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13 Things 2009

13 Things 2008

Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology

Search Brown



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
[email protected]

I decided to start off my project by conducting an experiment: I would, over the course of three days, record every instance that I used a fork. For the following three days, I would use no forks. I figured that this simple exercise would, even before I'd delved into the history of the fork, reveal much about the utensil's place in society: when, why, and how we use it; what we lack when we are forkless.

        | Wednesday | Thursday | Friday
Lunch   |  x        |  x       |   x
Dinner  |      *    |          |
Dessert |      *    |  x       |

x denotes days meals at which a fork is used; * denotes meals at which any other utensil was used. Blank spaces denote meals at which no utensils were used.

To summarize, I used utensils at two-thirds of my meals and forks at 4/9; of the meals with utensils, two-thirds included a fork. To clarify, I used forks to eat anything mostly solid that was also wet (e.g., an omelette), as well as any other solid food that isn't a traditional 'finger food' (cake was eaten with a fork; chicken fingers weren't).

What surprised me most of all was how little I used forks. To me, the fork is the quintessential, uniquely Western utensil: at home, there's a fork by your plate at every meal, regardless of whether you'll actually use it; it can both stab and scoop (!); when at a fancy restaurant, the first question we expect to hear is, 'What do I do with all of these forks?' I had thought that I would use a fork at every meal, but I didn't. Monday's dinner and dessert were both eaten with spoons; even though dinner was Kabob & Curry, there were no forks left, and it just so happened that a spoon worked perfectly to eat rice and sauces (I ask, in my notes for this meal, 'Who needs forks?').

This experiment led me to realize how superfluous the fork really is. On only two occasions (Wednesday lunch, when a falafel wrap fell apart on my plate; and Thursday lunch, an omelette) did I note the necessity of a fork: 'Eating this would be ridiculous without a fork because of the cucumber yogurt sauce and tahina.' But... would not a spoon do just as well, or (dare I say it) my fingers? If a fork is superfluous, if our fingers work just as well, why adopt forks in the first place? This, I knew, would be a central question as I continued my fork research.

It would have been interesting to have enlisted another person, in a very different setting, to record the same utensil observations (say, my mother). How often one uses a fork has almost everything to do with what kinds of food one eats, as well as the setting in which one eats them and the availability of utensils. 'Finger foods' are generally eaten in a more relaxed environment, which college certainly is. (Tangentially, this experiment also made me think about what kinds of foods I was eating - hardly healthy! Are healthier meals normally eaten with utensils, I wonder?)

So, forks help establish a level of formality or refinement. Is this because
a) forks have historically been a utensil of the elite; or
b) being in close contact with one's food is simply considered impolite, regardless of the utensils involved?
Or something else, or both? And, if both A and B, which was cause and which was effect? Did the wealthy adopt forks because, in distancing themselves from any potential food stain, they were thus 'better' (certainly cleaner) than their inferiors? Or did this distance between eaten and eater develop because the wealthy had access to silverware, so the distance became associated with affluence? Could it be both? Even today, when everyone in America has access to forks (just pop into a mall cafeteria and you'll be greeted with stacks of cheap, plastic utensils), eating with a fork is considered more polite than eating with one's fingers.

To help understand some of these issues, it's essential to know the history of the fork, which leads us to our next section, forkstory.

After this small experiment, then, I had developed some questions:

1. Why was the fork adopted, when fingers work just as well?
2. What is the fork's role in eating? How is eating changed when we are forkless, and how is the atmosphere changed when forks (or other utensils) are introduced?
3. How does the fork's materiality (that is, what it is made of) affect the above relationship?

the fork