Monday, March 12, 2012

Fork (it's more interesting than you thought!)

This is the biggest fork I could find. Forks are so small and seemingly un-exciting, so I thought I'd treat you to a picture of a salad-server fork. It comes with a matching spoon. This couldn't be a more boring photo idea, right? Wrong. Have you ever wondered why forks have four tines? Did you even know that the little pokey things were called tines? Well, dear readers, today is your lucky day. I shall answer these questions, and more, below. Today I treat you to a history of the fork in the western world (according to research done by Mr. Bill Bryson, one of my very favorite authors). 

Bryson is speaking here about the late 17th century and the emergence of the dining room. Until then, meals were served on tables in any room in the house. Dining rooms, according to Bryson, came about because of "a simple desire on the part of the mistress of the house to save her lovely new upholstered furniture from greasy desecration."

The following (and the quote above) is taken directly from his brilliant book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life. Go (buy it here) and read it! It is well-written, hilariously-written, and extraordinarily interesting, if something as dull as home life is fascinating to you. I can't help myself; I love it.
The arrival of the dining room marked a change not only in where the food was served but also in how it was eaten and when. For one thing, forks were now suddenly becoming common. Forks had been around for a long time but took forever to gain acceptance. Fork originally signified an agricultural implement and nothing more; it didn't take on a food sense until the mid-fifteenth century, and then it described a large implement used to pin down a bird joint for carving. The person credited with introducing the eating fork to England was Thomas Coryate, an author and traveller from the time of Shakespeare who was famous for walking huge distances--including once to India. In 1611, he produced his magnum opus, Coryate's Crudities, in which he gave much praise to the dinner fork, which he had first encountered in Italy. The same book was also notable for introducing English readers to the Swiss folk hero William Tell and to a new device called the umbrella. 
Eating forks were thought comically dainty and unmanly--and dangerous, too, come to that. Since they had only two sharp tines, the scope for piercing one's lip or tongue was great, particularly if one's aim was impaired by wine and jollity. Manufacturers  experimented with additional numbers of tines--sometimes as many as six--before settling, late in the nineteenth century, on four as the number that people seemed to be most comfortable with. Why four should induce the optimum sense of security isn't easy to say, but it does seem to be a fundamental fact of flatware psychology. 
 So, think about that the next time you use a fork. Thank you very much, Mr. Bryson. 

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