Forks are a staple of everyday life, and compared to spoons they’re far ore popular for most people. Could you imagine being presented with a dinner and not having a fork to eat with ? Just a spoon and a knife. You’d get creative and would likely also have to use your fingers, but it wouldn’t be all that great an experience.
Can you imagine there was a time when forks were not used ? More than that, eating with a fork was seen as wildly inappropriate. Here’s how forks came about and how they fell in and out of style.
The oldest fork ever recorded (made of bone) belongs to and possibly invented by ancient Chinese, more specifically the Qija culture (2400-1900 BC). Very old accounts of forks were also found to be created in ancient Egypt, and the ancient Roman Empire. However it was the Byzantines that continued the use of forks once the Western Roman Empire fell, and also reintroduced forks to Europe later on.
So while the exact person or culture to first invent forks is unclear, the story of forks is much more complex. The oldest fork does belong to an ancient Chinese culture, but it was not made popular until the ancient Roman Empire.
Byzantine culture is to thank for introducing forks
Despite forks being known and actually used throughout very early Europe (part of ancient Roman Empire), they weren’t very popular at all, especially once the Western Roman Empire fell (5th century AD), which led to the Dark Ages in Europe.
However the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) still used forks, and by the 4th century AD forks were common in any household. This meant that Byzantines pretty much brought forks back into style, and the story of how forks were reintroduced to Europe say the same thing, but with different characters.
The exact story of how forks came to be known in Europe is a bit fuzzy, and all stories appoint various princesses as the one to bring forks to court for the first time. It was always a Byzantine princess that was brought to the west to be married, either to the Holy Roman Emperor or another such king, and her etiquette shocked the entire court.
The mentioned princesses are Theophanu (married to Holy Roman Emperor Otto II), Maria Argyropoulina (married Giovanni Orseolo), and Theodora Doukaina (married Domenico Selvo). All three princesses were known for using forks at their meals, and all three were wed sometime in the late 10th-early 11th century, which is when forks started appearing in the Holy Roman Empire.
But why was everyone shocked ? Forks did exist, but they were quite large, and were mainly used during cooking, or to roast meat, or retrieve something from a jar. Smaller, personal-use forks weren’t a thing and seeing a princess use a fork (even a smaller one) was somewhere between astonishing and scandalous. It’d be like watching royalty eat soup with a small ladle nowadays.
The fork wasn’t popular in Europe at first
For a very long time people still ate some of their meals using their hands, at least the ones that could be easily grabbed (so not soups for example). Spoons and knives were commonplace in most of the world, but forks by themselves were not. Most people used either their knife to spear through the food, their hands, a skewer, or a combination of these methods. Forks were larger and never used for actual eating.
In some countries the smaller, personal fork was actually seen as ‘unmanly’ or unnecessary, though the resistance was mostly due to a severe opposition with whatever the custom was for each country.
Once the Byzantine princess introduced forks to the Italian court, their use started to slowly grow in popularity but still faced some backlash.
By the 14th century AD forks became commonplace in Italy
Aside from a collection of well-mannered princesses, you can also thank pasta for the fork on your table ! In Italy pasta was just starting to rise as the preferred meal, and eating it with a fork made things much easier, so pasta popularity grew, and thus fork popularity also grew. This is likely around the time when rolling your fork in the pasta became the most common way to collect the food and actually eat it.
You cannot discount Italy’s immense influence on Europe, as it was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire for a very long time. Add to that the influence the Catholic church had most of the continent, and whomever was crowned Holy Roman Emperor dictated the customs of the time, with immense influence reaching through the Empire. And once cutlery became commonplace and got more refined, a good chunk of Europe had already adopted the idea of using a fork.
Despite the Holy Roman Empire’s influence, forks didn’t become common in South, West, and Northern Europe until the 18th century. This was largely due to the distance between the Holy Roman Empire and the rest of Europe, plus the various wars and battles that had gone on.
