A Journal for Western Man
The Irrational Exuberance of
American Dining Etiquette
Issue IX- December 2, 2002
A BRIEF HISTORY OF DINING UTENSILS:
Prehistory is marked by sharp stones, found or chipped to desired sharpness to be used as cutting utensils. Vessels, or utensils for liquid were also found in prehistoric times, usually in the form of hollow horns of sheep and goats, or sea shells collected for this purpose.
The scramasax, a sharp pointed knife made of bronze or iron was found in use during the 5th century. By this time, spoons were carved from wood, as well as many other materials such as bone, shell and stone.
During the Middle Ages, most people ate with their hands. Only the wealthy ate using utensils, not because of their “utility” but more to impress the company kept. Spoons were highly decorative, rather than simple and utilitarian. In anticipation of the fork, which had not yet seen use in Europe, noble men often carried two personal knives, one to cut, the other to hold the meat still.
The 11th Century saw the Venetian Doge, Domenico Selvo marry a Greek princess who brought to his court the practice of eating with forks. At the time, her table manners were seen as scandalous and heretical affectations. It was said: “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. Her death shortly afterward was perceived as divine punishment. It is important to observe that the fork was, at the time, already in use in the Middle East.
During the reign of Charles V of France, forks could be found listed in his inventory of plate, but it was specified that they were only to be used when eating foods that might otherwise stain the fingers.
In 1533, Catherine de Medicis of Italy brought forks when she married Henry II of France. By 1560, different dining customs evolved in different European countries. Germans were known for using spoons, Italians for their use of forks. The German and Italians provided a knife for each dinner, while the French provided only two or three communal knives for the whole table. Then, in 1611, Thomas Coryat, an Englishman, observed the use of forks in Italy and resolved to use them as well. Back in his native England, he was given the name of “fork bearer” and was widely ridiculed and considered effeminate and affected. He describes what we now call the “Italian” dining etiquette as follows:
“The Italian, and also most strangers that are commorant in Italy, doe alwaies, at their meales use a little forke when they cut the meate; for while with their knife, which they hold in one hand, they cut the meate out of the dish, they fasten their forke which they hold in their other hande, upon the same dish, so that whatsoever he be that sitteth in the company of any others at meate, should unadvisedly touch the dish of meate with his fingers, from which all at the table doe cut he will give occasion of offence unto the company as having transgressed the lawes of good manners, insomuch for his error he shall be at least browbeaten, if not reprehended in words.”
A large assortment of forks was recovered from the wreck of La Girona that sank in 1588, during the time of the Armada, showing Spain’s use of the fork at the time.
As forks became more commonplace, however, both for holding food still and conveying food to the mouth, it became less necessary for knives to be made with pointed tips. They began to be made with blunt ends.
In 1630, Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony possesses what is said to be the first and only fork in colonial America. The fad for using forks had not yet reached the Americas.
During the early 18th century the four-tined fork has become the rule in Germany. In England, a country still scornful of its use, the fork remains as a two-tined utensil, one not so helpful for scooping up bites of food. Knives in England began to be fashioned with wide, almost spoon-shaped tips, the better to use them for conveying food to the mouth. Then, in the mid-18th century, the fork achieved the form with which we are now more familiar. But, it wasn’t until the early 19th century that forks became popular in the United States. At the time, they were frequently called “split-spoons”.
THE AMERICAN Zig-Zag METHOD AND ITS ORIGINS:
two ways to use a knife and fork to cut and eat your
food. They are the American style and the European or
Continental style. Either style, it is said, is
considered appropriate. But are they? If you consider
following “tradition” simply because it is tradition,
then this constitutes one of the many forms of
irrationality so prevalent today. It is this author’s
contention that tradition ought to undergo the process
of reason, as with all aspects of our lives.
our readers rightfully pride themselves on their
rationality and objectivity. Certainly, they bristle at
the thought of irrationality affecting their lives, or
worse, being accused of irrationality by others. And
yet, most every one of our readers persist in at least
one form of irrationality: the mindless obeisance to a
tradition: the American dining etiquette.
Harry Roolaart is the founder and creator of the harryroolaart.com website and is a writer and artist living and working in Charlotte, North Carolina. You may contact him personally at email@example.com.
This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA’s Statement of Policy.
Read Mr. Stolyarov's new comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, at http://www.geocities.com/rational_argumentator/rc.html.