Eating Tools History, by Bee Wilson

Eating Tools History, by Bee Wilson


Knife, fork and spoon: one, two, three. We are so used to this being the automatic triumvirate of cutlery on the table that we do not pause to think how recently the trio came together.

For thousands of years, it was just knife and fingers. The first Stone Age Cutting tools date back 2.6 million years to Ethiopia. They enabled us to get some purchase on tough meats that our teeth alone were too feeble to manage. Next came spoons, fig-shaped and pear-shaped, made of bone and wood and metal. The first spoon was probably a shell lashed onto a stick. But by Roman times, beautiful silver spoons were made with long thin handles that would not look out of place in a high-end cutlery store today.

Yet still no forks. Correction: there were forks in ancient times, but they were used for serving food or turning meat as it roasted. Yet the table fork in our sense came much later. It was accepted in Italy long before anywhere else in Europe, the reason being pasta (forks are still the perfect implement with which to twirl long strands of buttery noodles). Elsewhere, eating with forks was seen as unnecessary and a bit weird. Why would you want to put metal prongs into your mouth along with the food? It was only when the knife changed in form - from a sharp, personal object to a blunt instrument laid impersonally on the table - that the fork finally gained acceptance.

Soon, the fork became the most polite tool for eating pretty much everything except soup. In the early nineteenth century there was even a brief vogue among fashionable types for eating soup with a fork but, for obvious reasons, it was swiftly abandoned. But special forks were devised for ice cream and salads; for sardines and terrapins. The basic rule of Western table manners was: if in doubt, use a fork. Edwardians held 'fork luncheons' and 'fork dinners', buffet meals at which the knife was dispensed with altogether.

Usually, however, the fork was joined by the knife and the spoon. As it is today, on tables from the humblest diner to the fanciest Michelin-starred restaurant. The materials and design of the cutlery may vary hugely, but the union of the three implements seems eternal.

But is it? If the history of cutlery tells us anything, it is that ways of eating are far more changeable than we imagine. Table utensils are above all cultural objects and therefore change with the surrounding culture. It's possible that with the rise of China, more people in the West will learn the joys of eating with chopsticks. Or maybe a hundred years from now, the spork will win out and three will become one.

Bee Wilson is the author of Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat