Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
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The fork is a utensil so ubiquitous that I would argue that it, like the garbage can or the classroom chair, is something we notice only in its absence. When we settle down for a meal, we find our silverware – usually a fork, sometimes a spoon, occasionally a knife. When, heaven forbid, all of the forks are in the wash, then we have a predicament on our hands (literally), for how can we eat without a fork? Anyone who has had to awkwardly consume steak, pasta, or waffles with a spoon and fingers – or even with chopsticks, for some – will know the hesitation associated with this frightening new situation. Many Western cultures have grown so accustomed to forks that they become almost an extension of the body when we eat. It is frustrating to find a limb missing at mealtime.
But why would a culture, any culture, create eating utensils for food that could just easily be eaten with the fingers? (Spoons and knives are understandable: our hands cannot effectively scoop soup or slice meat.) It is not difficult to see why Peter Damian, Cardinal Bishop of Ostia, was prompted to say that ‘it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them [fingers] when eating.’ Why use an artificial extension when our body works just fine? And why would some cultures adopt the fork while others continue to prefer their ‘natural forks’?
Preliminarily, and before having read my anticipated sources, I am interested in examining the fork via the following angles:
(A Necessarily Brief) History of the Fork: Where, why, and when did the fork develop? Is it related to other forks (the pitchfork, the fork in the road) by more than name and basic shape? (Which one came first?) How did it spread, and how was it received by other cultures? Have any cultures rejected the fork? What other fork-like utensils (such as chopsticks) exist, and where? (Many histories of the fork mention that it was at first reviled by Western cultures as 'feminine' - yet sure enough the fork is adopted. I hope to be able to posit why this change occurred, especially as that ties in with the following topics.)
Politesse and the Fork: What does it say about our attitudes of the body that we insist on eating with forks? How is our relationship between body and food different from that in forkless cultures? This will also necessarily tie in table manners across the ages and, perhaps, the fork as a status symbol. When there are limited eating utensil resources, who gets the forks (or spoons or knives)?
Food and the Fork: How does the experience of eating change without forks? Were cuisines (or diets) influenced by the introduction of the fork? I may engage in an experiment wherein I eat foods with different utensils (fingers, fork, chopsticks). It would be interesting to see how the artificial fork may alter the human’s relationship to the very organic elements body and food.
At the moment, some of these questions seem daunting. (Will I have to go crawling through dozens of medieval textbooks in an attempt to figure out how forks may have affected cuisine, if it all?) And, almost certainly, my research questions will change as I delve deeper into the readings for this project; but I the above points will serve as a good starting point for exploration.