Our first eating utensils were our fingers- utilitarian and simple. However, as manners and class distinctions developed eating with our hands became more complex. By the 1500’s, it was socially desirable to use only the first three fingers. Only the lower classes used their whole hand. This is one of the origins of “pinkie up” as being high brow. Hands were cleaned with a napkin or finger bowls. Erasmus, the Dutch humanist, wrote one of the first modern book of manners, and instructed diners to never lick their fingers. Use a napkin or if that was unavailable the tablecloth. It was also frowned upon to blow one’s nose in the tablecloth. Using the fingers was preferred.
Hosts did not provide any cutlery, so people brought their own. This consisted of using the same knife they hunted or fought with to cut their food. People would also spear the food on the point and deliver it to their mouths. In the 1600’s, Armand Jean du Plessis, Duc de Richelieu, became the chief minister to Louis XIII of France. He was the man to impress to get in good with this king. However, he got tired of watching the table practices of the day. He put a high value on formality and nobles spearing food and picking their teeth with their knives made him sick. To prevent this, he had his chief steward file the points off his table knives. It also helped cut down on the table side brawls that happened from time to time when guests had had too much wine. Soon other Frenchmen were ordering the same kinds of knives for their tables.
Spoons had been around almost as long as fingers and knives. Evolving from a chip, spoons soon became an elaborate affair. Spoons in the Middle Ages were mainly made of bone, tin or wood. However, noble families had more valuable spoons of silver and gold. During the 15th century in Italy, “apostle spoons” came in vogue. This was a popular baptismal gift for children of wealthy families. These spoons were made of silver with the handle in the shape of the child’s patron saint. This is the origin of the expression “born with a silver spoon in their mouth”.
Now we come to the gateway to hell- the fork. Forks were not common at the Western European table until the 18th century. They had been in use in the Byzantine empire since the 11th century, and had spread into parts of Italy such as Tuscany. However, they were broadly condemned. The Church preached only fingers were worthy to touch food since they were designed by God and food was a gift from God. A Byzantine princess engaged to the Doge of Venice designed and used her own fork and died soon after the meal. Clergyman preached that it was divine punishment for her use of the evil fork. At best the fork was considered an affectation, a mark of pretentiousness. They did not become commonly used until the 1700s in France. Nobles increased their use of the fancy fork to distinguish themselves from the great unwashed who used their fingers.
So at dinner tonight, make sure you keep your pinkie up, get your apostle spoon and stay away from the devil’s fork!