, forks have drawbacks as well as benefits. The Renaissance opponents of the fork were right, in many ways. Knives and forks are handy enough for cutting a slice of roast beef, but are more hindrance than help for eating peas or rice, which are better served by the humble spoon. Eating with a knife and fork carries with it a complacency that is not always justified. It is a very fussy way of eating food. We often over-attribute efficiency to the technologies we are accustomed to. Because we use knives and forks every day, we do not notice how they hamper us. Our table manners require us to use two hands to perform with less dexterity what chopsticks can do with only one.

This piece is excerpted from Bee Wilson's Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat. For further information, see www.considerthefork.com.