Before utensils, everything was finger food. Here’s how some of our common eating tools wound up on our placemats.
Chopsticks evolved in China during the Chou Dynasty (1122–255 BCE), not due to fashion but mostly because of the nation’s poverty at the time. While starvation was a big problem, the land did have plenty of water for rice farming, so the country’s forests were cleared in favor of agriculture. As a result, firewood became a luxury item, and culinary trends reflected the need for shorter cooking times. For example, instead of boiling or baking large items, cooks chopped them into small pieces that could be stir-fried quickly.
No wood for fires also meant no wood for tables, so in order to eat, people had to be able to hold their food bowl while eating with the other hand. An expert chopsticks user could pick up small bits of meat, vegetables, and rice without ever touching the utensils to his or her lips—making the chopsticks more sanitary and pleasing to even the most fastidious of diners.
While eating in a Chinese restaurant, you may have received wooden chopsticks from time to time, which appears to break the no-wood pattern the Chinese were aiming for. But there’s a simple explanation for this seeming anachronism: during the Chou Dynasty, chopsticks were traditionally made of non-wooden materials like bamboo, ivory, or bone.
Strangely enough, spoons are the utensil most found in nature and therefore predate their rival, the fork. From sea shells to gourds, to sections of bamboo and wood, spoons appeared in many forms in every region. The shapes ranged from mini-bowls in seacoast areas to flat, paddle-like objects used by American Indians in the Pacific Northwest.
The word for spoon in both Greek and Latin is cochlea, which means a spiral-shaped snail shell, suggesting that shells were the spoon of choice in Southern Europe. Judging by the Anglo-Saxon word spon, which means a chip or splinter of wood, Northern Europeans were using other materials for the same purpose.
Despite the difference of materials, it’s highly probable that the Anglo spoon was influenced by the Southern European version. The Romans designed two spoons in the first century CE: (1) a ligula, which sported a pointed oval bowl and decorative handle, for soups and soft foods and (2) a cochleare, a small spoon with a round bowl and pointed handle, for shellfish and eggs. When the Romans occupied Britain (43 CE to 410 CE), they likely brought their cutlery, inspiring the English design.
Sure, forks are handy, but they were once counted as the most scandalous of utensils. One legend tells that the fork got its start in Europe during the superstitious Middle Ages. In the 11th century, a Byzantium princess flouted her delicate, two-tined golden fork at her wedding to Domenico Selvo, son of the Venetian Doge. The Venetian clergy had clearly stated their position on the subject: God provided humans with natural forks (i.e., fingers) and it was an insult to his design to use a metal version. Moreover, fork use represented “excessive delicacy,” which was apparently very bad. When the princess died shortly after her wedding, people didn’t look to natural causes (or even fork injury). They assumed the death must be divine punishment.
Somehow, fork use still spread through Europe over the next 500 years, and despite the wishes of the clergy, it was considered an Italian affectation in Northern Europe. Part of the bad rap came from, again, the prissy factor. Although the fork’s functional value is similar to a spoon nowadays, the first forks originally evolved from the knife. Aristocrats would use one knife to cut the food and a second to spear and eat it. The two- and four-pronged knife substitutes must have looked as overwrought as a double-layer dinner fork would seem to us today.
Back in the Middle Ages in Europe, the rule was to carry your own knife, usually in a sheath at your belt. Seems natural enough—archaeological evidence shows that humans had been using knives since prehistoric times as weapons and eating utensils, and they were a most useful tool. So, who went Emily Postal and domesticated the knife for the dinner table?
Well, Louis XIV for one. Until Louis’ time, the knives used to cut and eat dinner were sharply pointed—after all, they had to spear food as well as cut it. But no one forgot that they also doubled as weapons. This meant that dining experiences could be a little uncomfortable, as the dining utensil represented a threat of danger at any moment, even under seemingly friendly circumstances.
When that darn fork gained popularity in Europe, the need for a pointed knife at the table lessened, and that’s where Louis comes in. In 1669, the French king ruled all pointed knives at the dinner tables to be illegal. As such, the utensils were ground down to prevent violence. The blunt and wider knives became popular in America, too, though the fork was rarely imported there. As a result, European and American dining customs evolved somewhat differently.
Ah, the spork. Our favorite utensil—perfect for scooping up ice cream and spearing pie without dirtying extra cutlery. As its name indicates, the spork is half-spoon, half-fork, and while America was clearly behind on the other cutlery trends, the spork is a true American eating utensil. First mentioned by name in a 1909 supply catalogue, the spork achieved notoriety through another American original—Kentucky Fried Chicken. Back in 1970, KFC started including plastic sporks with their meals as a cheap convenience, and the Van Brode Milling Company of Massachusetts patented the invention for their “combination plastic spoon, fork, and knife” the same year. Due to its handy nature, the spork eventually became a common dessert and travel utensil, available in silver and other metals.
Americans aren’t the only ones who appreciate multipurpose utensils. In Australia, the splade, originally trademarked as Splayd, started as a combination spoon/blade. A darling of wedding gift ideas in Australia, the splade gained massive popularity in the 1950s and 1960s.
This article was written by Liz Hunt and excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything. You can pick up a copy in our store.