The History of the Glasses from which We Drink

Glassware

Humans have drunk from vessels from time immemorial—whether from naturally formed objects adapted for drinking, such as shells and gourds, or from handcrafted forms made of wood or metal. But today, when one thinks of a drinking-vessel, one thinks of an object made of glass—so much so that the object has acquired the name of the material from which it is made. And today, no formal dinner table would be regarded as properly appointed without stemware.

The earliest evidence of man-made glass occurs in the form of beads made in Egypt and Mesopotamia during the last quarter of the third millennium B.C.E. And the archaeological record indicates that Egyptian artisans during the reign of King Thutmose III (1479 – 1425 B.C.E.), arguably Egypt’s greatest warrior-pharaoh, developed the technique of making drinking-vessels of glass using the core-formed method. By the first century B.C.E., the Egyptians had developed the technique of blowing glass; and when the Romans conquered Egypt in 27 B.C.E., glass, by then popular in Egypt, was introduced to Rome, thereafter spreading throughout Europe—to those who could afford it since glass was very expensive and could be acquired by only those of the elite classes. It was not until one thousand years later that there would be reference to glass-making in Venice, which became famous for the craft—so much so that in 1291 all Venetian glass production was moved to the Venetian island of Murano for fear that the watery city would burn on account of the high concentration of glass foundries in the city.

Perhaps the first written suggestion of the drinking-glass as it is best known today—in its transparent form—occurs around 1570 when there is reference to Venetian “ice” glass. [But See Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, 1495-98; and Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Last Supper, 1480. In both paintings, transparent glass is prominently depicted, indicating that transparent glass was in use almost a century earlier in Renaissance Italy. See also examples of 3rd– and 4th-century C.E., Roman transparent cut-glass objects at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Also, Pliny the Elder, writing in the 60s C.E., discusses the contemporary taste for clear glass and glass as similar to rock crystal as possible]. Caravaggio’s Bacchus, circa 1595, demonstrates the artist’s mastery, in oil on canvas, at rendering what is believed to be an example of that “ice” glass. And by1673, the technique of adding lead oxide to glass production resulted in a heavy, clear glass that was ideal for cutting.

The pressed-glass machine was invented in 1825 in the United States, ushering in the era of mass-produced, relatively inexpensive glass. (There were, however, companies specializing in high-quality crystal glasses as usable, functional, works of decorative art:  Baccarat, founded in 1764, was by the 1850s producing elegant drinking-glasses for the world’s elite; and Lalique, founded in 1888, began producing luxurious stemware in 1921). But it was during the Victorian era, in the 1890s, that the drinking-glass as it is known today became popularized. In the late 1800s, when opulence was the order of the day, heavily carved crystal stemware adorned the dinner tables of the world’s great hostesses. But while such glasses may be beautiful to behold, they are not perfectly suited for the enjoyment of their contents. And it would not be until the 1960s that Claus Riedel would design a collection of wine-specific glasses—clear, smooth, über-lightweight glasses designed especially to enhance the appreciation for the taste and bouquet of wine. The collection was officially launched in 1973; and Riedel and Riedel-inspired glasses have been the standard ever since, with companies such as IKEA, Pottery Barn, and Williams-Sonoma offering similarly designed, machine-made stemware at affordable prices.

The Proper Placement of Eating Utensils at the End of a Course or Meal

The Proper Placement of Eating Utensils at the End of a Course or Meal

How used silverware is placed onto the plate at the end of a course is a matter of both form and function. The used eating utensils should be placed onto the plate, aligned vertically towards the right side of the plate, so that as the table assistant approaches from the right side to retrieve the plate, holding it by its rim, his thumb can easily secure the silverware, while his four fingers are placed under the plate to steady the dish from underneath. While some authorities allow for the vertical (knife, blade pointing inward, to the immediate right side of the fork, tines facing upward) placement of used eating utensils in the center of the plate, such a placement is impractical for the person tasked with removing the plate since he is not able to readily secure the silverware with his thumb as the plate is being hoisted and removed.

