Reviews — From the January 2013 issue

The Tines They Are A-changin’

A history of table technology

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Discussed in this essay:

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, by Bee Wilson. Basic Books. 352 pages. $26.99. basicbooks.com.

The fork is worth considering. It’s considered a billion times a day as a tool for delivering food to face. Some of that considering flows from practical uncertainties about how to use the thing. If you’re British or European, you grip the fork in your left hand, index finger on the back and convex surface upwards. You then secure a piece of meat on the tines as you cut with the knife held in your right hand. You can stabilize the cut-up meat with some smooshed vegetables at the distal end, and, finally, tines pointing down, use the left hand to convey the whole package to the mouth. If you’re American, you do things differently. The securing-and-cutting business is much the same, but you then perform a zigzag maneuver, putting the knife down and shifting the fork to your right hand. If there’s just meat on the end, the usual practice is to bring it to the mouth convex surface up, but if there are veggies involved, it’s common to use the concave surface to scoop them, spoon style. (Peas are a problem and the cause of much anxiety, and the only certainty is that they’re a fork affair. You don’t line them up on your knife or spear them one by one on the tip, though the temptation to do so comes from the fact that the fork isn’t well suited to dealing with peas.)

Although some sorts of forks were around in antiquity and the Middle Ages — think of Neptune’s trident or the peasant’s pitchfork — the fork as a standard table implement was unknown in western Europe until it appeared in Italian court circles, probably between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. Into the early seventeenth century, its use struck English tourists as remarkable. In 1611, the eccentric foot traveler Thomas Coryat picked out fork use as an admirable and peculiarly Italian custom — a marvelous advance on the promiscuous placing of dirty fingers in the communal meat bowl — and he encouraged it when he returned to England, where it was widely regarded as just the sort of fussiness that foreigners went in for. In Jonathan Swift’s 1738 skit “Polite Conversation,” fork use was condemned as effete and unnatural: “Fingers were made before forks, and hands before knives.” The number of tines changed over time — from two to three to four — but the fork remained a problem utensil into the early twentieth century: in 1905, H. G. Wells dramatized the tension attending English social mobility through a parvenu’s fork anxiety at a posh London hotel, where a fork in the protagonist’s untrained hand was “an instrument of chase rather than capture.”

The artificiality of the table fork was just the point: you didn’t need a fork for purely practical reasons the way you might need the spoon and the knife. (As shown by the occasional invention of hybrid implements advertised as functionally superior — the spork, the sporf, the spife, the knork, the runcible spoon.) The fork is a bit of table technology that makes manifest a changing moral order. Cutlery has a special advantage in doing so, since feeding happens, if you’re lucky, several times a day, and, if you’re sociable, in the presence of other people. The table is an intimate site; it’s where you find out about others and they find out about you. Here is the point of the pea problem: feeding isn’t only a matter of the more or less practical; it’s also about the more or less proper — how things are rightly done in our sort of society, by our sort of people. In 1848, Thackeray’s Book of Snobs used that disgusting pea practice as a paradigm: “Society having ordained certain customs, men are bound to obey the law of society, and conform to its harmless orders.” If I were to eat peas with my knife, I would be “insulting society” just as much as if I were to go to a tea party in a dressing gown and slippers. Homer Simpson eats his peas with a knife, and that says it all.

Cutlery, then, offers rich potential for getting things wrong. The “harmless orders” of table technique involve not just the use of the fork but knowing which fork, which spoon, knife, and glass pertain to which purpose. During periods of rapid social mobility in Georgian and Victorian England, special-purpose silverware proliferated: grapefruit, coffee, tea, mayonnaise, mustard, salt, egg, and ice-cream spoons; marrow and Stilton scoops; butter and olive picks; fish knives, slices, and forks; oyster, pickle, and cake forks; tongs for sugar, sardines, and asparagus; grape shears; cake and pea servers. The pleasure of witnessing faux pas was probably among the highlights of a well-supplied Victorian or Edwardian dinner party.

Table manners are an approved form of hypocrisy: they sustain the pretense that something benign is happening when, from another point of view, what’s going on is pretty bloody. In the 1930s, the great German historical sociologist Norbert Elias wrote about what he called the “civilizing process” through which both the modern world and the modern self were brought into being. The civilized self, in Elias’s view, kept the body under control, managed or denied human carnality — and the hero of this story was the fork, which allowed its user to display a certain distance from the violence of food preparation and consumption. You didn’t seize your meat with your fingers or stab it with your knife. A book of manners published in the late seventeenth century prescribed both proper fork use and the state of mind in which the instrument should be employed: “You must not by any awkward gesture show any signs that you are hungry, nor fix your Eyes upon the meat, as if you would devour all . . . and be sure you touch nothing but with your Fork.” William Burroughs wrote of “the naked lunch” as that “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork,” but it was the fork that helped you not see the dead flesh for what it was.

As fork use increased, so the table knife changed shape. The tip was once pointed, the cutting edge sharp: it was the sort of thing you could use, if you wanted, to kill. In came the fork, and the tip of the table knife became rounded and the cutting edge could scarcely cut. These days, you’d be hard put to injure someone seriously with common cutlery, and the more substantial weapons used to carve the celebratory turkey or suckling pig are invariably handed to the senior male and then put safely away once the beast has been dismembered. The only table implement now really well adapted to separating muscle into bite-size bits is the steak knife, a reminder of the table knife’s former glory.

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  • RobNYNY1957

    That’s “less than one hundred years old.” You’re being Strunk & White hypercorrective.

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