More Culture:

March 14, 2018

Who invented eating utensils?

The knife, fork and spoon are considered the 'big three'...and the rest is all a process of evolution

Food History
fork and knife Janet Jensen/Tacoma News Tribune/MCT/Sipa USA

Makayla Crittendon, background, watches as Judith Guthrie shows students the proper way to hold a knife and fork when eating continental style, during a dining etiquette class at Stadium Bistro in Tacoma, Wash., Feb. 20, 2007.

Spoons, forks, knives--they're ubiquitous tools that often feel so natural to everyday life, they seem they should grow on trees.

But, of course, they don't; someone had to invent them, and each has its history. 

Eager to know more, we reached out to Edward Bottone, an adjunct professor and chef at Delaware Valley University who specializes in culture and cuisine, has been a restaurant owner and is working on, The Red Checkered Table Cloth: Italian-American Cuisine Eating In and Out.

  • The world is full of questions we all want answers to, but are either too embarrassed, time-crunched or intimidated to actually ask. With Infrequently Asked Questions, we set out to answer those shared curiosities. Have a question you want answered? Send an email to entertainment@phillyvoice.com, and we’ll find an expert who can give you the answer you’re craving.

What is the earliest record we have of eating utensils being used? It's obviously hard to reach back to the beginning of mankind, but I imagine there's some documentation of early-history tools for eating. 

Concerning the knife, spoon, and fork, "the big three," it was all, to the best of my knowledge, a process of evolution. 

The fork and spoon are probably the universal utensils. What are early examples of those?

Even if forks started out with two tines and ended up with four, it’s easy to see that fingers bear some resemblance to the fork. Same goes for the spoon, a cupped hand is the perfect ”vessel” for transporting liquid. With fire, establishing a distance between the heat and the hand helped the evolutionary process in the direction of utensils. With a long-handled point stick you could hold a soon-to-be tasty morsel over a flame; with two “tines” more control. For coastal dwellers, a shell fastened to a long stick as a crude spoon increased the reach.  

You mentioned that the fork has had pushback, historically. Can you tease that out? 

Early on, the church declared the use of a fork an abomination. At the beginning of the first millennium, a Venetian Doge brought a Byzantine bride to court and her use of a fork, common to Middle Eastern royalty, caused a scandal. The clergy inveighed against this blatant luxury saying: God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks--his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them when eating. That she died soon after the condemnation was considered divine intervention. Among many other things, these killjoys also tried to outlaw chocolate in the 15th century.



The 'IAQ' Fast Facts

• The fork was likely inspired by human fingers

• The "spork" is a modern invention.

• ... There is, in fact, a Chork

• Americans didn't adopt what they sometimes called the "split spoon" until the mid-1800s.

• By legend, chopsticks came to be when a bird informed Jian Ziya that eating with two bamboo sticks would let him know he was being poisoned if they started to smoke.


What's the backstory with chopsticks? And speaking of pushback, why is it so seemingly taboo to not use them in some cultures? 

The name comes from pidgin English for quickly—"Chop-Chop," a phrase still in use. The pre-cut nature of many Chinese dishes and the chopstick go hand in hand. 

There are legends attached to the “invention” of chopsticks. Da Yu, father of the first emperor of the Xia dynasty, 2205 -1766 BCE, credited with first using wooden chopsticks as a time-saving device. During the Shang Dynasty, 1766 – 122 BCE, Jian Ziya was told by a bird to use bamboo sticks that would warn him by smoking if his wife served him poisoned food. Da Ji was an 11th century courtesan was said to amuse emperor Zhou by picking up hot food with sticks made of hair.

Like forks, chopsticks were first used as cooking utensils. It wasn’t until the Han dynasty, 206 BCE-220 CE, considered a golden age of Chinese history, that the use of chopsticks as eating utensils proliferated.

Chopsticks have been fashioned from jade, agate, ivory, gold and silver for the wealthy. Wood as well as porcelain, bamboo, stainless steel, and plastic and are between six--for eating--and 10 inches or longer, for cooking/serving and usually tapered with a blunt end. Though Japanese are pointed.

Chopstick taboos, with which I am familiar, all relate to table etiquette. These include pointing at someone with your chopsticks considered a sign of disrespect and waving them in the air rude. Tapping the dish or bowl as an attention-getting device is only for beggars. Poking around in the food--“grave digging"--is also considered rude. Eating with inverted chopsticks results in a loss of face. Chopstick impaled in a bowl of food, especially rice, is reserved for funerals where they are meant to resemble joss sticks and is a bad omen at the table. If you must pass a morsel of food to someone use the opposite end of the chopsticks, not the soiled eating end. Do not rest chopsticks on the table, a chopstick “rest,” the side of a plate or bowl is preferable.

What is the "spork" a spinoff of? 

The spork, a portmanteau-word trademarked in the 19th century, was preempted by the spoon-shaped terrapin fork and ice cream fork--even by Edward Lear's imaginary "runcible spoon" from the Owl and the Pussycat, 1871--in form if not in name. So sensible a design seemed natural, since certain foods require both the accommodation of the spoon and the spearing facility of the fork. A space-saving convenience for backpackers and others, the spork has clear utility value. 

What are some lesser-known eating utensils out there? Are there any?

With the renewed interest in eating bone marrow, the two-sided marrow scoop, designed to extract the unctuous delicacy, is enjoying some popularity. Speaking of scoops the cheese scoop, specifically for portioning out a whole Stilton, is an attractive commonplace in some homes. 

