The Roman Catholic Church once denounced the use of forks. “God in his wisdom has provided people with natural forks-his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them while eating.”
The first modern fork, as far as we know, was used in the 11th century by the wife of the Venetian Doge, Domenico Salvo. This angered St. Peter Damian, Cardinal Bishop of Ostia. (Not a very tolerant man; he described the first grammarian as the devil). He rather gleefully fingered the fork when the poor woman’s “body, after her excessive delicacy, entire rotted away.”
One could also of course blame the plague.
This tool-of-the-devil label buried the fork for a few hundred years. Even if the devil was the most famous fork-wielder of them all, the main forking offence seems to have been effeminacy.
Little forked instruments
King Henri III and his friends were mocked for using forks in 1605. They stretched “their necks over their plates..they would rather touch their mouths with their little forked instruments than their fingers.”
They probably did look comical, chasing vegetables around their plate. The forks with their long, spread out prongs were made for spearing, not for scooping. As recently as the early 19th century, an American complained that “eating peas with a fork is as bad as trying to eat soup with a knitting needle.”
Nevertheless, in 16th century Italy, nobles and the upper-class were BYC (bringing their own cutlery) to dinner parties in a box called in Cadena. This included a knife and fork. In England, real men didn’t use forks in the 1600s. “We need no forks to make hay with our mouths, to throw out meat into them, ” according to the poet Nicholas Breton in 1618.
Thomas Coryate, who picked up the Italian style of eating meat with a fork, was teased by his English fiends. They called him “furcifer” which means “fork eater” but also – burn!- “rascal”. Queen Elizabeth I owned forks for sweetmeats but chose to use her hands instead, finding the spearing method too gauche.
By the 17th century, tableware advertised a family’s wealth and prestige. At the table of Louis XIV (reigned 1643-1715), the lord pantler was in charge of tasting the king’s food and arranging his knife and fork. The pantler’s coat of arms bore an image of a gold or silver container that held knife, fork, and salt cellar.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, forks began to appear for strangely specific niches. For the Victorians, the devil was in the details.
Peas fixed the fork
In the 17th century, peas were all the rage among the French nobility. But eating them was tricky. You couldn’t scoop the peas up because of the wide hole between the fork’s two tines. So the tech evolved.
Still, the fork can’t do everything.
In the early 19th century, there was a very brief vogue among “fashionables” for eating soup with a fork.
It was soon condemned as “foolish” and the spoon was restored.
Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat
By Bee Wilson
An Uncommon History of Common Things
By Patrick Bethanne
Encyclopedia of Kitchen History
By Mary Ellen Snodgrass
Elegant Etiquette in the Nineteenth Century
By Mallory James
Siobhan is a freelance writer, research addict and lover of twisted history. If you like horrible but amazing history, check out her website www.interesly.com or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/interesly. Or you can reach her through www.siobhanoshea.com.