the palette of flavors - polish cuisine. the Akademia restaurant
The palette of flavors, which is Polish cuisine

Why do we eat with cutlery? The history of cutlery – where did it come from?

When setting the table, by default we lay a knife, fork and spoon next to a plate. Using them seems so obvious to us that we don’t even think about where this custom came from. Since when and why do we eat with cutlery? What is the history of those useful everyday utensils?

When sitting down at the table, there are many rules inside our head that we were taught ever since we were kids. We know that we should sit straight, and lip smacking, slurping and putting elbows on the tablecloth are real social blunders. It is equally obvious to us not to grab food with our bare hands, and that they are meant to be eaten using cutlery. We also try to absorb all the rules dictating which of them should be used for eating particular dishes, and which should be used first or which ones are for later. All those rules seem obvious and natural to us, and yet no one was born carrying a spoon or fork. Both cutlery itself and the ways to use them are the society’s invention. It means that those tools haven’t always been with us, and the way we use them is merely a matter of a certain agreement. What was it decided that eating is something that needs such support? How was cutlery created?

Probably the most interesting tale is the history of fork, which was initially used only for separating bigger chunks of meat. It was split into smaller portions using a fork, then put on plates, it wasn’t used, however, to put individual bites in the mouth. This utensil is said to have arrived in Europe in the 11th century. It was brought by a Byzantine princess who married a German emperor. The fork wasn’t met with a warm reception at the time: the Church deemed it cursed, using it immoral, and as a result banned it altogether. The princess died prematurely, which was used as a proof of those theses being true – her death was said to be a punishment for using this „devil’s” tool. Thankfully, over time the attitudes got relaxed, and Europe embraced this new tool. The first city where fork started being commonly used was Venice – it turned out to be irreplaceable when eating spaghetti. In Poland it started being used thanks to queen Bona, who brought fork from Italy. It is worth noting that initially it looked completely different than today – it was straight and only had two prongs. The change of shape took place in the 18th century in France and Germany. It was then that it was bent into the shape of a cup that is known to this day, and equipped with three or four prongs. Thanks to those measures, fork can be used in a similar way to spoon, not just to spear a chunk of food with, but also to pick more granular meals. It is worth mentioning that although the eastern cultures do know fork, it was dethroned around those parts by chopsticks. In certain places (such as India) they often don’t use cutlery at all, and food is consumed using hands.

Table knife was created in the second half of the 17th century. It is worth noting that knife as such had been known for long – it was used for things like hunting. In the year 1669 Louis XIV decided that sharp-ended knives were too dangerous and forbid using them at table. Thus was born the idea for a utensil specially designed for cutting individual pieces of food. To make it safe, it was given a rounded shape and slightly blunt tip. The difference between the knife used at the time and the one we know today is the fact that its blade was slightly bent backwards, which was to make it easier to put food in the mouth without twisting the wrist too much.

Before spoon was invented, natural forms of similar shape were used that allowed to scoop successive pieces of food. One of the predecessor of spoon was shell – the Greek and Latin term „cochlea” actually means a snail shell. What is interesting, it is this term that the Polish word „chochla” used to this day comes from. The English word „spoon” on the other hand, originates from the Anglo-Saxon „spon”, which means pieces of tree bark. One could say that spoon is the oldest type of cutlery, as it has been used in different forms since ancient times. The mentions in Poland date back to the early middle ages – back then wooden, often heavily decorated spoons were used, which sadly didn’t survive to our times.

What is interesting, until someday cutlery wasn’t handed to guests at the table, as it is today. Back then people carried them with themselves, and everyone used only their own. Expensive, heavily decorated spoons, knives and forks were a sign of the owner’s high material status.

As we can see, the custom of using cutlery has a long history, but people weren’t always familiar with it. Next time when we sit down at a full table, it is nice to think about what a bumpy road those tools came through before ending up on our tablecloth to make our meal easier and more pleasant.