Forks became common in North America after the American Revolution
Forks took a while to reach the British and to be accepted into everyday use, even by nobles. So when America was established as a British colony, it started out with the British customs. Once the American Revolution took place, forks became far more common due to trading and the divergence of etiquette.
Why was the fork invented ?
The fork was likely invented as a means to keep your hands clean while eating, and to make many foods far easier to eat. Most foods, aside from soup, are far easier to eat with a fork than with your hands. Far Eastern civilizations used chopsticks for that same reason, because it’s easier and also cleaner.
However, in early Europe once the Western Roman Empire fell the use of forks disappeared, and people reverted to using their hands, knives, or a wooden skewer to eat foods that would normally be eaten with a fork.
When was the fork invented ?
The oldest fork recorded dates back to at least 2400 BC, so forks are at lest as old as that, but most likely they’re far older. Many objects don’t survive very long stretches of time, so to find one so old and still in recognizable shape means it was well preserved. This particular fork was made of bone, which can preserve its shape for centuries if well kept.
Why do forks have 2, 3, or 4 tines ?
Forks have a varying number of tines according to their use. Initially forks had 2 tines, as they were easier to make, carve, or smith. However using just 2 tines made food easy to pierce but not easy to collect and bring to the mouth.
In time the 3-tined fork came about, which made both piercing the food and bringing it to the mouth much easier. For a very long time forks had 3 tines, and they were wide and sharp tines; they were overall thinner than the 4-tine forks we know today.
So when did we switch to 4 tines ? The switch is unclear, but it’s assumed that it happened because people wanted even greater ease of eating. A 3-tined for is easy to eat with, but depending on what you’re eating it could still be troublesome. It seems that the curved 4-tined version of fork came about in Germany sometime in the 18th century, after a study that compared the ease of use of 3 and 4 tined prongs.
Nowadays you can still find forks with 2 and 3 prongs, and even forks with more than 4. The 3 pronged forks are usually smaller and reserved for things suck as seafood, fruit, or dessert.
Cool facts about forks
Forks have been around for such a long time that they’ve collected an interesting set of cool facts, Here’s some of them.
There are over 35 types of forks today
Those 35 types of forks don’t refer to a 35-tined fork, but rather various sizes of forks, with various numbers of tines, with various widths, and purposes. Not all of them are more useful than the regular dinner fork. But some forks are truly useful in some situations, such as the very narrow and thin 3-tined seafood fork, which allows you separate prawn shell form the meat far easier than other forks.
Or the salad fork, with 4 tines and one of the outermost tines is wider and has a slightly sharp edge, designed to easily cut through larger vegetables that might be present in the salad. This fork is also a bit shorter than the usual dinner fork.
Another nice improvement is the dessert fork, again with three tines but they are very thin and wide, acting almost like a knife to cut through the cake with ease.
Forks share their design with pitchforks
The fork we know today is very useful, but this logic was applied ages ago to farming. Back when hay was a part of daily life, pitchforks were a crucial tool and they made life so much easier. The prongs on a pitchfork (usually 3 but could be 4) made moving hay much easier.
Read Also: Who Invented The Grill?
To keep the fork on the left, or to zig-zag ?
It’s widely accepted that cutting through the second course is far easier than you hold down the food with the fork and cut with the knife. But how we do this is largely influence by where we live or where we’ve grown up.
In Europe, when the food served requires both a knife and a fork, the fork is in the left hand, the knife is in the right, and once the food is cut it’s brought to the mouth via fork, still in the left hand. The knife may be used to gather food onto the fork.
In America, switching the fork to the right hand after cutting the food is much more common. The fork then goes back into the left hand when food must be cut again. Many people try to make their life easier by cutting the food before eating, and then eating with e fork in their right hand.
Whichever way you find most comfortable, there is no right or wrong way. As long as you’re using a fork, and not drinking from the fingerbowl you’re fine.