Expert Commentary: Why are there so many forks?



               Have you ever wondered why we have so many utensils at our table settings?  In my quest to learn etiquette, I have found that manners are much more than curtsies, white gloves, and finger bowls.  I’ve learned that there is a history behind everything that we do today.

            Our etiquette has changed greatly through the years and continues to change about every 15 years.  The first books of table manners were written in Egypt by Ptah-hotep.  In these books readers were told:

1.) A gnawed bone should never be put back on the serving platter.  Lay it on the table or throw it on the floor.

2.) An upper class person eats with three fingers, not five.

3.) Do not put your face in your food, snort, or smack your lips while eating.

4.) Do not lick your fingers or wipe them on your coat.  Wipe them on the tablecloth.

5.) Do not put your whole hand in the pot.  Take the first piece of meat or fish that you touch.

6.) Do not blow your nose on the tablecloth or wipe it on your sleeve.

            In the middle ages, the upper class enjoyed large banquets.  This was before forks were invented, so a banquet table was set with spoons and soup bowls, one for every two people.  (Now, that might have been okay with me if I were sitting next to Elvis!)  And there was one drinking glass passed around the table for all to share.  Instead of plates, each guest ate off of a thick slice of stale bread called a trencher.  Guests brought their own knives; usually the same ones that they used for weapons. 

            Napkins began as large cloth blankets that lay over the shoulder of an upper classman.  Servants were responsible for refolding the napkin to a clean place and setting it back over their shoulder when it was used.  Soon it would become offensive to offer large napkins at a setting; as to assume that someone would make such a mess that they would need a large napkin.  That is why today we have smaller napkins that can set in our laps.

            In the 1300’s, a time known as the renaissance, people became more refined.  Learning was prized and the arts blossomed.  Ways of eating changed, and finally…the fork.  The fork began as two straight tines and a handle.  People did not take well to the fork, many thought the fork was silly and could never take the place of fingers.  Although superstitions surrounded the use of the fork, in 1669, King Louis XIV, was the first person to offer guests a place setting of knives, forks, and spoons.  Hence, it was the proper thing to do.

            By the late nineteenth century, factories sprang up in Europe and America that turned out large quantities of table utensils, which had once only been made by hand.  Prices fell; almost everyone could now afford knives, forks and spoons.  Each utensil came with a little book of instructions to let you know how to hold and use them.  They were carefully redesigned to fit your hand, and the fork was given four tines with a slight curve.  By the 1800’s more and more kinds of utensils were invented.  They had gotten so popular that there would be 16 to 20 different utensils used at a table setting. 

            Today we have practical reasons for each of the utensils at our place setting.  Our salad and appetizer forks are smaller so we can have more control of those objects.  Also, a small nick is cut out of the two side tines of the salad fork to help stab small pieces.  The tines of the fish fork and the blade of the fish knife are made of stainless steel because fish leaves an odor on silver.  The entrée fork and knife are more substantial to help maneuver meats.  There are other utensils, such as tongs, that we do not see a lot of but they are helpful in eating specific foods such as asparagus, snails, and other hard to handle foods.   

            History shows that table settings have evolved with our culture.  As our culture continues to change, can you image one day using a computerized fork that tells us the temperature and calories of each bite, or a laser knife that will slice and cook meat all at the same time?  I definitely appreciate the changes that we have made up to this point and will look forward to what the future will hold.