But the foregoing addresses only the functional component. In terms of form, the placement of the silverware at the end of a course is inspired by the manner in which the table is set at the commencement of the meal. As such, the knife is placed to the right of the fork, blade pointing inward, and the fork is placed alongside the knife, tines pointing upward. On the rare occasions where a knife, fork, and spoon are used to eat a particular course (for example, poached pear à la mode), the spoon is placed to the right side of the knife, bowl upward; and the knife is placed in the middle, blade pointing inward, with the fork next to the knife, at its left, tines upward. (See also below subsection on “Soups”; See also below subsection on “How to Eat Certain Foods”—discussion on “Iced-tea” spoons and straws).

Overlapping the knife and fork to form an “X,” or meeting the tips of the knife and fork to form an inverted “V” defeat both form and function and are incorrect. And placing the fork with its tines facing downward is a definite dining no-no–almost as blatantly incorrect as when a person, with childlike defiance, turns a drinking-glass or teacup upside-down in order to indicate his lack of desire for a particular beverage.

Any eating utensil designated for a particular course but not used by the diner should be left on the table, where it will be retrieved by the table assistant when the dishes for the course are being removed, or at the end of the dinner when the table is being cleared.

The Correct Way To Eat Soup

The Soup Course

There are soups and then there are hearty soups. It is unlikely that a hearty soup—the type with meat and potatoes, for example—will be served as a second course at a formal dinner of multiple courses. Such soups are meals in and of themselves, and they are wonderful in their own right. The type of soup likely to be served as a first or second course at a formal dinner is a much lighter soup—either a clear, broth-like soup such as a consommé, or perhaps a slightly heavier, pureed soup.

Soups are served either in cups, cup-sized bowls (Oriental style), soup bowls, or soup plates. But regardless, when brought to the table, the dish containing the soup will be placed atop the place plate. Soup spoons in Western-influenced cultures are primarily of two prevailing shapes: those with circular bowls, and those with egg-shaped bowls. The Oriental soup spoon is usually made of porcelain and features a shorter, grooved handle, with a deeper, more angular, oval-shaped bowl.

When served in a cup with one or two handles, the cup may be taken up by the hand(s) and drunk—after having had at least two or three spoonfuls, primarily to eat the garnishes that are oftentimes floating atop such soups and/or to test the temperature of the soup before bringing it to the lips. If the soup cup has one handle, it may be held in the right hand and drunk. If the cup has two handles, both hands should be used to hold the cup, the handles being “pinched” between the thumb and index finger of each hand. In the case of handle-less Oriental soup cups, the cup is taken into both hands, using the thumb and index finger of each hand as the primary support for the cup, with the other fingers allowed to follow the natural contour of the hands as they provide additional—and graceful—support to the cup.

When using the soup spoon, it is permissible to dip soup towards oneself or away from oneself, though the latter method is regarded by many authorities as more elegant in appearance. Likewise, when sipping soup from the spoon, it is acceptable to turn the spoon such that it approaches the lips from its front or from its side, though the latter is preferred by many authorities as the more refined approach. What is not open for discussion, however, are the following:

  1. When eating soup from a cup or a bowl, the spoon is placed onto the service plate (after—discretely—being wiped sufficiently clean with the lips), to the right side of the cup or bowl, whenever eating is interrupted or at the end of the course. The spoon is never left unattended in the cup or bowl during conversation or if its user has taken temporary leave from the table.
  2. When soup is being eaten from a soup plate, which is a wide, somewhat-shallow dish—a cross between a plate and a bowl—the spoon is left in the soup plate when eating is interrupted and at the end of the course, the rationale being that the soup plate is almost as wide as the place plate unto which it is placed, rendering the spoon with insufficient space to be placed securely onto the place plate below.
  3. When the soup cup, bowl, or soup plate must be tilted so as to access the remaining liquid without noisily scraping the spoon against the dish, the dish is to be tilted away from, not towards, the diner, by gently lifting, with the left hand, the portion of the dish closer to the diner, thereby slightly dipping the portion of the dish farther away from the diner, as the soup spoon is used in the right hand to access the remaining liquid.

The wine traditionally served with the soup course is sherry—if the soup is flavored with or would be enhanced by sherry. Otherwise, some other compatible wine is served as the complement to the soup. Sherry is usually poured from a decanter; but on occasion, especially if the vintage is noteworthy or remarkable in some way, it may correctly be poured directly from its bottle. The sherry glass, usually V-shaped and stemmed, is the smallest drinking glass set upon the table at the commencement of the meal. And before its glorious contents is drunk, it is imperative that a gentleman use his napkin to press-wipe his lips clean of any traces of the soup. The little sherry glass should be held by its stem.

