Friday, September 09, 2016

The Fork

Bronze Persian forks, 8-9th century
The word fork comes from the Latin furca, meaning "pitchfork". Some of the earliest known uses of forks with food occurred in ancient Egypt, where large forks were used as cooking utensils.  Bone forks had been found in the burial site of the Bronze Age Quija culture (2400–1900 BC) as well as later Chinese dynasties' tombs.
Ancient Chinese forks

The fork as a kitchen and dining utensil is generally believed to have originated in the Roman Empire, as proved by archaeological evidences. In the Roman Empire bronze and silver forks were used, indeed many examples are displayed in museums around Europe. The use varied according to local customs, social class and the nature of food, but forks of the earlier periods were mostly used as cooking and serving utensils.

Ancient Roman serving fork

The personal table fork was most likely invented in the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, where they were in common use by the 4th century (its origin may even go back to Ancient Greece, before the Roman period). Records show that by the 9th century a similar utensil known as a barjyn was in limited use in Persia within some elite circles. By the 10th century, the table fork was in common use throughout the Middle East.

Ancient Roman table fork

Theophano S

The personal table fork most likely originated in the Eastern
Byzantine fork
Roman Empire (or Byzantine) Empire. Its use spread to what is now the Middle East during the first millennium AD and then spread into southern Europe during the second millennium. It did not become common in northern Europe until the 18th century and was not common in North America until the 19th century. The first recorded introduction of the fork to Western Europe, as recorded by the theologian and cardinal Peter Damian, was by Theophano Sklereina , the Byzantine wife of Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, she nonchalantly wielded a golden one at an Imperial banquet in 972, astonishing her Western hosts. By the 11th century, the table fork had become increasingly prevalent in the  Italian peninsula. It gained a following in Italy before any other Western European region because of historical ties with Byzantium, and continued to gain popularity due to the increasing presence of pasta in the Italian diet.

By the 11th century, the table fork had become increasingly prevalent in the Italian peninsula. It gained a following in Italy before any other Western European region because of historical ties with Byzantium, and continued to gain popularity due to the increasing presence of  pasta in the Italian diet. At first, pasta was consumed using a long wooden spike, but this eventually evolved into three spikes, a design better suited to gathering the noodles. In Italy, it became commonplace by the 14th century and was almost universally used by the merchant and upper classes by 1600. It was proper for a guest to arrive with his own fork and spoon enclosed in a box called a cadena; this usage was introduced to the French court with Catherine de Medicis entourage.
cutlery with Medici coat of arms

Catherine de Medici

French cutlery
However, forks were not commonly used in Western Europe until the 16th century when they became part of Italian etiquette. The utensil had also gained some currency in Spain by this time, and its use gradually spread to France. Nevertheless, most of Europe did not adopt use of the fork until the 18th century. For a long period the use of fork was considered as a sign of snobbery and the church blamed people for this extravagant lifestyle. 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. -St. Peter Damian"God created man with ten fingers and they are supposed to be used for eating the food. It is a it is an insult to replace them with a tool!"

In the 1500s the Europeans began to use a fork instead of the wooden spoons or the fingers. People at court in England had small fine boxes with their personal cutlery, but according to a British food columnist Bee Wilson (consider the fork - a history of invention in the kitchen there is a French satirically sketch from 1604 which show people who use a fork as sexual misfits).  Wilson also has an interesting consideration that the use of knife and fork had an influence on the dentition. Before the use of fork people bit chunks of meat off with their teeth but with the fork they could eat the meat in small bites. This trained the muscles in the jaw in a various way  - and during the 1600s the Italian nobility began using the fork and then France and Britain gave up to the fork while the Scandinavian waited until the beginning of the 1700s.

Medieval fork
But the fork's adoption in northern Europe was slow. Its use was first described in English by Thomas Corvat in a volume of writings on his Italian travels (1611), but for many years it was viewed as an unmanly Italian affectation. Some writers of the Roman Catholic Church expressly disapproved of its use, seeing it as "excessive delicacy": It was not until the 18th century that the fork became commonly used in Great Britain, although some sources say that forks were common in France, England and Sweden already by the early 17th century.The fork did not become popular in North America until near the time of the American revolution.

cutlery 1700s.
Edward 1.
Gold and silversmiths were the creators of the production of the first forks with first two then three  and four teeth and in the first many years the cutlery was a personal possession of rich people. They brought it with them in a fine box when they were invited out for a dinner or on a journey. From written sources is known that the English king Edward I shortly before 1300 owned a fork and that the Duke of Torraine a century later owned two forks and nine dousin spoons!

In Denmark there was no major spread until the time of Christian IV, one of the reasons of this restraint was the hostile attitude of the church which claimed that Christ had used his fingers when heate. And a strange warning was found in one of Luther's writings: "God keep you from a stab by a fork for it makes three holes!" A fortable fork was a rare thing in Denmark 400 years ago.

Danish table 1700s, "Den Gamle By", Århus

King Christian IV noted in his diary that he had bought a knife and a fork of gold with diamonds from two Frenchmen - a very unusual buy. Christian IV was probably won for the new utensil during his travels in Europe where the fork was taking hold  The high ranks in Denmark followed him, but it took still one hundred years before this modern table utensil was accepted in the broader ranks. People still managed well in the old way -  the old five fingered fork and a pointed knife.

various forks
The industrialization in the 1800s meant that the factories produced cutlery in less precious metal and the price went down so more common people could buy it.

Skalk Jan Koch, Danish archaeological magazine,1979, "Den skæve gaffel" Ellen Andersen, bordskik, 1971. Erik Kjersgaard: Mad og øl i Danmarks middelalder, 1978. 
English Wikipedia, and wikipedia photos.