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13 Things 2009

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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]

This page explores the materiality of the fork -- quite literally, the material is it made from -- as it affects the human's relationship with it.


Over the ages, forks have been made of various materials: metal, wood, plastic. Today, most forks we encounter will be either metal or plastic. Plastic forks bring many memories to mind, including Ratty take-out, summer picnics, and potlucks hosted by your parents and filled with tall strangers (maybe that's just me).

Why would we use plastic forks rather than metal in these situations? Dixie touts these features of its 'heavy duty' plastic fork:

Heavyweight cutlery - your premium choice in cutlery, the next best thing to silverware.
- Heavy weight
- Full-size dinner length
- Strong, shatter resistant & durable
- Dense Pack
- Individually inspected
- Super Sanitary - touch only the handles
- Perfect for heavy, tough-to-cut food like steak & chicken
- Saves time, labor & money
- Saves storage space
Though the manufacturers are quick to point out that this is only the 'next best thing' to silverware, it's not entirely evident how these are inferior to metal utensils. In fact, they seem better: these are super sanitary (you have to wash metal forks yourself, and who can guarantee that you have done a thorough job?) and perfect for tough-to-cut food. They save time, labor, money, storage space....

It's hard to imagine that form trumps function (or at least practicality) whenever we opt for metal utensils. Some plastic utensils are poorly made, to be sure: they are flimsy and bend rather than stab. But high-quality, thick plastic utensils genuinely work just as well as metal ones. And if they're easier and cheaper, what's the excuse for not using them? What it comes down to is what value we have placed upon the material, as is reflected in the cost of the items. Plastic is produced abundantly and cheaply; metal must mined and shaped (it must, we may imagine, be crafted, whereas plastic is merely molded by a machine). Metal imparts that aura of formality.

If you want a formal supper but can't afford all of those metal utensils, why not try Reflections Silverware Disposable Plastic Serving Forks?

Through the art of technological innovation, elegance and convenience unite. Reflections plastic cutlery combines the radiant styling of fine serving utensils and the ease of single use. Reflections single use serving fork is the only solution addressing both the need for a formal presentation and the high costs associated with renting or owning (cleaning, transporting and replacing) permanent serving utensils. It has the luster and shine of real silverware but with the benefits of a plastic disposable!
These are serving forks, not table forks, yet it's striking that a company would make plastic forks to imitate silverware. It's not as if the dinner guests won't realize what material the forks are made out of. It's all for appearance's sake and yet, yes, silver-colored plastic serving forks is somehow classier than transparent or white ones.


Very few reusable plastic forks are made (though they can - and, I suggest, should - be reused), and, as far as I know, no disposable metal forks. People are loath to throw away metal utensils, yet do so freely with plastic ones. This is what gives metal so much of an advantage over plastic in the utensil survival of the fittest. Plastic, because it is cheap, is disposed of without a second thought (and, perhaps, this is often the case with cheap items). Because it is disposable, people do not value it, despite its merits; once used, it is worthless for most.

External Image

At a dinner party with plastic utensils, the host(ess) made a conscious decision to use plastic rather than metal, but in doing so (let's say it's a woman) she is also silently accepting that her party will not be a fancy one. So is this a case of the materiality of the fork affecting our relationship to it, or the situation it's used in? Or is this our agency all along, for we, after all, decide which forks to use?

the fork & food
the fork

Images from (by André Kertesz) and