At the end of the soup course, the place plate, along with the soup dish and soup spoon, is removed from the table in preparation of the following course, which is usually a fish dish.

 

The History of the Table Knife and the Spoon

The Knife

Regarded as humanity’s first tool, the knife, in all its evolutions—beginning with the humble flint—is believed to be two million years old, the table knives seen today on dining tables being a relatively recent variation on the ancient theme.

If the popularity of the fork in the West was due to its introduction by two powerful women from the East, then the transformation of the knife into a relatively benign dining utensil was certainly a masculine contribution—by two powerful men of the West. It is widely believed that around 1637, Cardinal Richelieu, in an attempt to discourage people from picking their teeth at the dinner table with the sharp points of their knives, recommended the blunting of pointed knives. But to a perhaps larger degree, the table knife owes its beginnings to France’s King Louis XIV, the “Sun King.” In 1669, in an attempt to discourage violence, the king declared all pointed knives illegal, requiring that their sharp tips be rounded off. Prior to Louis’ decree, it was customary for men to carry their pointed-blade knives in their waistbands, and those same knives would be used at the dinner table to cut and spear food. But when knights and knaves carry knives, trouble will sometimes ensue—occasionally at the dinner table…. As knives became less treacherous on account of the decree, they began taking their rightful place, along with forks and spoons, in table settings. And today, 400 years later, knives at the dining table are symbols of manners, not mayhem.

 

The Spoon

In the Paleolithic age, people used objects found in nature to perform spoon-type functions. The Greek and Latin words for “spoon” derive from “cochlea,” a spiral-shaped snail shell; while the English word “spoon” derives from the Anglo-Saxon “spon,” meaning “chip” or “flint” (presumably of wood), both the Greco-Latin and Anglo-Saxon derivations suggesting the natural inspirations for what would eventually be designed as the spoon by modern man. The earliest preserved examples of man-made spoons are from Egypt, and spoons are referenced in the literature of ancient India. By the first century C.E., the Romans had designed two types of spoons, typically made of bronze, which basically resemble present-day spoons: ligula, a spoon with an oval-shaped bowl resembling most modern-day spoons; and cochleare, a spoon with a perfectly round bowl, typically used for eating shellfish and eggs. And of course, wherever the Romans went during their years of conquest, so went their wares. In those days, people not only did as the Romans whilst in Rome, they also did as the Romans wherever Romans ruled. Early English spoons, for example, were patterned from Roman spoons as a result of the Roman occupation of Britain from 43 C.E. To 410 C.E.

During the Dark Ages, many materials were used in spoon-construction, but royalty and the nobility tended to use the precious metals silver and gold. It was not until the 14th century, when iron and pewter were used to construct spoons, that the implement became a household item—in the typical home; and by 1760 the spoon had taken on the shape that it assumes until today.

In 1915, Harry Brearley, a metallurgist from Sheffield, England, applied for a US patent for stainless steel, only to discover that American Elwood Haynes had already applied for a patent in 1912 (Haynes was granted the patent in 1919). Haynes and Brearley decided to collaborate, pooling their funds and identifying investors, and together they formed the American Stainless Steel Corporation, headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Their joint effort would forever change cutlery.

 

The Proper Way To Serve And Retrieve Dishes At A Sit-Down Meal–left side vs. right side (and the rationale for each one)

