Facts That Figure: Cutlery

Facts That Figure: Cutlery

By: C.G. Hoffman

It’s very important to know how to set a proper table. We’re not just talking about being an impressive shvigger… After all, if you were invited to Buckingham Palace for dinner with the king, you wouldn’t want to be the only befuddled one, wondering which fork goes for what. A proper formal tablesetting will include: A salad fork, fish fork, meat fork, cake fork; butter knife, meat knife, fish knife, salad knife; Soup spoon, teaspoon, demitasse spoon, dessert spoon, and oh, another seafood fork. File this information away in a safe place, folks, it may be important one day.

The earliest implement for eating food was most likely a knife. Knives were the most important tool one could have for thousands of years, as it helped skin your meat, spear it and hold it over the fire, and then cut it into pieces when it was ready. The ancient Egyptians perfected the art of making bronze, and expertly cast knives and other tools. Spoons were fashioned from metal, wood or ivory, and some exquisitely carved implements have been found in burial pyramids, carved into shapes of animals and birds.

For most of the world, even today, the most popular set of implements grows right out of their hands… their fingers! In the Middle East and Africa, food is often served in a communal bowl placed in the middle of the table. The family tears off pieces of their pita or soft flatbread, and uses it to dig in. No spoons or forks needed!

Forks have existed for thousands of years, only they weren’t commonly used at tables. They were mainly used for spearing meat and holding them over the fire, and usually consisted of only two prongs.

Spare a few tears for Maria Argyropoulina; when the Byzantine princess married into a Venetian royal family a thousand years ago, she was roundly mocked for her vanity as she wouldn’t touch the food with her hands, only daintily used her own set of golden forks. It took another few hundred years, and by the 1500’s, forks were popular in Italy, but were condemned by the Catholic Church in other European countries. Priests protested against them using inescapable logic: “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating.”

Catherine de Medici brought forks to France when she married King Henry II in 1533. The English were slower to adapt to this Continental affectation, calling them “devil’s horn’s.” Perhaps because they didn’t work very well, containing only two tines. It wasn’t until German “cutlers,” metal artisans who crafted cutlery, added first a third tine and eventually the familiar fourth tine, that the use of forks became widespread in Europe.

Lucky you: you’ve been invited to dinner at Lord So and So’s castle. Your coachman is ready, your maid has helped you into your dinner gown, but… have you brought your cutlery? Cutlery was expensive, especially silver cutlery, and most hosts were not expected to supply cutlery to all their guests. Traveling sets of knives, forks and spoons became common for traveling aristocrats, and were held together by a chain and hung from one’s waist.

The best cutlery was made of silver, since it didn’t impart any odd taste to the food. It was also expensive, until a huge lode of silver was discovered in Virginia City, Nevada in 1859. Suddenly silver became more affordable, and cutlery sets became enormous, with special implements for eating berries with cream, silver macaroni scoops, silver grape shears, and yes, the most essential of all, silver asparagus tongs, among other useless things. If you wanted every single item in a matching set, that could run into thousands of pieces, each of which had to be polished, of course.

The discovery of stainless steel in 1913 finally brought affordable but attractive cutlery to the masses, although silver sets are still treasured by old-time Hungarian balabustas. Cutlery today can be made of steel, plastic or wood. The cutlery of the future, however, may be edible! Manufacturers have successfully produced biodegradable cutlery made from rice or wheat flours. Coming soon to a store near you: cutlery with a hechsher! (Although not Kosher L’Pesach!)

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