Monday, November 1, 2010

What the fork???

“The true Christian is in all countries a pilgrim and a stranger” -George Santayana
For our wedding anniversary my wife & I traveled to Plimoth Plantation to share a Harvest Feast dinner with the "pilgrims". I put pilgrim in quotes because one of the Plimouth residents we spoke to objected to the term. "This isn't the Holy Land", he said. It turns out that only half the residents were religious pilgrims, the other half were loyal Church of England members. When the Pilgrims chartered the colony and the Mayflower they realized that their congregation was mostly weavers and tailors. For a colony to succeed they needed a blacksmith, cooper, baker, tanner, etc. So they opened up the colony to "outsiders" to get these skills with a promise that the outsiders would allow the pilgrims to worship according to their own dictates.

Anyhow, back to the Harvest Feast dinner which I mentioned. As the "shallet" (salad) course was served it quickly became apparent that there were no forks! Each place setting contained only a large spoon and a slightly dull knife. The shallet also had no dressing which is a good thing when forced to eat it with fingers.

While my wife & I enjoyed the meal, we both agree that Plimoth failed in its mission to educate. There was no discussion of why the fork was missing or what were the proper 1627 manners for eating. No mention of where the ingredients came from or why the dishes served were selected. Was the food served common or a rare treat? The only way to know was to ask one of the "locals" at the meal and that was often very difficult since they stay 100% true to character and refuse to speak of anything beyond 1627.

After arriving back at home I looked up forks on Wikipedia. It turns out Shakespeare ate with his fingers (and knife and spoon) as did all the early Americans in the 17th century. Before Christ the fork was used primarily as a serving utensil (by the ancient Greeks, and ancient Hebrews, I Samuel 2:13). Romans may have used metal forks for eating and this custom was preserved in the Byzantine East but lost in the European West during the "Dark Ages". The custom traveled from Constantinople back to Italy in the 11th century but took 500 years to become popular and common with Italians. (How do you eat spaghetti without a fork?)
The fork's adoption in northern Europe was [even] slower. Its use was first described in English by Thomas Coryat in a volume of writings on his Italian travels (1611), but for many years it was viewed as an unmanly Italian affectation. Some writers of the Roman Catholic Church expressly disapproved of its use, seeing it as "excessive delicacy": "God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks — his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them when eating."
Some nobility in Europe would bring their personal fork to dinner but it was not until the 18th century that the fork became commonly used in Great Britain and America. So we can assume that George Washington used a fork.

Bottom  Line

Be grateful for your fork!  Dinner is a lot messier without it.

I recall a Chinese meal of Cantonese Lobster. The lobster was chopped and covered in a thick sauce but NOT deshelled. What a mess trying to remove the sauce-covered shells. It did not matter if you used forks or chop sticks - there was no way to eat this meal without getting messy. I've never ordered it again.

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