Presentation (and Removal) of Dishes

A student of etiquette would be wise to realize that most rules of manners are rooted in logic and reason; rarely do the rules exist merely for their own sake. And when meaningless rules do emerge for whatever reason, whether inspired by some social fad or the caprice of the self-appointed style arbiters of the era, such rules tend to be relegated into relative irrelevance as quickly as they emerge. But for the rules rooted in necessity, convenience, comfort, safety, respect, courtesy, etc., once the rationale behind the rule is fully understood and appreciated, the application of the rule becomes much more automatic and effortless. Prime example: The general rule for presenting dishes to guests seated at a dinner table is that dishes should be presented or served from the left of the guest—but retrieved from his right, whenever possible. And the reason behind the rule is this: In the days of yore, when servants would present large trays of food before guests, who would then help themselves to the desired portions, dishes were offered on the left side of each guest since most people are right-handed, and a dish presented from the left would more easily allow a right-handed guest to properly extend his right arm so that he could hold the serving utensil to transfer the food from the service tray to his plate, steadied, if necessary by the other service utensil held in the left hand. Had the dish been presented from the right side, the typical right-handed guest would have found himself with his right arm somewhat restricted, space-wise, by the very dish from which he was to serve himself. Likewise, at certain formal dinners, guests did not serve themselves from platters presented before them, but were instead served by servants from platters as they made their way around the table, placing desired portions onto each guest’s plate. In such instances, it was much easier for the right-handed servant to fill each guests’ plate if he approached the guest from the left, using his right hand to place the food onto the plate. Had the guest been approached from the right, the right-handed server would have had to have supported the service dish in his left hand while twisting his upper body towards the guest in order to place the food onto the plate. Today, it is rare for guests to be presented with service trays; but on such occasions, guests should expect to be served from the left, and they should lean ever so slightly to the right upon the approach of the server, allowing him to place the food onto the plate without incident. When the guest must use the serving utensils to serve himself from the presented platters, he should take the serving spoon in his right hand to scoop up the desired portion, then use the serving fork (if one is provided), held in his left hand, tines pointing downward, to hold the food in place on the serving spoon as he transfers the food to his plate. At less formal, private meals, where dishes are being passed around the table in order for guests to help themselves to the desired portions, the dishes should be passed counter-clockwise so that each guest is presented with the dish from his left side, thereby allowing him to properly extend his right arm to serve himself, assisted by the left when necessary. When dishes are being passed around a table, diners help themselves when the dish arrives, thereafter holding the dish in order for the person to his immediate right can serve himself. And after serving himself, the courteous guest will place the serving utensils with their handles to the right side of the service dish so that the next guest may reach them without having to reach across the dish to retrieve them. Ladies are especially appreciative of this courtesy since they are oftentimes dressed in garments with sleeves that may become food-stained if they must reach across the dish to retrieve the service utensils.

But times change…and so do the rules of etiquette. At typical 21st-century formal dinners, because so much attention is placed by modern-day “designer-chefs” on the decorative manner in which food is presented on the plate, most chefs prefer to artfully prepare and style each plate in the kitchen then have the serving staff present the prepared plates to guests. Consequently, there is a new line of authority that is of the opinion that kitchen-prepared plates should be presented from the right side, not the left, since the logic that justifies presenting dishes from the left does not apply to pre-portioned plates. Many staunch conservatives, however, maintain that there should be one, simple rule (with the necessary exceptions, of course): Serve food from the left; retrieve dishes from the right. The simpler, the better, they argue, and most people seem to agree. (But even the “conservatives” differ at times: Amy Vanderbilt, in her Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette (1967) states, “…at a formal meal, removal is only from the left, except for those parts of the setting that are on the guest’s right.” The New Emily Post’s Etiquette (1975), however, states, “Although all dishes are presented at the left of the person being served, it is better that plates be removed from the right.” The conservatives also argue that the serve-food-from-the-left rule reduces the occasion for accidents at the table since the right side of a diner’s plate is occupied by the various glasses, sometimes numbering four or more, while the left side tends to be less congested, thereby making it better-suited for placing food—sometimes very hot—onto the table.

Traditionally, in Western and Western-influenced cultures, a servant places a dish onto the table with his left hand, his right hand behind his back. (The rationale for the rule is that serving a guest from the left side with server’s left hand is less invasive of the guest’s personal space than serving a guest from the left side with server’s right hand—the hand closer to the guest—which would require that the server pass the dish directly in front of the face and shoulder of the guest as it is being placed onto the table). The dish is held flat in the palm of the server’s hand so as not to have his fingers—gloved or otherwise—in the vicinity of the food. In the case of especially hot plates, a folded napkin, serving as a pad, is used to protect the hand of the server. In Islamic and several other cultures, presenting anything with the left hand is an insult since the left hand is the hand designated for personal hygiene in such cultures. A conscientious host, therefore, when entertaining guests of the Islamic faith, will instruct his table assistants to use their right hands to serve his Muslim guests. At ultra-formal dinners, the service staff will wear white cotton gloves. But presenting food with the left hand, even if immaculately gloved, is still considered insulting in certain cultures; and it is the job of the international host to be mindful of certain, easily accommodated, international customs—even within his own home.

