In the second volume of his autobiography, British author Roald Dahl describes an encounter aboard ship on his way to a diplomatic posting in East Africa. The elderly Miss Trefusis assured Dahl that all Europeans who lived in Africa went completely dotty in the end. Among her own quirks was refusing to eat anything at all with her fingers. “Fingers,” she asserted, “are filthy.” In front of the astonished Dahl, the redoubtable lady peeled and ate an orange entirely with a knife and fork. “Disgusting dirty things, fingers. Just think what you do with them!” she said.
Since man first picked up a piece of flint to cut into an animal carcass, people have been devising various implements to replace fingers in the messy art of eating. The knife came first, evolving from a rudimentary piece of sharpened stone to the single-edged metal article we use today. It was followed by the spoon. Archaeologists have found evidence of wooden, ivory and stone spoons being used in Egypt as early as 1000BC.
The fork was a late-comer, first used in Persia (Iran) in the eighth or ninth century and progressing via Italy to France with Catherine de Medici in 1533. It didn’t catch on in America until the late 1800s. Some even had religious objections to forks, because of their perceived resemblance to the devil’s pitchfork. But by the end of the 19th century, the knife, fork and spoon place setting had become standard.
Over time, as table etiquette became more elaborate, a host of specialised implements evolved. The marrow spoon, used for scooping marrow out of bones, was big in the 1680s. During the Victorian era, we saw the sardine fork, jelly knife, snail fork and caddy spoon (for measuring out tea leaves). Dahl’s voyage was in the 1930s, but Miss Tefusis may have been using a Victorian-era fruit knife and fork of sterling silver with bone handles.
The Victorians also invented an implement much coveted by my husband: grape scissors. With these, one removed a cluster of grapes, leaving the larger bunch looking tidy and without ugly, denuded stems. I searched the antique shops of Canberra and presented him with silver grape scissors one Christmas. Sadly, they had no edge and failed to cut through even the flimsiest grape stem.
As a small child, I had my own personal cutlery set – perhaps a Christening present from a doting aunt. It consisted of a silver spoon with a curious looped handle, ideal for small fists, and a matching implement called a “pusher”. Alas, it has long since disappeared and this eminently practical combination seems to have vanished from cutlery makers’ ranges.
Since we have a grandchild who is currently wrestling with the challenge of conveying food from plate to mouth, I had hoped to find my old spoon and pusher in the collection of cutlery rescued from my parents’ house — a motley collection of fish knives and forks, casein and bone-handled table knives and silver-plated forks and spoons. I remember the strict admonition not to allow the bone-handled knives to soak in hot water; it would, apparently, cause them to darken.
The most controversial item of cutlery in my childhood home was the butter knife. My grandmother, who lived with us, would produce this small knife whenever we had “company”. It sat primly on the butter dish and was much derided by the rest of the family as bunging on side. If you look carefully, you can see a butter knife near the bottom right-hand corner of the picture above.
The most mysterious item in the picture was, for me, the large three-pronged fork. I also have another version of this implement, silver-plated and nestled in its own silk-lined gift box. I’m fairly sure it’s a bread fork. It seems that in more polite times, one didn’t take one’s bread slice or bread roll from the dish with one’s fingers (those disgusting, dirty things) but used the bread fork to convey it to one’s plate.
The origin of the bread forks I have in my possession remains unclear. I don’t recall ever seeing them on the family table. Like the butter knife, it’s unlikely they will ever be used again. Table etiquette has, fortunately, evolved. So I don’t have to seek out a cheese scoop, chocolate muddler or lettuce fork. Just pass me the chopsticks, please.