In a previous post entitled Proper Table Setting for the Rich I was rambling on about how Victorian dinner tables might be set with twenty or more eating utensils at each place setting. Then the question came up as to exactly how many types of utensils there are in this world
In prehistory primitive people ate with their hands and fingers, of course. (In modern-day America we've pretty much reverted to that level with our fast-food restaurants. Burgers, fries, tacos, and friend chicken don't really require utensils - in fact no utensils are offered.) But the evolution of flatware is truly fascinating if you have a couple of minutes.
Obviously in primitive times knives came first, made from sharpened stone or flint, which could be used both to cut and lift the food on the point of the knife. Then, as early humans started leaning how to cook, like boiling vegetables and creating recipes, spoons came next - apparently and urgently needed to protect the skin from steam.
But get this: when forks were first introduced as eating utensils it bordered upon scandal, heresy, and wickedness. Why replace using the tip of a knife with a fork? It was considered pretentious, effete and unworthy of nobility. In fact, some catholic writers in the Vatican challenged it's very use as opposed to our God-given fingers for lifting food to the mouth.
While the origins are obscure, apparently forks were developed in the east, Persia most likely, but perhaps the Byzantine empire first introduced the use of a personal table fork. It crept it's way into southern Europe first, and Italians found it particularly useful in their much-beloved pasta creations. Then when Catherine de Medici left Italy to become Queen of France in the mid 1500's, she brought forks along and taught the reluctant French how to use them in court.
Northern Europe was slower to adopt the fork, considering it to be a silly Italian affectation, and it apparently didn't reach England until about the late 17th century. But when Queen Victoria clocked in, all hell broke loose. It was embraced wholeheartedly by the Victorians in the 1800's when proper manners demanded that fingers never touch food. With no TV, internet or smart phones there wasn't much to do in the evenings except fuss with your food. And from that point on dozens upon dozens of utensils were invented, way beyond the basic knife, spoon and fork. One fork simply wasn't good enough for the Victorians; you needed a dinner fork, a salad fork, fish fork, shrimp fork, a beet fork, pickle fork, lobster fork, all kinds of serving forks, and finally for the last course, a dessert fork. The list of knives and spoons is almost as long.
In reality, there's no definitive answer as to how many types of eating utensils there are in this world, from stone and flint knives to chop sticks in the far east to all the madness of the Victorian age. Plus the fact that it's all still quite fluid with designers coming up with new looks and styles all the time. Like the Australian-designed Splayd, or this silliness from Dine Ink.
As you know, dining utensils come in materials ranging from plastic to various kinds of metals such as stainless steel, all the way up to sterling silver - and sold in stores that range from Target to Walmart to Tiffany's. Here's a look at some amazing utensils you might have never seen or even thought about. It's from the Silver Queen: Sterling Dictionary of Flatware Pieces
At the all-night diner where I sometimes go for the blue-plate special, there's a cheap knife, spoon, and fork all rolled up together in a paper napkin. Without any reflection on history or how this all came about, it's entirely adequate to get through the evening meal, isn't it?
Queen Victoria can rest peacefully that our fingers never touch the food with just these three basic utensils, and I feel rather sure she would forgive us if we don't eat our hamburgers with a knife and fork.
Thanks for dropping in this evening,