Naturally, glasses are always filled from the right side since they are situated to the upper right side of the plate, and filling them from that side makes perfect sense. The glass designated for each course is also removed, at the end of its corresponding course, from the right. Likewise, glasses are replaced and substituted from the right.

Then there are the exceptions—but they, too, are based on common sense: The bread-and-butter plate, which is always placed to the upper left side of the place-plate at the commencement of the meal, is removed from the left side since it would be both senseless and awkward for the table attendant to position himself to the right of the guest only to have to reach across the guest to retrieve an item placed to his left. Forks for courses beyond the first three will be added from the left, while spoons and knives beyond the first three will be added from the right, consistent with the left-side, right-side placement around the plate.

The Correct Way To Use A Dinner Napkin

The Napkin

A formal private dinner officially begins when the person presiding over the meal places his napkin onto his lap and unfolds it. It is only then that each guest places his napkin onto his lap and unfolds it—never before. (At formal public events such as banquets, large receptions, etc., where there is no one person officially presiding over the meal, as well as in restaurants and in informal settings, the napkin may be placed onto the lap and unfolded immediately preceding the serving of the first item—food or drink. If bread and/or some beverage is already on the table, the napkin may be unfolded once a person has taken his seat). Dinner-sized napkins, usually about 18” squared (46 cm. squared), should be opened halfway, with the fold towards the knee. Smaller napkins, usually referred to as lunch-sized napkins, should be opened completely and placed flat onto the lap. Some men have a habit of shaking open a napkin as if about to throw down a gauntlet to signal a duel, but such theatrics are more appropriate for the stage than for the elegant dining table.

Only when eating shellfish such as lobster, served in the shell, is it acceptable for adults to tuck their napkins into their necklines—if bibs are not specifically provided for the course. (And on airlines that provide cloth napkins with meals—these days a rarity—such napkins are usually appointed with a buttonhole in one corner so that the diner may button the napkin onto one of his upper-level shirt buttons in order to securely cover his chest area since, because of the way airplane seats and their meal trays are designed and configurated, one’s lap is covered by the service tray itself, while one’s torso is especially exposed to food spillage on account of being thrust against the food tray due to relatively confined personal space on airlines—even in the luxury classes).

The primary purpose of a napkin is to clean the lips of oily residue and food particles—especially before drinking (Floating “grease islands” are unappetizing!)—and to protect a diner’s garments by intercepting food that accidentally falls into the lap. The proper way to wipe one’s lips with a napkin is with a press-wipe motion as opposed to a swipe-wipe motion. The appropriate motion should be more akin to dabbing or patting than rubbing or pushing. Any food particle that falls onto the napkin should be picked up with the fingers and placed onto the upper left side of the plate from which one is eating. (The napkin is not the place to conceal bones or grains of rice, for example, that have fallen from the fork).

At most elegant dining tables, the tablecloth and napkins will be made of fine, white linen; and during the course of a dinner—especially one where food with prominently colored sauces is being presented—a napkin is likely to become food-stained. The conscientious gentleman, so as not to present a significantly food-stained napkin to his lips—for all to see and some to shun—will first discretely turn his napkin over in his lap when the stains appear sufficiently unsightly, then inside-out—again discretely in his lap—as the dinner progresses. For an experienced gentleman, then, a napkin has four “fresh” sides, and he utilizes all four during the course of his dinner if necessary. Out of consideration for the host and the person who does his laundry, most ladies of society know to wear a minimal amount of lipstick to the dinner table so as not to add yet another dimension of color to the napkin; and those who do not know that little, considerate rule quickly learn it.

On occasion, one’s napkin will fall from one’s lap onto the floor. But unlike the falling of a knife or a fork, which tends to call attention to itself, thereby alerting the host to request that a replacement be provided, a napkin, because it is made of fabric and generally obstructed from plain view by the tabletop, may fall to the floor unbeknownst even to its user. Upon discovering that one’s napkin has fallen to the floor, the most delicate way of handling the matter is to simply lean sideways, uneventfully reach down to pick up the napkin, and restore it to its proper place. The exceedingly fastidious gentleman, considering that the napkin has fallen onto the floor, will reverse its fold, thereby turning the napkin inside-out, and proceed with his meal. Requesting or expecting a replacement of a fallen napkin is not typical though a conscientious host will usually have a few extra matching napkins ready in case of any major mishaps. Of course, if one is dining alfresco and the napkin falls to the ground, a replacement may be requested. Care should be taken, therefore, to place a napkin securely upon the lap such that it is unlikely to fall. If dining in a restaurant, where extra napkins are usually readily available, a gentleman should feel no hesitation to request a replacement. Under such circumstances, he does not reach down to retrieve the napkin (unless, of course, it has fallen into an area where if left unattended might result in an accident). In a restaurant, a competent table attendant will not only provide a replacement as requested, but also retrieve the one in need of replacement.

