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Forks, Glorious Forks

By LC Van Savage

Yul Brynner in “The King and I” sits with Debora Kerr as they dine. He holds up a fork and says, “The fork is a curious tool. It picks up food and then it leaks.” He was right. They do.

Luckily for all of us today, we always carry two of them with us at all times, hanging from the ends of our wrists. Five tines each. Our very first forks, our hands.

Aesthetically today however, it’s just not nice to use our hands to grab meat and gravy, mashed potatoes and coleslaw from plates or platters; when our guests do that, we don’t invite them over anymore. Our babies are allowed to do that with their hands, but we take that right away from them early on, and force them to use metal things to stuff food into their eager mouths, and they dislike doing that when it happens, but eventually the world tells them they have to give in, and so they do.

Spoons and knives of sorts were kind of used, around the time of the long-ago Greeks and they did have a big two-tined fork which was used to hold meat still while carving, but forks for dining weren’t much in favor.

But then around the 7th century A. D., the Middle East royals began to use forks. And then came the wealthy Byzantines in the 11th century who also began to use them. A Byzantine wife named Theophanu, wife of a Doge (that means Bigshot in Byzantinespeak) brought a bunch of forks to the attention of people in Italy, but they didn’t catch on right away, and by “right away” I mean they finally hit it big in the 16th century, 5 centuries later. I imagine people’s clothing back then was pretty greasy. I mean if no one used cutlery, I kind of think napkins weren’t probably in vogue either, so that leaves clothing, beards, head hair, friend’s backs, long grasses, pets, or personal tongues for cleaning the fatted calf drippings from one’s hands. Eeuw.

Well, then comes along one Mr. Thomas Coryate who saw the forks in Italy while on vacation, and brought a bunch back to England where they didn’t catch on too well either, because the Brits thought forks were effeminate and unnecessary. “Why should a person need a fork when God has given him hands?” they asked. Ugh. Shaking hands with a guy during dinner back then must have been majorly gross.

But then forks became sort of popular, starting out small for sweet sticky foods especially used by the Brits with a lot of lucre, made of expensive stuff, ivory and gold etc., so the guests would be jealous and impressed. Thus, the use of forks became a social status thing and they began to grow in popularity until even the not-so wealthy began to use them. Then Germany, Holland, Sweden, America and other countries caught onto the new fad.

Bone forks were found in burial sites of the Qiujia culture and I’m not going to even pretend I know what or where that is, and some small forks have been found in Chinese dynasties’ tombs and I do know where China is. The word fork comes from Greece, bet you knew that, from the Latin furca which we all know means “pitchfork” and forks used during sacrifices are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and I don’t really want to know what the sacrifice was or why a fork was needed.

But getting back to Thomas Coryat and his trips to Italy where he found those aforementioned forks; it was about that time, around 1611, that the Roman Catholic Church weighed in on the important fork issue and strongly wrote about their disapproval of forks, seeing it as “excessive delicacy.” “God,” they intoned, “in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks---his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them when eating.” Oh my lord. Well, it didn’t take. All my Roman Catholic friends today use forks when they eat, absolutely all of them.

I personally wish we used forks the way people in Europe do, especially the English. They pile their food onto the backs of overturned forks and pop it into their mouths. So easy. Here in America, eating is labor intensive. We cut something which is being held onto the plate with our forks, we saw the thing into pieces with the knife held in our right hands, we put the knife down and transfer the cut morsel into our right hands and then insert it into the mouth. (Reverse all that if you’re left handed.) So much busy-ness when we should just cut the thing and eat it. But no.

Hey, here’s a little bit of fork trivia. In the 11th Century, when a Greek princess upped and died not too long after she introduced forks at her wedding to a Venetian Doge, it was perceived as a divine punishment. It is not noted what the little deceased bride did to earn such a punishment to her poor, dead soul, but it must have been something really bad! Eleventh century tabloid stuff, right?

Are you in the least interested in how many types of forks exist today? No? Well, here goes anyway. The spork—half fork, half spoon. Very popular in the military and fast food joints. The knork - which is not the sound your husband makes when snoring, but a fork-knife combination. Beef fork –tines curved outward. Good for piercing thin sliced beef. Berry fork – obvious. Carving fork – 2 pronged, designed to hold the Thanksgiving turkey still on the platter so Gramps doesn’t shoot the bird off into space while carving, splatting it on Gramma’s favorite wallpaper. Cheese fork – obvious. Chip fork – another two pronger, designed for eating French fries, also known as “chips” in the UK although most people dine on fries with their natural forks. Dessert fork – or pudding fork in the UK. Hard to imagine getting pudding into one’s mouth with a fork, so maybe that’s what Yul referenced when he said that forks leak.

Then we’ve got your fish, fondue, meat, olive, oyster, pastry, pickle, pie, relish, salad, splayd, (combo of spoon, fork and knife invented in 1940) tea, toasting, dessert, fruit and spaghetti forks. And yes, a tea fork does leave one wondering. Is it for the liquid tea, or “tea” as in “We’re throwing a tea next Sunday to celebrate St. Swithin’s Day.”

So there you have it. As you can see, for a well appointed home, one must have one of each, except of course one must have twelve of each of the regular day-to-day forks for when company drops in, lots of company. I mean it simply wouldn’t do to not have at least six sterling oyster and relish forks. No, it would not do at all. Bon appétit, foodies and forkies!

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