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Edward Bottone: Forked: Or The Hands Have ItEdward Bottone
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Forked: Or The Hands Have It

by Edward Bottone

The hands have it, and I’m not happy about it.

There may not be another two word phrase the provokes such palpable disgust as — finger foods. Let’s face it, if we had not come full circle this revolting activity might not have been possible.

Finger foods and the eating of food with your hands is the revival of the primordial method. The contemporary acceptance of eating with your hands is to deny the fork in the road to civilization. Just grab and shovel it in. When humanoids got off their knuckles to start playing with fire, the long arch of civilization began. And while it might have been a long time from squatting over flesh hot from the kill, to bringing the Boar’s Head in on a salver, the imposition of the fork is of relatively recent vintage.

Call them a commonplace, the fork and knife that we use everyday — or used to use everyday. But they are the embodiment of the history of civilization — nothing less. What, and more importantly how, we ate came to differentiate man from beast and eventually man from man. And the fork was the tool that told the tale.

Even if forks started out with two tines and ended up with four, it’s easy to see that fingers bear some resemblance to the fork. It was a long time, however, before the fork overtook the fingers, emerged as a recognizable utensil and was accepted for general use.

At the beginning of the first millennium a Venetian Doge brought a Byzantine bride to court and her use of a fork, common to Middle Eastern royalty, caused a scandal. The clergy inveighed against this blatant luxury saying: God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks – his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them when eating.” Thereby giving a fork all the charm of a prosthesis.

How wrong they were. Forks, as well as knives, spoons, and the myriad manifestations they spawned, were not merely a means to more quickly convey the food from plate to the greedy diner’s maw. The opposite, actually. As western societies became more sophisticated each new piece of flatware became an impediment to gluttony (a deadly sin, don’t forget), meant to slow the process, to assist constraint. Worked for some; not for others.

Royals and nobles were the first to possess forks. The poor counted themselves lucky if they had something to eat; how they ate it was pretty much irrelevant. In fourteenth century Europe forks were collectable, exotic utensils, owned but rarely used. Although France’s Charles V, listed two-tined forks in his household inventory, they were strictly for foods that were sticky or staining.

Forks caught on in Italy by the 1400’s, some say due to the proliferation of pasta in need of a twirl.. The turning point for the fork can be credited to another princess. When an Italian teenager, Catarina de Medici, was betrothed to Henry II in 1533 she brought her retinue of perfumers, dressmakers, and cooks as well as the fork and it’s use to France. Before this royal imprimatur the use of a fork in France was sniggered at as an Italian affectation. Forks were for sissies.

That is exactly how Thomas Coryat, an Englishman, was branded in early the 17th century when, after an Italian sojourn, openly used a fork. Coryat’s defense was that, “… the Italian cannot by any means endure to have his dish touched with fingers, seeing all men’s fingers are not alike cleane.” He was on to something there.

The meal, as ritual, would have been impossible without its accouterments. Forks, knives and spoons, how they were made and what they were made of differentiated the social ranks. The possession, familiarity and use of fork and knives were, and still are, signifiers of sophistication. Like what you wore, they said something about who you were and had everything to do with where you were seated, what you ate and how you ate it. Table etiquette evolved, out of necessity, as the use of forks, knives and spoons increased.

The fork, as we know it with four curved tines, began to proliferate in Europe during the mid eighteenth century. In America the ‘split spoon’, as forks were sometimes called, did not come into general use until the nineteenth century. And then it was off to the races. The Victorian era produced an avalanche of tableware. There was no dish without a specific utensil assigned to it. Sardine forks, salad forks, the fish fork, lobster fork and oyster fork, the cheese fork, olive fork, dessert fork, forks for strawberries, for pies and for toasting bread and a vast number of serving forks. There were a commensurate number of knives and spoons and woe be to him, and especially to her, who did not know which was for what.

When a decline in tableware and its use occurs, socialization also experiences a decline. So it was throughout the twentieth century. Gentility began to take a back seat about the same time that the first White Castle opened in Wichita, Kansas in 1921. (White Castle must also be held responsible for recent upmarket variations on their signature finger food — the slider. Has there ever been a more repugnant name given to an otherwise tasty item.) Soon eating with your hands was deemed acceptable. Who knew how ubiquitous it would become.

By know we have witnessed two generations eating their meals with their hands. The EggMcMuffinBigMacchickenfingerpizzafrenchfriesburritofalafelgyro generations don’t have many opportunities to employ a fork. When they do it is with a observable awkwardness. The hands may have it for the moment, but this is situation that can, and must, be overcome. I’ll admit there are certain foods in which the hands may have been inherent in their creation. The sandwich is a construction that I venerate, but many can be put to the fork. Except for a you-should-be-so-lucky Tom Jones moment, shatteringly crisp bacon, potato chips, popcorn, cookies and nuts — fingers and food should be mutually exclusive. Not since the 1600’s have so many been in such intimate contact with their food. Bring back the fork — the single most important tool in the painful progress towards civilization. Take fork (and knife) not just to the sticky and staining but to that slice of pizza, pear, or hot panino and take back personal dignity. Pack your own fork if necessary, because as Brillat Savarin said: The destiny of a nation depends on the manner in which it feeds itself.