Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
Whether we decide to use forks depends on the setting of our meal: our food, our company, our social status, even. Not only do we judge which situations a fork would be appropriate, but a fork (or the absence thereof) may also significantly alter the relationships among people gathered around a table, or between food and consumer:
1. In the Dominican Republican, only one family in eight is prosperous enough to afford enough eating utensils for all family members.1 This significantly alters some families' mealtimes: meals cannot be taken together, as a group, but separately.
2. 'Authenticity'. When we go to a Chinese restaurant and are automatically given forks rather than chopsticks, what does this say about the establishment? How does it change our impression of the restaurant and its food? A fork in an 'unauthentic' setting often diminishes the perceived value of the food to be consumed: though forks are necessary in a Western setting, at a sushi or Indian restaurant, they can be a culturally inaccurate distraction. (Of course, it's worthwhile to question just how authentic most American Chinese are in the first place, regardless of their provided utensils!)
3. Imagine eating pizza at a friend's house. How would the situation change once you realized that your friend's family was eating their pizza with forks? The pizza remains the same: it is a food that most Americans would eat without utensils. The simple addition of a utensil alters the situations drastically; suddenly, you may begin to suspect that dinner must always be a formal affair in this household, or that they will not tolerate less than perfect manners. That distancing ourselves from bodily functions (eating included) serves to make us 'civilized' was an idea discussed extensively in the fork & food. It is telling that forks can increase the formality of a meal even when eating food with which forks seem like they have no business (questions of culture aside; see above). It is far more than a tool: it is a symbol.