Why Do We Eat With a Knife, Fork, and Spoon?

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George F. asks: What is the origin of our current table utensils? Have the knife, fork, and spoon always been around?

Dear George: When you think of it, the knife, fork, and spoon is a rather ratty and illogical collection of table utensils, suggesting a piecemeal process of assembling them. It is often said that one-third of the world eats with its hands, one-third with chopsticks, and one-third with a knife, fork, and spoon.

The spoon itself evolved from the serving spoon that must have been invented in humankind's remote past for ladling food out of a communal bowl. Eventually, spoons were appropriated for individual personal use, and then scaled down to carry bite-size quantities of food. In contemporary African restaurants, patrons sometimes eat with a big serving spoon instead of their hands, suggesting that such utensils were added to the African kitchenware arsenal at a fairly late date by colonialists, and only slowly adopted by the Africans.

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Note that, even though utensils are considered ubiquitous in America, and are often worth very little (a single household may have hundreds of knives, forks, and spoons), in medieval Europe, and in much of the third world today, individual utensils are considered valuable possessions. Remember how the peasant in Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting "Peasant Dance" (1568) had a spoon stuck in his cap? That was because it was a precious possession, and he wanted to know where it was all the time.

The knife is another utensil with a murky and early origin. It probably descended from weapons with sharp edges used to hunt animals, modified so as to be used only for cutting, and not for spear-chucking.


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