The French Would Still Be Eating With Their Fingers
Over the years, Italians have been responsible for a lot of societal upgrades. Scads of inventions and innovations have their origins in Italy. But who needs radio? What's so great about a battery? And the telephone? (Yes, an Italian developed a working telephone five years before the Scottish guy patented his.) Italians were also behind everything from the architectural arch to the Zamboni. However, there is one Italian innovation that stands above all others in terms of its impact on society and civilization: I'm talking about the fork.
Okay. Italians didn't actually invent the fork. It had been around in some form or another in other parts of the world for centuries. But Italians are credited for its spread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The French would still be eating with their fingers if the Italians hadn't shown them how to use forks.
The word “fork” itself comes from the Latin “furca,” meaning “pitchfork.” In modern Italian, it's forchetta. In order to qualify as a fork, an implement must have two or more prongs. Otherwise it's just a stick.
Bronze Age civilizations used forks as cooking tools. So did ancient Egyptians. Somebody probably found a forked stick laying around and figured out that it would hold a hunk of meat over a fire better than a straight stick would. The Greeks adapted the fork for use as a serving utensil. But nobody commonly ate with forks until the Byzantines came up with the idea in the 3rd or 4th century. The Byzantine Empire, aka the Eastern Roman Empire, was the most powerful economic, military, and cultural force in Europe during its heyday from about the middle of the 4th century until late in the 13th. Philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, law, art, and literature all thrived under the Empire's influence during this period. Cuisine also advanced in Byzantine circles. A lot of modern Greek food – baklava, for example – can follow its roots back to Byzantine times. So can the tools used for eating said food; tools such as forks.
By the 10th century, a variation of the modern table fork was in use in Persia and throughout the Middle East. It is thought that Western Europeans were introduced to the utensil by the Byzantine wife of Emperor Otto II when she used one at an Imperial banquet in 972. Some sources credit the Byzantine spouse of a Venetian Doge a little bit later. Regardless, within a hundred or so years, the fork had taken over the Italian peninsula.
See, Marco Polo myth notwithstanding, pasta was already a staple of the Italian diet in those days. So it's no wonder the fork was an instant sensation. Try eating spaghetti by wrapping it around one chopstick. That's pretty much what the Italians were doing. Once they got hold of forks, all bets were off. They even improved on the design by adding a third appendage to the existing two, possibly taking a cue from the ancient trident.
That's not to say that everybody in Italy all of a sudden started eating with forks. The spoon had been around since folks figured out how to scoop food with a curved shell. But the knife was the all-around indispensable eating implement. People had been nibbling tasty morsels off the point of the device with which they stabbed and killed their food (or their neighbor) since the beginning of time. They even mashed up food and scraped it onto the blade for transport to the mouth. Even after forks started making the rounds, they remained mostly within the purview of the upper class. Indeed, they became status symbols, with wealthy Italians hauling them around to fancy banquets in an ornate box called a cadena.
Not everybody was on board with the fork at first. The Catholic Church took offense (surprise, surprise), censuring the use of forks by decreeing that they were an affront to God's intentions for fingers. (Why the hat wasn't an affront to God's intentions for hair, I don't know.) When the fork wielding Venetian lady alluded to in an earlier paragraph died of a plague a few years after her scandalous banquet performance, St. Peter Damian proclaimed that her death was God's punishment for her use of a fork. “Nor did she deign to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth. . . . this woman’s vanity was hateful to Almighty God; and so, unmistakably, did He take his revenge. For He raised over her the sword of His divine justice, so that her whole body did putrefy and all her limbs began to wither.” Eventually, common sense prevailed and by the 16th century, not only the Italians, but the Spanish and the Portuguese were all chowing down with forks. The French and the English, however, were a little slow.
