Knife and fork
Knife and fork Photo: Thinkstock

Well into the 17th century, knives and spoons were the only utensils most diners in Europe ever used – and ever needed, as food was either dry or soupy, so could be cut or supped with a spoon. Large two-pronged forks were used in the kitchen for preparation purposes only, though refined diners in Greece and Italy had, for some time, used a smaller version at the table. An Englishman named Thomas Coryat observed them in action in 1608. ‘The Italians doe alwaies, at their meales, use a little forke... The Italian cannot indure to have his dish touched with fingers, seeing all mens fingers are not alike cleane.’ Though Coryat was ridiculed for effeminacy when he used a fork back home, the use of both knives and forks was becoming more common by the mid-17th century.

The modern curved, four-tined fork was invented in Germany in the 18th century. Around this time the dinner knife evolved a rounded end – its spearing function now obsolete.

It was only in the 19th century that forks became prevalent in the USA, where they were often called ‘split spoons’. The late adoption of the fork goes some way to explaining the modern American habit of cutting food, then transferring the fork to the other hand and using it as a spoon-like scoop.

Chopsticks and cuisine

Unlike those of the rest of the world, China’s eating utensils evolved alongside its cuisine, which has always featured small morsels. In ancient China, the word for the art of cookery was ko’peng, which means ‘cut and cook’. This mode of preparation meant that cooking could be swift, maintaining the texture and colour of the food. Spices and flavours could permeate all ingredients, too. Chopsticks are the perfect utensil for Chinese cuisine, because they practically guarantee that food can be savoured – a piece at a time. No prehistoric chopsticks survive: the earliest extant pair dates only to the Shang dynasty (c.1766-1122 bc).

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