Have you ever wondered how people used to eat in historical times? The first humans might have eaten with their hands, but what about hot soups and foods that cannot be grasped? Let us find out how the forks, knives and spoons we use today have come to be.
In the Western world, it is believed that one of the oldest eating utensils was the spoon. First used among the cavemen and their descendants, people would use shells to scoop their food and eat it. Although they had their hands for eating meat, the shells helped to grasp anything that the hands could not hold. The earliest spoons were made from seashells, snail shells and curved pieces of wood. In fact, the ancient words for “spoon” in different languages suggest which materials were used in different regions. The Greek and Latin words for “spoon” originate from cochlea, which means a spiral shell, while the Anglo-Saxon word for the utensil is spon, meaning a piece of wood.
The spoon was then developed further by the Romans, who attached handles to the scoop for easier use. These spoons were at first made out of precious metals such as gold and silver that only the rich could afford. Thus, the common folk still used improvised shells and wood for their spoons up until the fourteenth century, when tin and pewter became mass developed and were used to fashion spoon designs in bulk, bringing spoons to the general population.
The next eating utensil to come to the table was the knife. Knives were not initially designed as dining utensils, but rather as weapons and tools for cutting. It was probably during the Middle Ages that knives were first used to spear and cut food, probably since it was commonplace then for anyone to carry a personal knife around for protection. Knives were used for dining in the absence of forks, which were not invented yet at the time. However, brandishing a weapon for eating at the dining table was not a very socially acceptable norm, as it sometimes resulted in violence and threats. Diners would sometimes also use the point of their knives to clean their teeth, a practice which some nobles found disgusting. In the seventeenth century, King Louis XIV of France declared that it was illegal to bring a sharp knife to the dining table. However, since knives still had their purpose for eating with, they were filed blunt and rounded off specifically for use as dining knives.
The fork dates back as far as the ancient Greeks, but it was not initially used for dining as well. The first semblance of a fork had two tines and was used as a spearing utensil for cooking purposes in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. In the Middle Ages, a smaller version of the fork was created for use while eating, although like how other utensils started out, the early dining forks were expensive and were only used by wealthy families in the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire.
Forks were once considered sinful and scandalous. In 1004, the niece of the Byzantine emperor brought a golden fork to her wedding feast in Venice. Since most of the people there ate with their fingers and knives, they looked on the bride’s fork with disdain, commenting that “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks – his fingers”. Thus, they considered it an insult to use artificial metal forks instead of one’s own hands. This was compounded by the fact that the bride died of the plague a few years after, causing rumors that God had punished her for her sin and vanity.
However, some centuries later, forks became widely used in Italy and most of Europe. This was mostly brought about by Catherine de Medici, who brought some silver forks from Italy to France in the sixteenth century when she married King Henry II. Later in 1608, the English traveler Thomas Coryate wrote about his observations while travelling abroad, including the use of dining forks which he had also adopted. His account was ridiculed by people then, but in the following years, people slowly began to accept the use of the fork as an eating utensil.
Although forks were used in Europe by the time of the seventeenth century, they were still not common in American colonies, where people still used knives to spear food. With the new blunted dining knives, people found it difficult to spear food as they used to, so they would hold their spoons in the left hand to steady the food while cutting it with a knife in the right hand, then switch the spoon to the right hand to scoop the piece up and eat it. This method of eating is still particular to Americans today.
Chopsticks, which are used by billions of people around the world today, are thought to have origins from around thousands of years ago. By 500 AD, chopsticks were being used all around Asia, from Vietnam to Japan.
The first known chopsticks come from the ruins of Yin in the Henan province in China. Bronze sets of chopsticks were found in the tombs around the site, used mainly for cooking as they were able to reach deep into boiling pots of liquid. It was only around the fifth century that people started using chopsticks to eat, when a population boom happened across China, resulting in more cost-efficient methods of cooking to save resources. Chopping food up into small pieces helped to save cooking fuel, and was also perfect for eating with chopsticks.
Although the early Chinese may have used knives to eat, they had no use for them at the dining table once their food became bite sized. Additionally, Confucius also promoted the use of chopsticks and the decline of knives in his teachings, believing that the sharp points of knives reminded people of the slaughterhouse and of violence and warfare, which was not conducive for family mealtimes. As such, knives became much less frequently used in Asia, and with that came the rise of chopsticks.
There were also different kinds of chopsticks used by different cultures and societal classes. Chinese chopsticks were typically blunt ended instead of pointed. Japanese chopsticks were eight inches long for men and seven inches long for women. Rich people ate with chopsticks made of jade, coral, ivory, brass or agate, while the wealthiest, mostly royalty, used pure silver chopsticks. This was not just a status symbol but also a way of keeping the nobility safe from treachery or assassination attempts, as it was believed that the silver chopsticks would corrode and turn black if they came into contact with poisoned food.
Aside from forks, spoons, knives and chopsticks, some Eastern cultures do not use cutlery when eating. In some parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East – usually where flat bread or naan is a staple – people continue the practice with eating with their hands, which has its own set of rules and manners to follow. In particular, people are expected to eat only with their right hands, as the left hand is considered unclean. This is believed to bring a closer connection to one’s food by feeding the mind as well as the body.