It took that great Renaissance trendsetter, Caterina de' Medici, to bring a touch of civilization to the uncultured wilderness of France. When she married the French king, Henry II, in 1533, she brought an entourage of Florentine cooks with her to the French court, probably so she could eat a decent meal from time to time. She also brought a set of dinner forks, supposedly crafted by noted Italian silversmith Benvenuto Cellini. Always at the forefront of fashion, the French rejected the fork, calling it an “Italian affectation” and considering it awkward and even dangerous. It took them more than a hundred years to figure out how to use it properly. Even the “Sun King,” Louis XIV, for all his grandiose vanity, was known to eat with his fingers or a knife. By the way, it was Louis who was more or less responsible for our current dinner knives. In 1669, he banned pointy knives at his table in an effort to reduce violence. But I digress.
When it came to forks, the English turned out to be bigger Luddites than the French. One Thomas Coryate brought the fork to England after completing the “Grand Tour” of Europe in 1608. Of the mysterious eating utensil he wrote, “I observed a custome in all those Italian Cities and Townes through which I passed that is not used in any other country that I saw in my travels, neither doe I think that any other nation of Christendome doth use it, but only Italy. The Italian, and also most strangers that are cormorant in Italy, does alwaies at their meales, use a little fork when they cut the meate . . . their forkes being for the most part made of iron or steel, and some of silver, but these are used only by gentlemen. The reason of this their curiosity is because the Italian cannot endure by any means to have his dish touched by fingers, seeing that all men's fingers are not alike cleane. Hereupon I myself thought to imitate the Italian fashion by this forke cutting of meate, not only while I was in Italy, but also in Germany, and often-times in England since I came home." His friends did not share his enthusiasm or his avant-garde approach to dining. They dubbed him “Furcifer” – “Fork Bearer” – and the rest of the English gentry ridiculed the device as being effeminate and unnecessary.
Eventually, the aristocracy got with the program and embraced the fork. England's Charles I – while he still had his head – declared in 1633 that, “It is decent to use a fork.” Of course, it took about a hundred years for the fashion to trickle down to the common man. And even though forks crossed the Atlantic, they were still a rarity in the North American colonies at the time of the American Revolution.
Inasmuch as the Italians were responsible for the introduction of the fork, it took the Germans to redesign it to its current popular form. Like Italians, Germans had a real bug about eating with the fingers. They considered the practice to be rude and disrespectful. But as originally conceived, the fork was flat. That made it really tough to eat things like peas and grains. And with only two or three prongs, food often fell through the spaces. So German craftsmen tinkered with a slightly curved fork as early as the mid-18th century and by the early 19th had added a fourth prong, nowadays officially called a “tine.” (Taken from an old Germanic word for “point.”)
Of course, that didn't mean that people were any more conversant with how to use the newfangled things. An early Maine diner complained, “Eating peas with a fork is as bad as trying to eat soup with a knitting needle.” A wealthy Fleet Street silversmith, faced with an impeccably set table in a customer's home, lamented in 1824, “I know how to sell these articles, but not how to use them.” This is a refrain that still echoes at today's more elegant affairs. Do you use the salad fork, the meat fork, the oyster fork, the dinner fork, the dessert fork, the pickle fork, the fish fork, the crab fork, the fondue fork, the cocktail fork, the cheese fork, the berry fork, the asparagus fork, the olive fork, the pastry fork.......or do you just chuck it all and use the spork?
A portmanteau of “spoon” and “fork,” today's ubiquitous plastic “spork” was patented in 1970. But the design goes back a long way. Earlier patents for metal utensils were filed as far back as 1874 and the English had something similar in the “sucket fork,” an implement with a two-or three-pronged fork on one end and a spoon bowl on the other, as far back as the 16th century.
So the next time you stick your fork into a mound of mashed potatoes, a pile of pasta, or a juicy piece of meat, pause and think, sia ringraziato agli italiani. (“Thanks be to the Italians.”) Without them you'd be sitting in a house with no battery-powered radio and no way to call anybody while you ate your meat and potatoes with your fingers and a knife. Not a pretty picture.