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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]

What role does the fork serve in the relationship us, the consumer, and our food?

A theme that runs through a lot of the sources I have read is that the fork has somehow civilized us. (Elias's entire book, The Civilizing Process, is centered on this, but even works of a different nature tie this in.) What does this civilizing, this refinement that we have today, entail? I was struck by Elias's idea that none of the 'delicacy' of eating with utensils is inherent, that the use of the fork has evolved as along with our modern idea of disgust.

Yet, as hard as it is to disconnect from my biases from having lived in this culture all of my life, it makes sense. What is essential is that the fork once served little purpose at the table, in eating. It was useful in the kitchen, and gradually become more useful in transferring food from a communal dish. Not until after the medieval period, when modern table manners were being devised, did it meet a general social need. Elias writes that

what was lacking in the this courtois world [that of the Middle Ages], or at least had not been developed to the same degree, was the invisible wall of affects which seems now to rise between one human body and another, repelling and separating, the hall which is often perceptible today at the mere approach of something that has been in contact with the mouth or hands of someone else...1
Elias presents some very interesting ideas here, but it is more interesting to ask why this happened. In medieval times, social control was mild, and relationships were much more centered around interpersonal interaction. Increasingly, money becomes a marker of status, rather then, say, your hunting skills or your ability to artfully carve a boar. Elias ties the removal of the production and processing of food from the home to the now common arousal of disgust, or at least uneasiness, about our unprocessed food. The wealthy household becomes a consumption unit, for the production and processing of its products is delegated to more lowly specialists.2 The fork, then, does physically just what your fingers can - picks up food and transports it to your mouth - but, psychologically, the fork does far more; and it is remarkable in its simplicity, that so small an instrument can serve so significant a purpose.

Even today, this idea is omnipresent. Many would be okay eating with separate utensils from a communal bowl (let's say it's casserole). How many would be comfortable eating from the same dish if everyone were using their fingers? There is an automatic revulsion to contact with others (see: double-dipping). Though Elias's theorized reasons are adequate, I do not think his account, as focused as it is on the Middle Ages, can cover everything. He neglects to discuss 'germs', a large part of our modern aversion to contact with others: others have invisible evils, germs, all over them, which may spread by skin-to-skin or by skin-to-object(food?)-to-skin contact. However, Elias does argue that, in the past, the suppression of eating with one's fingers has little to do with fear of illness: it is, quite simply, barbaric. Our definition of 'civilized' requires us to feel disgust or shame at the dirtying of our fingers.

Nor is it quite certain, still, how this began. Elias's hypothesis that our distance from the food production led to our discomfort with our physical food makes perfect sense, but why then this distancing from other humans? Elias discusses the increasing importance of money; perhaps, then, in elevating themselves above the lower classes, the wealthy also sought to establish a physical barrier. The clean individual would only touch the clean individual, which would necessarily exclude a large number of the lower classes and even higher-up strangers. (We would be more likely to share a bowl with a family member or good friend than a lab partner, no matter how clean she looked.) Or, perhaps, the rich sought to distinguish themselves from the lower class: in accumulating wealth, yes, but also in mannerisms. As for how these mannerisms spread, we can attribute emulation or societal pressure. Customs regarding fork and knife, napkin and plate and burping, were started in the upper classes and moved down through the classes.

We can see even today this 'repelling and separating' between human bodies and our food. There are some finger foods that remain so even in more polite situations - shrimp and oysters, for example. But in both instances, there is a barrier between fingers and animal flesh - that is, the shrimp tail and the oyster shell. To come into direct contact with the food seems 'messy', though would it be so bad to touch a shrimp with our fingers before eating it?

A few weeks ago, I was offered carrot cake on a paper plate with no utensil. Naturally, I had to ask: 'Did you pick up, or cut, this piece of cake with your fingers?' (No: a knife.) My next questions was, 'Are there any forks?' (There weren't, and I was expected to eat the cake with my fingers.) At first I was resistant to the idea (I would get icing on my hands!), but it looked good, so I gave up and used my God-given forks. I have two further to make based on this anecdote:

1) There was a strong avoidance on my part of contact between my food and another person, even though it was someone I knew very well. And, true, it wasn't only out of a fear of 'germs' or illness (though that is always a factor), but also because that's just not done. It's almost a violation of privacy, to have another touch your food without your permission.

2) A fork in many situations, this one included, would work no better than fingers, and sometimes worse. The cake might have fallen apart into cake bits if I'd attempted to eat it with a fork. My fingers and hand handled the situation well. The only drawback, the sole reason we choose to use forks, is that we don't want to soil our fingers. Many will point to this as the evidence of the fork's 'usefulness', yet it is only useful because we have placed such an emphasis on keeping our body separate from our food. To quote Elias again:

Since the pressure or coercion of individual adults is allied to the pressure and example of the whole relatively early the fact that their feelings of shame and embarrassment, of pleasure and displeasure, are molded into conformity with a certain standard b external pressure and compulsion. All this appears to them as highly personal, something "inward," implanted in them by nature.3
So, though at first adults in the 1600's had to pressured and convinced to use a fork out of 'politeness', eventually the feelings felt at not using utensils (namely, disgust, shame) is internalized, feeling perfectly natural.

Forks, then, do far more than simply pick up our food and put it in your mouths. As I've mentioned time and time again, our fingers do the job just as well. What forks really do is mediate the relationship between us and our food. They civilize us by allowing us to eat while avoiding staining ourselves or touching others' food.

Is there a trend towards utensil-less eating? And, if so, with what implications?

How, then, does the growing trend of utensil-less foods that I observed fit into this schema? Does such a trend exist? If the fork serves as a mediator between eater and the eaten, a means of crossing the wall that divides us from the improper 'other', does the fact that I eat so much of my food with my fingers indicate that I am more socially relaxed? That I am more in tune with my food?

More socially relaxed, maybe, though I hesitate to use such vague terms. The social, communal eating situation of a college student in 2008 seems far removed from someone in 1856, but I would argue that we are not as distant as it seems. In 1856, the lower-class would have still used their fingers in many situations, and I suggest that college students are more like them than a successful merchant. Today, refinement still dictates the necessity of a fork. You will probably not be served finger foods at a four-star restaurant. But finger foods are not marketed to them: they are marketed towards the 'lazy' and/or 'unrefined' (children, college students, lower-income families) - these foods are simple, cheap, easy! I am reminded of some family meals, where I would eat my food (say, chicken nuggets or a sloppy joe) with my fingers, and my mom would use a fork and knife.

As for whether this abundance of finger foods brings us closer to our meal, more in touch with our food, that seems blatantly untrue. Our finger foods, save fruits and vegetables, are processed. I can think of few situations in which we would eat meat with our fingers (bacon is an example), but chicken nuggets? Yes. (Chicken nuggets may be meat, but they're highly processed meat, unrecognizable as the chicken they came from.) Pop-Tarts? Yes. Fritos? Yes.

fork manners
the fork

1 Elias 69-70
2 Elias 120
3 Elias 128