During the course of the dinner, if a gentleman must take leave of the dining table for whatever reason, or if he must rise as a lady takes leave of or returns to the table, he places his napkin—not neatly folded, but drawn together in loose folds—to the left of his plate, returning it to his lap upon reoccupying his seat.

A gentleman’s personal handkerchief or tissue should be used to cover his mouth and nose if he must sneeze or cough at the table. If none is available, or if it cannot be retrieved in time, he is allowed to use his napkin. When he has been afforded little forewarning, however, he may use his bare hand, thereafter politely saying, “excuse me,” which should be audible only to those in his immediate vicinity. Of course, if the sneezing or coughing persists, the gentleman should temporarily excuse himself from the table, returning when his proper condition has been restored. Blowing one’s nose at the table, however, is an entirely different matter: it is completely unacceptable. To blow his nose, a gentleman should excuse himself from the dinner table, clearing his sinus and nostrils in the nearest powder room, where there will certainly be the benefit of a mirror to ensure that his face is presentable upon his return to the table.

At the end of the meal, the napkin, gathered up loosely—but not folded—as if to be slipped through a hoop, is placed at the left side of the plate. If the plate has been removed, the napkin should be placed in the center of the space previously occupied by the plate.

In some homes, the napkins to be used by members of the family and guests on extended visits are presented in napkin rings—rather than folded and laid onto a plate—when the table has been set for the meal. In such homes, at the end of the meal, the used napkin should be re-folded and tucked into its designated napkin ring. In such homes, each member of the family has a personalized napkin ring so that he may reuse his personal napkin at a subsequent meal. The custom of reusing napkins twice or thrice is ill-advised, however—especially in this day and age of washing machines. Simply put, a frugal host or hostess should find some other means of economizing than by reusing napkins since no one, not even members of the family, find the practice appetizing.

Eating with a Knife and Fork–American Style vs. European Style

Eating with a Knife and Fork

In cultures where the knife and fork are used for eating, there are three accepted ways of eating: European style (also called “Continental style”), American style, and a synthesis of the European and American styles.

In the European method, the fork is almost always held in the left hand, tines down, and the knife, held in the right hand, is used to push and then compact food onto the down-turned fork before the food is conveyed to the mouth with the fork, tines downward. Likewise, when meat is being cut, the fork, being held in the left hand, is used to spear and secure the meat, tines pointing downward, while the knife, being held in the right hand, is used to cut off the the desired portion. Once cut, the desired portion is conveyed to the mouth with the fork, tines downward. In the European style, the only time a fork is held in the right hand is when it is not being used in conjunction with a knife. In such cases, the fork is transferred to the right hand, and the food is conveyed to the mouth, tines pointing upward.

In the American style, the fork is switched between the left and right hands, depending on the circumstances. When eating anything that does not need cutting, the fork is held in the right hand, tines upward, with the knife placed either vertically onto the far right side of the plate or in the “three o’clock” position, with the handle resting on the table and the blade pointing into the plate. When something must be cut before being conveyed to the mouth, the fork is switched to the left hand, the knife is held in the right hand, and the fork, tines down, is used to spear the item that is to be cut, holding it in place as the knife is used to cut off the desired portion. Once cut, the knife is laid onto the plate (in one of the two placements described above), and the fork is switched to the right hand. The food is then conveyed to the mouth with the fork held tines upward. In the strict American method, even if successive portions are to be cut, the fork is switched to the right hand each time food must be conveyed to the mouth.

