Although you can still find Britons who measure other people’s intelligence, level of civilization, and general acceptability by whether they use a fork and knife in the approved manner (and of course there’s only one), the fork first arrived in Britain to the sound of mockery and jeering.
Unlike the knife and the spoon, the fork doesn’t seem to be one of those things early humans felt a strong urge to invent.
According to the Smithsonian website, prehistoric humans made spoons out of shells or wood depending what was on hand.
Forks, though? A few early ones have been found, but the design says they weren’t meant to eat with. They had two or three straight tines, and they were meant to hold something down while you cut it, or maybe work something reluctant out of its shell.
The fork dawdles on its way to England
The fork came to Britain by way of Europe, and since this was before the European Union and also before either social media and influencers, it took its own sweet time.
It got to Europe in the eleventh century by way of a couple of Byzantine princesses who married 1) a Venetian doge and 2) a Holy Roman Emperor. Both sent their new subjects (and probably their husbands) into shock by bringing forks with them and then using them to carry food to their mouths.
What was so horrifying about using a fork?
Well, “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers,” according to one of the Venetians.
I just love the religious habit of knowing what god wants. It holds up so well over time.
The princess who married the doge died of the plague a few years later and Saint Peter Damian announced that it was god’s punishment for her vanity.
By the fourteenth century, though, forks were common among merchants.
Why not merchants? It’s beside the point, so we’ll just duck left and avoid that rabbit hole. And while we’re at it, we’ll hop over to England and into the sixteenth century. By then the fork had paddled across the Channel and if you wanted to make fun of someone for being pretentious, all you had to do was associate them with the fork. In Scoff, her book on food and class in Britain, Pen Vogler cites a couple of plays that use them that way.
How did decent people eat?
With their fingers, of course. With their bread. With a knife. Presumably with a spoon, although we won’t find a lot of documentation of spoons early on in English history. The first one mentioned is in Edward I’s wardrobe accounts in 1259. But whether they made it into the written record or not, food that’s cooked needs to be stirred. And food that’s runny doesn’t take well to being eaten with a knife, or even the fingers, although it gets along well enough with bread.
The poor, Vogler reminds us, would mostly have eaten bread and pottage (a stew made mostly of grain, beans, and vegetables, in whatever combination was available). Fingers and (maybe) a spoon would’ve been plenty.
The aristocracy would’ve had a servant to pour water over their hands before they ate and they’d have cut and speared their food with a knife and used a combination of bread and fingers for anything that couldn’t be speared and didn’t need to be cut. So they were fussier about it, but they were still eating with their fingers.
Soups and stews were served in communal bowls, which everyone in reach could dip into. Or so says the Royal Museums Greenwich website. (The link’s above). They wiped their hands on the tablecloths, which were plain linen but damned expensive because everything was handmade, remember. How anyone got the tablecloths clean is beyond me.
Forks were strictly for carving, and even that may have caught on slowly. In 1673, Hannah Woolley felt she needed to encourage gentlewomen to carve and serve meat with a fork.
“It will appear very comely and decent,” she wrote, to use a fork instead of holding the mean with two fingers and the thumb of the left hand.
And I thought my manners were a little rough.
The triumph of the fork
By the time of the Restoration (that’s 1660 to 1666; thank you, Lord G.), matching forks, knives, and spoons were in use among the upper class. This was fancy stuff and it was all part of a rejection of Puritan plainness. Many sets came with a sheath–a sort of travel case–so if you were invited to a fancy dinner you could bring your own. Even in upper class circles, you couldn’t count on your hosts having enough silverware for a party.
The forks involved were still two-tine type. A third tine was added in the eighteenth century, and by this time silverware was being mass produced (in Sheffield, in case you’re interested). If you were trying to claw your way into the upper classes, you’d need a whole set of the stuff. But you’d want to show that you’d gotten the right silverware, so the style was to lay it face down and show off the silver hallmark.
When it wasn’t in use, you’d keep it in a fancy wooden box, sort of like dueling pistols.
Silverware defined the aristocratic life, and starting in the 1820s the kind of novel that gave readers a glimpse of that world was called the silver fork novel.
By Victorian times, cutlery had moved down the social scale, so the upper classes had to complicate their dinner tables to keep from being confused with their underlings. You needed one kind of fork for oysters, another for lobster, another for snails, for fish, for pastry, for dessert (pastry isn’t dessert? Don’t ask me; I’m a barbarian), for berries, for serving bread. And god help the diner (or worse, the hostess) who didn’t know which to use for what. Toss them into the outer darkness.
By now, damn everything had to be eaten with a fork. If you were served jellied something that wobbled and demonstrated a desire to return to a liquid form? Tough. You ate it with a fork. A banana? You could use your knife to help slice it, but you had to eat it with a fork.
Crystallized cherries? You weren’t supposed to use a knife on them, only a fork. I’m not sure what you were supposed to do with the pits. Swallow them? Definitely not spit them at the person sitting across the table, although it might’ve broken the tension.
What’s a crystallized cherry? No idea. It involves sugar. And a cherry.
Now can we let’s leave the upper class struggling unhappily with their crystalized cherries and their forks and see what’s happened to the folks who we last saw eating pottage with their fingers and their bread–and possibly their spoons?
Sure we can. We make our own rules here. Spit the cherry pits if you want to. Just clean them up before you leave.
In 1906, free school meals were offered to the poorest students, although only where the local government saw fit. You know how it is: You feed them once and they only want to eat the next day, so may a local government didn’t see the point. (Universal education until the age of ten had been introduced in 1880, and a lot of people didn’t see the point of that either.)
With the introduction of free school meals, teachers discovered that their students weren’t used to using a knife and fork or to eating at a table.
I can’t help thinking that they were used to the idea that parents couldn’t afford to feed their kids. But not to teach them to eat properly? Now that was serious.
Class and the fork
In the 1920s, stainless steel made cutlery affordable enough for the mass market. So ow the upper class needed a new way to keep themselves from being mistaken from the kind of people who’d spit cherry pits. The proper way to use the knife and fork, if you’re hanging around the upper classes–or the well-behaved middle classes–is to hold your fork upside down. No, that doesn’t mean you hold onto the tines and eat with the handle. You hold the handle, but instead of letting the hollow face upward, as logic dictates, you hold it so the hump faces up and all the food you can’t spear slides off.
Why? So the upper classes can keep their tables free from cherry-pit spitters. It’s a kind of secret handshake, only everyone knows it. It’s just that some of us can’t be bothered using it. Or can’t bring ourselves to do it. Or can’t remember it for the length of a meal.
The people this matters to take it painfully seriously, though. Hold your fork the logical way and you’re (you’ll need to read this next phrase in a disapproving voice) scooping your food. Or even worse, shoveling it. You might get mistaken for someone who eats because they’re hungry.
Vogler quotes Debrett’s–the ultimate British guide to class snobbery–on this: “It may be necessary to use mashed potato to make peas stick to the fork but it is incorrect to turn the fork over and scoop.”
Yes, they’re serious.