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The Flat Cap on ... Cutlery

Yesterday evening The Flat Cap went out for a slap up meal with friends. Ahead of the second course he was supplied with a steak knife instead of the one at his place setting. The Flat Cap enjoys a good cut of sirloin and doesn’t think that he could ever go vegetarian; not that he’s got anything against veggies. It’s just that he likes the taste of meat. Anyway the replacement knife got him thinking about knives, forks and spoons so he decided to find out more about their origins and who came up with the idea that it wasn’t polite to eat using just your hands.

So what came first, the knife, the fork or the spoon? Getting an answer to this apparently simple question is tricky. There are historians who will tell you it was the spoon because human beings have always looked around for items with which to scoop up their food. Then there are academics who argue knives were the first item of cutlery because food needed cutting up into manageable portions. Fortunately there is a general consensus that prodding at things with a fork seems to have come later.

So was it the knife, or was it the spoon? The case for knives is pretty clear cut (no pun intended). As far back as the Paleolithic period men were sharpening stones and flints to hack at the carcasses of animals. These hunter gatherers would also forage about for fruit, cut it up and and drink Old Stone Age versions of Vimto. By the New Stone Age (Neolithic period) people were attaching wooden handles to their sharp stones and by 1,000 BC they’d replaced the pointy stones with iron blades. The problem with knives is that they’re rather sharp and popping food into your mouth after a few glasses of wine or ale is fraught with problems. So many people were phoning in sick and so many days were lost at work from mouth injuries that something had to be done. In 1669 French king Louis XIV passed legislation outlawing the use of sharp knives at the dinner table and had them replaced with wider, blunter versions. The benefits of his law were self evident and it wasn’t long before Health & Safety Departments across the globe began to draft similar regulations. In England it was left to parliament to pass the Dangerous Pointy Knives Act, and it received royal assent in 1672.

The earliest spoons weren’t really spoons at all. Instead people just used to scoop up their ice cream with shells or animal horns (once they’d detached the animals from their horns; which arguably required a knife of some sort). However this was all a bit messy until someone clever came up with the idea of attaching handles to the scooping part. Before then adults were just as likely to drop food down themselves as would their young children. The invention of napkins was still a long way off. By examining the food stained clothing of ancient peoples archaeologists have been able to determine their typical diets.

Compared to knives and spoons the fork is a fairly recent invention. It is known that the Egyptians used forks during religious rites and if members of the congregation were nodding off the high priest, or one of his choirboys, was allowed to poke people with the sacred prodder. Not to be outdone forks were being used by the Qijia culture in eastern China more than four thousand years ago The Greeks were a bit more practical and used a two pronged fork to hook out lumps of meat from big pots of soup. However it was not until the Middle Ages that forks began to catch on as tableware. In the opinion of many historians the fork was popularised by French queen Catherine de Medici. She has also been credited with introducing haute cuisine to the French palate. It wasn’t too difficult a task as around this time anything Italian was in vogue due to the Renaissance. However her husband King Henry ll preferred burger and chips.

The Flat Cap remembered that he had some John Lewis vouchers so set off to his local store to see if there were any cutlery bargains to be had. As is customary on his trips out he met a store assistant called Roger who provided the following cutlery related facts and advice:

  • When spending a lot of money on cutlery always buy items that are dishwasher safe and guaranteed to last

  • Back in 1005 Maria Argyropoulina, the niece of Byzantine Emperor Basil ll, took a case of golden forks to Venice as part of her dowry. This was ahead of her marriage to the Doge’s son. She caused a right kerfuffle when she used the two pronged forks to eat her wedding breakfast. Thinking that she was a bit snooty and committing a sin against God the Venetian clergy were appalled and one was moved to write, “God 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.” When Maria died from the plague in 1006 it was seen as some divine judgement. As far as the Venetians were concerned God was more a finger food friendly deity

  • The world’s most famous fork is “Southfork Ranch” which was home to the Ewing family in the prime time television series Dallas

  • In Roman times you had a choice of spoons – one for soft foods like soup, or yoghurt or Angel Delight, and another for eating your boiled eggs

  • “The wooden spoon” is the award given to an individual or team that comes last in a competition. The term originates from the University of Cambridge and was first presented as a kind of booby prize to the student with the lowest exam marks, and who yet still earned a third class degree in the Mathematical Tripos

  • “On a knife-edge” is a popular synonym to describe situations which could go either way, success or failure

  • When visiting England American actress Reese Witherspoon loves nothing more than to eat a nice bowl of tomato soup at her favourite JD Wetherspoon pub. She always uses her own monogrammed soup spoon that she carries around in one of her many handbags

  • The correct word for a fork /spoon hybrid is “spork” and the earliest designs date back to the nineteenth century

  • Until Harry Brearley invented stainless steel in 1913 cutlery would rust if you didn’t dry it properly

  • During the Middle Ages and beyond it was customary for a traveller to carry around his or her own personal set of cutlery. Hosts were not expected to provide knives, forks and spoons. Meanwhile poor people couldn’t even afford proper plates and had to be content with pushing their food around four day old pieces of bread called “trenchers”

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