Sunday, 8 March 2009

A History of Cutlery

Prehistoric man used flints to cut meat and dig for vegetables. The flint-maker utilised a rock to chip off the pieces of flint, or it was prepared by hitting it against a large stone set on the ground. Tree bark, seashells or tortoise shells were used as containers to collect, transport, preserve, cook and eat food. Spoons cut in a simple fashion out of wood, bone or shells were used both to prepare and eat the meal. By 4000 BC the first two pronged forks were being used in Turkey.
Around 1700BC chopsticks made of ivory, bone or wood, were being prepared in China. With tables virtually unknown one hand had to be free to hold the bowl and they proved to be a practical solution. The replacement of chopsticks over knives for eating at the table indicated the increased respect for the scholar over the warrior in Chinese society.
By 1500 BC bronze cutting implements were being used from the British Isles to China. The ancient Greeks and Romans used two pronged kitchen forks to assist in the carving and serving of meat. The fork's teeth prevented meat from moving during carving and allowed food to slide off more easily than it would with a knife. However the Romans and Greeks did not use forks whilst eating, instead they washed their fingers between every course. The Romans used two different types of spoons made of bronze or silver. One with a pointed oval bowl and a handle ending in a decorative design was used for soups and pottages. The second was a small spoon with a round bowl and a pointed, narrow handle for eating shellfish and eggs. Knives of all sizes were used, made of iron, with bone, wood or bronze handles. The poor would use spoons made of bone. When the food was ready it was served on a discus, a large circular silver, or bronze or pewter plate. The Romans also moulded them from glass paste. The poor would use wood plates. By the end of the first century Porcelain had been perfected in China and some culinary utensils were being made with it.
In medieval Europe, a meat based Viking dish was served on wooden plates and eaten with a personal knife. Soups and pottages were served in wooden bowls and eaten with wooden or horn spoons.
Meanwhile the Normans were developing the saucer. The small plate contained sauce each diner having an individual saucer in which they dipped their food to enhance the flavour.
In the late 11th century small two pronged eating forks began to appear on mainland Europe, in Tuscany. Forks had been introduced into Venice by a Byzantine princess and were now spreading throughout Italy. Thomas Beckett was one of the few Englishmen to use a fork when eating. He introduced a two-pronged fork to England after his exile in Italy but when he tried to explain that one of the advantages of the fork was it could be washed Henry II replied “But, so can your hands”.
Broth was usually served in bowls made of a thick slice of stale bread that soaked up the juice. When they become too impregnated with broth or sauce they were changed or sometimes at the end of the meal and were given to the poor. These trenchers were shared by two people, the lesser helping the more important, the younger the older, the man the woman. The former in each case broke the bread, cut the meat, and passed the cup. The liquid was sipped directly from the bowl. Diners used their right hands to pull out chunks of meat or vegetables from shared bowls. The more finicky used knives to spear the solids and convey them to the mouth.
By the beginning of the 13th century cutlery manufacture had began to settle in London and Sheffield in England and in places on the continent where craft guilds existed. Craftsmen produced elaborately ornamented blades and fashioned handles of such fine materials as amber, ebony, gold, ivory, marble and silver. England’s King Edward 1st’s 1307 royal inventory showed 7 forks- 6 silver and 1 gold and thousands of knives.
By the end of the 13th century in the homes of wealthy Western Europeans it was becoming usual to provide knives for guests, though most men carried their own. These knives were narrow and their sharply pointed ends were used to spear food and then lift it to one's mouth. Dinner hosts also usually supplied spoons, generally made of wood or horn. Forks were still rarely used apart from in Italy as clergymen condemned their use, arguing that only human fingers, created by God, should touch God’s provisions. Also the use of the fork by men was considered effeminate.
In the second half of the 15th century a change in the design of spoons was required once men and women started wearing large, stiff-laced collars called ruffs. Originally those wearing ruffs around their necks couldn’t easily drink soup from bowls, as the early spoons with their short stems, were not able to transport the soup past the ruffs without spilling. So spoon handles lengthened and the spoon's bowl became larger permitting more liquid to be transported to the mouth with less chance of dribbling the contents on the ruffs.
In the 1570s Henry III of France, during a visit to the court at Venice, noted that a two-pronged table forks were being used. He brought some back to France and some of the French nobility started using them. Meanwhile in England very little cutlery was used, even Queen Elizabeth 1st would pick up her chicken bone deftly in her long fingers rather than use cutlery. The few plates there were would be made of wood or pewter and the spoons of wood, silver or tin.
In 1608 an Englishman named Thomas Coryate brought some forks back to England after seeing them in Italy during his travels there. But by the 1650s forks were still rarely used, apart from in the kitchen or at the serving table to hold meat when it was being cut. Indeed at European banquets hands were still being used to serve much of the food, even though the servants were only using their fingertips. It wasn’t until the 1670s that the fork began to achieve general popularity as an eating implement. Once their efficiency for spearing food was noted there was no longer any need for a pointed tip at the end of a dagger which were used as toothpicks and to cut meat. Consequently in France King Louis XIV ordered rounded knives, which Cardinal Richelieu had introduced 35 years earlier so that the diners couldn’t stab each other. Further, he decreed all pointed daggers on the street or the dinner table illegal, and all knife points were ground down in order to reduce violence.
18th century Americans would either use their fingers to eat or spoons with which they steadied the food as they cut it and then passed the spoon to the other hand in order to scoop the food up. Meanwhile four pronged forks were being used by the French nobility at separate place settings to distinguish themselves from the lower classes who still shared bowls and glasses. The additional prongs made diners less likely to drop food and the curves in the prongs served as a scoop so people did not have to constantly switch to a spoon while eating.
By the early 19th Century, these four pronged forks had also been developed in England and were spreading to America. At first they were used mainly in restaurants or to hold meat while cutting it. Many were still suspicious, an irate American Preacher told his congregation that to eat meat with a fork is to declare irreverently that God’s creatures are not worthy of being touched by human hand.
By this time Sheffield, in England had become an international center of the cutlery industry.
In 1840 the Englishman Elkington and the Frenchman Ruolz simultaneously invented electroplating. With the mass production of silverplating elegant dining utensils became widely available to American and British households with moderate incomes. Rather than using their fingers to eat many Americans were now using forks for everyday meals. Meanwhile in Britain the wealthy would show their wealth and status by collecting as many silver services as they could afford- the bigger, the better.
In 1912 Stainless Steel, steel that was very resistant to corrosion and couldn’t be hardened by cooling, was invented in England. The development of stainless steel cutlery made a cutlery set affordable for most households.
By the middle of the 20th century all meals in western households were being eaten with either a knife and fork or spoon. However times were a' changing. In 1948 Dick and Maurice McDonald replaced the trained cooks in their San Bernardino, California restaurant with low-paid teenagers who simply flipped burgers and dunked fries in oil. The menu was reduced to a few items and cutlery and china were discarded. Customers had to queue for their food and eat out of a cardboard carton with their hands. Prices were reduced, people piled in and the fast food restaurant was born.
This initial move towards eating without cutlery is gathering steam, as in these busy times, many a meal is eaten on the move. As burgers, kebabs, fish and chips, sandwiches and other food eaten with hands become an increasingly popular alternative to a sit down meal, it makes me wonder if our descendants will look back at the household cutlery set as a 20th century fad?
This was extracted from my book Food For Thought: Extraordinary Little Chronicles of the World.

No comments: