What About The Fork?
As you look down at a place setting, the thought “this tells me the history of mankind” probably doesn’t enter your head. You are thinking more along the lines of “is all the tableware in the right place and does it look inviting?” The latter is good thinking in the moment; the former question requires a trip through the past.
With 90% of the world being right handed, why did the Founding Fathers – and their predecessors in Europe – put the fork on the left, the weaker hand? And look at the size of that thing; would it fit in your mouth? The knife, in use since Paleolithic times, is on the right, where it is most useful and self-explanatory. (Until the 19th century, you skewered the meat and ate it off the tip of the knife. As you see here the knife is missing from the setting because, diners brought their own. Then, something called “manners” began to take shape.)
The spoon is also on the right. This is useful. It saves the less dexterous left hand from sloshing hot delicious soup as you bring it to your mouth. All hail the spoon!
But let’s return to the big mean-looking two pronged tool on the left. That huge fork was meant to stab at large meats and other dishes that needed to be broken apart and distributed around the plates. Sometimes, the early American settlers didn’t have enough cutlery so they passed the few pieces they had around the table so everyone could eat in a civilized manner. These were tough, admirable folk, clearing fields and patiently waiting their turn for a bit of the meal
These are our people, our beginnings. They came to America seeking religious freedom and taxation with representation. They created a democracy unlike any in the world. They paid for freedom with their lives in the Revolutionary War and, once free, America began growing and testing their new world order at every turn. The building of a huge, powerful, free country was underway.
America broke with the European way of eating. The place setting remained the same: fork to the left and spoon and knife to the right. But do we use them in the exact same way? You bet we don’t.
For Europeans, the fork was on the left and in the right place. They cut the food with the knife in their right hand and hold the fork in the left hand, bringing it directly from the plate to mouth. There is no switching of forks between hands before eating: it is one fluid action.
Americans added a move to the European way of using table utensils. We cut food in concert with the knife then transfer the fork to our right hand to eat. Theories abound for why Americans swerved at the dinner table and transfer their fork from left hand to right.
Sure, it could have been that early pioneer deprivation that passed a few utensils around a family dinner table. It could also be that Europe had centuries to master left-handed fork play. Or it could be something else.
Maybe here in America, we like to use our strongest hand to get the job done. Maybe here we put our strengths before our weaknesses and that includes the fork.
So, the next time you set a place at the table, think about those that came before you, the history of their daily lives. You are tapping into a deep vein of humanity, rituals that hold us all together day after day, month after month, year after year, millennium after millennium.
You too are a keeper of that tradition, that flame.