For centuries, eating with two knives was considered the pinnacle of class – now we have the fork

We arrived at the restaurant, my friend and I, it was after midnight. The kitchen was still open, but the forks and spoons were in the dishes, there were only knives. We could also do with two knives, I suggested. My friend disagreed. And if that was possible, he thought it was at least uncivilized.

The relationship between fork and etiquette – the set of arbitrary, ceremonial ‘manners’ we must display every day to show our politeness – is an interesting one. The eminent sociologist Joop Goudsblom once defined culture as: everything that people learn from each other. They are skills that increase our chances of survival, but also rules of decency without a directly demonstrable utility, which nonetheless maintain our social place (if known and applied) or undermine it (if not). And you could say that our culinary etiquette started with the introduction of the fork.

Umberto Eco wrote that all the tools we use today are based on prehistoric objects. The knife is also, as far as we can see, the successor to the sharp stones with which our cave-dwelling ancestors cut their vegetables and raw meat, engineer Henry Petroski outlines in his classic The development of useful things (1992). The discovery of fire and the resulting ability to cook (and thus tenderize) meat was the basis for the emergence of the wooden knife. Fire also led to cutting irons such as the scramasax from Saxony: a machete-like cleaver used to cut meat but could also be used for DIY. Eating, building, destroying and killing were done with the same tools.

In the first half of the Middle Ages, eating habits were refined by adding another knife to the eating utensils. With one you held the food, with the other you cut. As things go; because the inventive human mind is always looking for improvement, one thing leads to the next. Variations came on the market: stab knives, spreading knives, decorative knives.

While eating with two knives was seen as the pinnacle of class for centuries, frustration grew with the knife’s jab-and-hold function. And now came a defining moment in the label’s history. A new piece of eating utensils was created, which was not necessary in the strict sense, but which provided comfort and also looked beautiful: the fork. The era of naked things was over, time to separate ourselves from others.

Forks were used at the court of Charles V (1338-1380), but as a rarity, according to the inventory only intended ‘for food that might stain the fingers’. The fork did not appear in England until the seventeenth century, to the delight of the populace, who saw the object as a bizarre continental decadence. But the skepticism disappeared. The other knife slowly disappeared from the table. The two-legged form was improved to three- or four-legged. In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, more and more people wanted to show their manners, and one of the ways they could do that was by eating with a fork. The fork led to a discussion about what was more appropriate: to put it to the left or right of the plate? As I said, etiquette rules are essentially arbitrary, which is also their strength. Because you can’t justify them, ‘savoir faire’ remains the only real reason to do it this way or that, and that knowledge determines whether you ‘fit in’ or not. The fork has now become standard in all western countries. In fact, we invented another eating utensil: the spoon, as a civilized substitute for the hand.

Although we see knife, spoon and fork as the self-evident trinity of the dining room, their separate origins reveal another part of the human psyche. The knife proves that we know what we need. The fork that we like to show others how to make. And it happens that we are creatures of convenience.

I told all this to my friend who gave me a glassy look. Before he could decide on a possible second knife, we got a fork and spoon.

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