Figuring the Fork

By M. Ruth Dike

Darra Goldstein

Have you ever thought about the fork? Darra Goldstein has. On Monday, October 22nd, as part of the “Pépin Lecture Series” sponsored by BU’s Program for Wine, Food, & the Arts, Goldstein, founding editor of food journal Gastronomica gave an excellent lecture on the “Progress of the Fork: From Diabolical to Divine.”

Goldstein began by explaining how the fork, originally associated with pitchforks and the devil, contrasted to the more holy knife and spoon. While the knife is used during the Last Supper to cut bread and the spoon is associated with birth and the Virgin Mary, both have both been in use for much longer than the fork. Before the widespread use of the fork, tapestries, paintings, and even texts like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales give examples of nobles using their hands to eat.

With the rise of the sweetmeat or “wet succets,”which are fruits preserved in sugar and syrup, the succet fork became necessary to ensure that European nobility did not soil their hands. However, there was still much opposition to the fork; France’s Henri III even said that he would not use a fork (like the Italians did) because it was too “dainty” for him. Slowly the fork became more and more widespread throughout Europe, eventually becoming standard in a traveler’s personal cutlery.

Assorted forks. From left to right: dessert fork, relish fork, salad fork, dinner fork, cold cuts fork, serving fork, carving fork. Photo by Mark A. Taff.

With the invention of electroplating in the 1840’s, silver plated forks became easily obtainable by the middle class, especially after silver deposits were discovered on US soil. Because the fork had become accessible to [almost] everyone, the upper class decided to distinguish themselves by producing an exorbitant amount of forks for various uses. Forks were created specifically for macaroni, flaky fish, oysters, various fruits, etc.

Tiffany even created a set including 131 items for one person during the 1880’s. After Herbert Hoover decreed that sets could have a maximum of 55 pieces in 1925, the surprisingly relieved Emily Post said that “no rule is less important than which fork to use.” With some artistic exceptions, fork design has mainly focused on utilitarian purposes recycling previous styles heavily, since the 1930’s.

Needless to say, the audience left with a new appreciation for the engaging history of the fork.

M. Ruth Dike is a first year Gastronomy student. She has BA in Anthropology from the University of Tennessee Knoxville. Her past research explores the tension between traditional and modern cuisine in Morocco.

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