The fork’s history does not begin in a dining room or kitchen; it begins in the field as an agricultural tool. It is not until sometime in the 16th century that it becomes a commonly used eating implement.
You probably remember drinking off the backyard spout or hose as a child. It is a wonder no one has thought of marketing a special “fountain spout” for personal use, for this sort of evolution is precisely what happened to the fork.
Before making its way to the table and individual place settings, the fork was used as a food handling tool, for moving large shanks of meat over a fire, for example. It was also commonly used as a serving tool, when carving out meat and distributing food into dishes around the table. It is easy to imagine how this might be the very circumstance that led to its use as a personal utensil.
Picture if you will a distant, 16th century uncle Charles reaching for seconds from the pig roast. In an act of sacrilegious gluttony, yet with absolute and nonchalant grace, he brings the serving fork, dressed with a generous portion of meat, directly to his mouth. Instantly, attending dining guests give each other the “high society stare,” as we do today when someone double-dips the celery from the crudités platter. Dear uncle Charles is unperturbed. His actions appear as clear as common sense to him, and indeed they were. In fact, we might assume that he felt proud of his creative approach.
Thank goodness he had not had a sip to drink, for wine and beer were as common as water even at the tables of the lower classes, partly because the water would probably have killed everyone off far before they’d die of cirrhosis. Had he been drunk, he might have accidentally impaled his tongue or cheek with the two-tine serving fork, and long tines at that.
This is presumed to be the very simple reason why eating forks have three or four tines. The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker all had their hands full improving the designs of their own tools and practices, and this they did constantly. Need continually inspires design and invention. Thus it is with the four-tine fork, whose reduced and reshaped design came into being in response to current use. It allows spearing function, while keeping a hurried diner safe. It greatly improves maneuverability as well and makes a fantastic mashed potatoes catapult.
This, as you might imagine, inspired creative design in general and the fork became an object of great beauty and value, often reserved to the upper classes. It is perhaps this eating implement that most inspired the elaboration of design for all utensils as the fork added a touch of, shall we say, sophistication to the table. Indeed, to this day, silverware remains a choice gift for a new bride, and heirloom pieces can fetch phenomenal fortunes at estate sales.
Finally, when speaking of table manners, one might say, “To thine own tines be true.”
While you’re here, don;t miss Table Talk #10!