Why Do We Eat With a Knife, Fork, and Spoon?


George F. asks: What is the origin of our current table utensils? Have the knife, fork, and spoon always been around?

Dear George: When you think of it, the knife, fork, and spoon is a rather ratty and illogical collection of table utensils, suggesting a piecemeal process of assembling them. It is often said that one-third of the world eats with its hands, one-third with chopsticks, and one-third with a knife, fork, and spoon.

The spoon itself evolved from the serving spoon that must have been invented in humankind’s remote past for ladling food out of a communal bowl. Eventually, spoons were appropriated for individual personal use, and then scaled down to carry bite-size quantities of food. In contemporary African restaurants, patrons sometimes eat with a big serving spoon instead of their hands, suggesting that such utensils were added to the African kitchenware arsenal at a fairly late date by colonialists, and only slowly adopted by the Africans.

Note that, even though utensils are considered ubiquitous in America, and are often worth very little (a single household may have hundreds of knives, forks, and spoons), in medieval Europe, and in much of the third world today, individual utensils are considered valuable possessions. Remember how the peasant in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting “Peasant Dance” (1568) had a spoon stuck in his cap? That was because it was a precious possession, and he wanted to know where it was all the time.

The knife is another utensil with a murky and early origin. It probably descended from weapons with sharp edges used to hunt animals, modified so as to be used only for cutting, and not for spear-chucking.


Nevertheless, the original of the table knife — an implement intended only for eating, and not for any other purpose, usually with a blunted end — was specifically introduced by Cardinal Richelieu in the 1630s, supposedly to keep his guests from picking their teeth at the table with the sharp points of their multipurpose knives. Even today, gentlemen in Montreal sometimes carry knives for use at table that resemble foldable hunting knives, with bone handles and much sharper points than you’re likely to find even in carving knives.

Until a late point in European culinary history, the spoon and the knife were the sole utensils used to eat with, but as dishes become more profuse and evolved, the necessity for a third utensil arose. Though there are records of forks, usually two-tine, being used in ancient Greece and Rome, these usually had very specific purposes — e.g., pulling pickles out of a stone crock. The idea of using them at the table didn’t occur until much later. Thomas Coryat (1577-1617), an English travel writer who rambled around Europe and Asia Minor, is credited with introducing the table fork into service in 1601, and was nicknamed “Furcifer” (“fork-giver”) as a result.

The utility of the fork, of course, lies in extending the reach of the human hand, so that one may stab something and bring it hither. Multiple tines ensure a firmer purchase on the food being stabbed. While the earliest table forks were principally used to bring pieces of meat from a dish to the individual plate, the fork gradually became used with the rest of the table utensils in a kind of ensemble, in which the user must choose which implement or combination of implements best serve the purpose at hand. In eating a steak, for example, one might use a knife and a fork, the former to carve, the latter first to hold the meat and then to ferry a bite to the mouth.

Since the 17th century, when modern methods of table usage were first developed, little has gone on in the world of knife, fork, and spoon. An exception is the invention of the spork, a combination spoon and fork. Though patents go back as early as 1874, these odd implements are principally used today for the purpose of decreasing by one the number of utensils that fast-food outlets must provide, and the overwhelming majority are made of plastic.

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