July 12, 2010 in Features

Miss Manners: Fork triumphs in flatware war

Judith Martin United Features

DEAR MISS MANNERS: Could you tell me if it would be considered OK to cut your steak with a fork?

GENTLE READER: Certainly, but would you please first tell Miss Manners where it is possible to find steak tender enough to be cut with a fork?

Weird as it may seem, there is a complicated historical hierarchy that applies to flatware. Even more oddly, it is not the oldest implement that is most respected.

Lowest rank goes to the spoon, presumably – in the form of some sort of scoop – the oldest means of eating other than the fingers. Next comes the knife, which was, for centuries, used both to spear and to eat. Yes, the same individual knives, ick.

Then along came the fork, from Constantinople to Italy in the 12th century, and from Italy to France in the 16th century. The English were particularly slow in taking it up, and the world was well into the 19th century before it became universal there.

But then the fork became the instrument of choice in the Western world, which it has remained.

At that point, the hierarchy goes into reverse. Those specialized items that were made in Victorian times (and still scare people, although they – the items, not the people – were long since melted down for their silver content) were rather sniffed at when they appeared.

So you had the following bizarre situation among the fastidious:

Whole fish on plate. High crime to use knife to fillet it because knives are intended for meat. But the darn thing is full of tiny bones. Fish knives invented, featuring clever little notch at tip for lifting the flesh from the bone. No, can’t use that, too new. We believe in the fork above all.

Solution: Serve two forks for each plate of fish, to be used to pry the flesh in opposite directions with object of uncovering bones.

Personally, Miss Manners got tired of that silly spectacle and accepted the fish knife, the law against using a meat knife on fish being still on the books. But you see the point – well, maybe not the point, but the fact – of the fork’s paramount position. So if you can eat steak with a fork, even if you have a meat knife at your disposal, you will win the admiration of anyone versed in flatware history.

Which is to say, probably only Miss Manners.

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