During this cheese-centric moment we’re in, everyone should have a set of cheese knives, each specific to the categories of cheese--soft-ripening, semi-soft, hard, etc.--on offer.

Everyone should have a set of fish “service." The knife is distinguished by a broad curving blade with a notch along the top, ostensibly to assist in removing small bones. The four-tinned fork is larger than a salad fork and also has a notch, some have an extra wide tine to facilitate filleting a small fish. A larger, more elaborate version of the fish knife and fork are used as fish servers. 

Long-handled olive and pickle forks are nice to have, especially if you need to fish them out of long thin bottles. 

For those that can afford it, you should have small spoons made of horn when serving caviar as metal offends the flavor of the fish eggs.

I could go on.

At what point did the knife get so diversified? Butter knives, steak knives, paring knives ... at the end of the day, they're all sharp blades with different names. 

In the beginning, there was the knife. When humanoids got off their knuckles and started playing with fire, the long arch of civilization began. Sharp-edged stone found or fashioned was the first that functioned as a tool and a weapon that became known as a knife. There exists archeological evidence of knives dating to the Paleolithic. Knives have been made from stone, flint, bone and obsidian, iron, bronze, copper, carbon steel--alloy of carbon and iron, my favorite--stainless steel, and more recently there are ceramic and titanium blades. The double-edged knife was, and is, a tool, a weapon and an eating utensil. A famous example is the “Thames scaramax” (more a sword than a knife) was a 10th-century single-edged blade extracted from the Thames River in the 19th century. Its fame partially is related to the fact the Runic alphabet is inscribed on one side of the blade. The origin of the term comes from Middle English "knife" and also German, "Kneif," which someone must have seen as a dyslexic rendering. Cutlery, on the other hand, comes from the Latin, "cultellus."

Bring back the fork—the single most important tool in the painful progress towards civilization—before it is too late."

For a long time, the only utensil at the table was the knife. Food could be cut with your personal knife, while a second knife (should you have one) held the meat still, and then the morsel was transferred to the mouth on its threatening tip.

The practice of having an array of knife-wielding, hard-drinking folks at the table made even a mild altercation dangerous. It wasn’t until the Sun King, Louis XIV, banned pointed knives at the table, that the blunted version evolved. Bullnose knife blades became broader and were, especially in America, used not unlike a spoon for transporting food. 

Therefore yes, all knives resemble the proto-knife, however, the advice of “the right tool for the task” applies. Taking a butter knife to a steak just doesn’t cut its—so to speak. Forks eventually put knives, and spoons, in their place.

What, would you say, was the most dramatic evolution of eating utensils? 

The Victorian era produced an avalanche of tableware. There was no dish without a specific utensil assigned to it. Sardine forks, salad forks, the fish fork (and knife), lobster fork and oyster fork, the cheese fork, olive fork, lemon fork, the pierced tomato server and the lettuce fork, dessert forks, forks for strawberries, for pies and for toasting bread.  There were spoons for soups, gumbo, and bouillon, for sauce and eating grapefruit, drinking absinthe, demitasse or iced tea, tiny ones for salt, huge ones for extracting stuffing from a turkey among many others.  Nearly as vast were the number of serving utensils — sugar tines, ice tongs, the asparagus server, and holder, sardines server and fork, the manche å gigot, or a silver handle that fastens onto the protruding bone of a leg of lamb to facilitate carving, pigeon holders … it's exhausting. Something for nearly everything and woe be to him, and especially to her, who did not know which was for what. 

Part of the point of negotiating this maize of silverware was to establish where one fit in the social hierarchy then under threat of the industrial revolution. 

Was there a really significant change at a moment in time? 

Forks caught on in Italy by the 1400s, when Caterina de’ Medici was betrothed to Henry II in 1533. Along with her retinue of perfumers, dressmakers, and cooks, she brought the fork to France. Before this royal imprimatur, the use of a fork in France was sniggered at as an Italian affectation. Forks were for sissies. Thomas Coryat, an Englishman, was reviled for his effeminate behavior early the 17th century when, after a sojourn in Italy, he began to openly use a fork.

The fork, as we know it with four curved tines, began to proliferate in Europe during the mid-eighteenth century. In America, the "split spoon," as forks were sometimes called, did not come into general use until the nineteenth century.

How modern is the concept of more proper eating, would you say? I imagine if you went back even a few centuries, you'd still find a lot of cultures still grabbing at food with their hands. 

You would. Forks, as well as knives, spoons, and the myriad manifestations they spawned were not merely a means to more efficiently convey food from plate to the greedy diner’s maw. The opposite, actually. As western societies became more sophisticated each new piece of flatware became an impediment to gluttony--a deadly sin, don’t forget--meant to slow the process, to assist constraint.

Table etiquette evolved, out of necessity, as the use of forks, knives and spoons increased. All that has changed. We are in the third generation of Egg McMuffin, BigMac, chicken-finger-pizza-French fries-burrito-falafel-gyro eaters that have abandoned the fork and returned to the fingers. Some, it is obvious, even feel awkward when using a fork and knife. Not since the 1600s have so many been in such intimate contact with their food. Bring back the fork—the single most important tool in the painful progress towards civilization—before it is too late.

Any fun facts to add? Are there any new utensils out there today?

Apparently, there exists a chopstick-fork combo called the Chork®. The utensil is meant to help the diner transition from fork to chopsticks. The fork end allows the chopstick-challenged user to eat without frustration. The device is hinged so that the user may take baby steps towards graduating to the chopstick, eventually separating them into independent pieces.

Videos