The American style evolved out of necessity: In North America, the fork did not become a popular eating utensil until the 19th century; for the most part, only spoons and knives were used. So when food had to be cut, it was held in place with the spoon held in the left hand, and the food was cut with the knife held in the right. But since a spoon cannot spear food, in order to convey to the mouth whatever was cut off, the diner would have to place the knife onto his plate, then switch the spoon to his right hand to then convey the cut-off portion to his mouth, obviously with the bowl of the spoon turned upward. When forks became fashionable in the United States during the 19th century, the method of switching hands simply carried over to forks.

Many diners find strict application of the American method—with all its hand-switching—to be too cumbersome, especially when cutting off several items successively. Hence, the very popular (even in North America) synthesized method, which combines the European and American styles: The fork is held in the right hand, tines upward, to eat whatever does not require cutting—meanwhile, the knife is placed onto the plate, whether vertically or in “three o’clock” position as described above. When an item must be cut off, the fork is switched to the left hand, tines pointing downward, as it spears and holds in place the item to be cut with the knife, held in the right hand. The cut-off portion is then conveyed to the mouth with the fork, held in the left hand, tines pointing downward. And if items are to be cut successively, the cut-off portions are conveyed to the mouth with fork, tines down, held in the left hand. The fork is returned to the right hand only when the diner wishes to eat something that does not require cutting.

But regardless of the method used, it must be done with dexterity. Food and drink should be gracefully conveyed to the mouth while an upward, though natural and relaxed, posture is maintained. The mouth should not be carried to food and drink. And it is critical that a gentleman maintain his elbows sufficiently at his side so as not to interfere with diners sitting adjacent to him. Also, there are few things more embarrassing in life than to have whatever is being cut, end up—along with everything else on the plate—onto a hostess’ stark-white, linen damask tablecloth. It is therefore imperative that a gentleman pay close attention to what he is doing while eating. Cutting must look effortless—even if it isn’t. And if getting the last morsel, no matter how delicious, might risk an accident at the table, that morsel would be better left uneaten. A gentleman must choose his battles. And lamb chops have been known to defeat many a gentleman at the formal dinner table.

The History of the Fork

The Fork

The fork was around long before it staked out its place on the dining table. The Egyptians used large forks for cooking; and the word “fork” derives from Latin “furca,” meaning “pitchfork.” As a dining utensil, however, the fork is believed to have originated in the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, where it was in common use by the 4th century. By the 10th century, the fork had become popular in Turkey and the Middle East, spreading thereafter to southern Europe by the second millennium.

The earliest forks had only two widely spaced tines, which were straight, not curved slightly upward as they are today. And their handles tended to be about four inches long and thin, with a circumference about half that of a modern-day drinking straw.

To a large extent, the popularity of forks in the West came literally and figuratively at the hands of two Byzantine princesses who married into Western aristocracy: Theophano, who married Holy Roman Emperor (967-983) and Germany’s King Otto II in 972 C.E.; and Maria Argyropoulaina, who wed the son of the Doge of Venice in 1004. By the end of the 11th century, the table fork had become known in Italy amongst the wealthier classes. By the 14th century, the fork was clearly on its way towards being an accepted dining utensil in Italy. And its widespread acceptance in Italy remained steady, eventually becoming a typical household utensil by the 16th century, some 500 years after its introduction. In 1533, at age 14, Catherine de’ Medici and her entourage introduced the fork to the French when she left Italy for France to marry the future King Henry II. During the Italian Renaissance, each guest would arrive with his own fork and spoon in a decorative box called a “cadena,” and Catherine and her court took that custom along with them to France. It was not uncommon for royals and nobles to have forks made of solid gold or silver, though iron and pewter, for example, were used for the forks of the less privileged.

By the 16th century, the fork had become a part of Italian etiquette, and Spain, Portugal, and France followed suit (though it is widely believed that the Infanta Beatrice of Portugal introduced the fork to her country in the middle of the 15th century). Thomas Coryate is credited with introducing forks to England in 1608 after seeing them in use in Italy during his travels; the initial English reaction was consistent with that of most of Europe—that forks were effeminate and pretentious. In much of northern Europe especially, where most eating was done with the hand or with the aid of a spoon when necessary, the fork was viewed as a decadent, Italian affectation. By the 18th century, however, most of Europe used the fork.

The fork design popular today, with its four, slightly curved tines, was developed in France at the end of the 17th century and in Germany in the middle of the 18th century. It was not until the 19th century—almost 1500 years after it was first popularized in Byzantium—that the fork would become a household item in North America.