The activity of dining is so common that it is easy to suppose things have always been as they are. But the history of eating utensils, even if only confined to North America, shows that the way people eat has been changing constantly. Only a few hundred years ago most Europeans ate mostly with the aid of daggers and the spoon. The spoon itself may have originated in prehistoric times from shells and other naturally occurring scoops. Knives, however, were truly artificial contrivances. “Because hosts did not provide cutlery for their guests during the Middle Ages in Europe, most people carried their own knives … in sheaths attached to their belts. These knives were narrow and their sharply pointed ends were used to spear food and then raise it to one’s mouth.”
In order to reduce the mayhem at dinner times when men armed with daggers fed at trenchers, often animated by strong waters, King Louis XIV of France ordered all eating knife points ground down. The proscription of points made it hard to spear food and created a market for forks which was acutely felt in the American colonies.
At the beginning of the 18thCentury, very few forks were being imported to America. … Because Americans had very few forks and no longer had sharp-tipped knives, they had to use spoons in lieu of forks. They would use the spoon to steady food as they cut and then switch the spoon to the opposite hand in order to scoop up food to eat. This distinctly American style of eating continued even after forks became commonplace in the United States.
Forks were then newfangled things. When they first made their appearance in Venetian court circles, they were viewed as objects of decadence. “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating.”
But despite these misgivings, by the 1400’s the fork had established itself at many dinner tables. And in the highest circles they appeared in bewildering specialization. Here for a brief moment the triad of Western eating implements is glimpsed in their distinct form. The knife, a cutter. The fork, a spearer. The spoon, a scooper. At the height of this specialization there were distinct implements for eating anything and often a person’s breeding and education could be gauged from his ability to select the right implement for the occasion.
But even as the process of specialization reached its height, a new trend was in evidence. Fusion. The implements were merging. For example, the pure fork was already being doomed by the innovation of the Third Tine. The addition of the third tine to the original two-tine fork made it possible for the fork to perform certain functions originally reserved for spoons. From that fatal moment the pristine distinctiveness of the eating implements began to decline.
The decline of utensil specialization may have been sounded by the establishment of the Food Court where “meals are ordered at one of the vendors and then carried to a common dining area.” In order to avoid the expensive and perhaps unhygienic distribution of cutlery, it became essential to reduce the proliferation of implements. Many food vendors resorted to distributing all-in-one eating implements. The most popular were devices known as sporks, or as they are sometimes called, foons.
Sporks combine the functions of spoons and forks. The earliest spork design was patented by American Samuel Francis in 1874. The obvious defect of the foon/spork is that it has no cutting edge. A more recent innovation which has yet to achieve the success of the spork/foon is the splayd, which is a combination knife, spoon and fork devised by William McArthur of Sydney, Australia. It has a cutting edge built into one side of a squarish spork.
But neither the spork nor the splayd can meet the full range of challenges presented by the modern Food Court. What about sushi, ramen and other Asian-themed dishes? They present special challenges for the spork. Fortunately, a few enterprising American entrepreneurs have created the concept of the Forkchop. The Forkchop is a set of chopsticks with a spoon and fork built into the other end.
What more could you ask for? If the trend towards fusing dining implements into a single implement continues, who knows where it will end. Dining has come a long way from its infancy, when people ate with their fingers to today, when we are able to convey comestibles to the mouth with a high tech, composite material all-in-one implement. Will specialization re-emerge? What will the dining implement of the Food Court of the future look like?