Had the luxurious Romans been users of forks, some specimens of the implement would certainly have been found in the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii. But though they fed themselves with their fingers, it must not be imagined that the medievalists were altogether forkless. – Shown left to right- A modern 2-tined appetizer fork, a 19th c. berry fork and a 19th c. strawberry fork.
Dining, Fingers and Forks
“Fingers were made before forks,” says the familiar adage that had its origin in the warm disdain with which our ancestors of the seventeenth century repudiated the Italian table-fork as a fantastic and even impious contrivance.
Products of necessity, the first culinary forks were devised for the benefit of cooks bent on withdrawing meat from a boiling caldron. The Greek creagra –a staff, fitted at the lower end with a hook or with prongs that bore a distant resemblance to human fingers—was a crude pot-fork, which, though greatly serviceable to cooks, would have been of no convenience to a reclining gourmand. Possessing several varieties of this kitchen tool, the Romans, notwithstanding their care for the caprice as well as the comfort of epicurian feasters, never produced a table fork.
Caylus and Grignon, indeed, maintained that table forks were not absolutely unknown to imperial gastronomers; but their opinion, which never had the testimony of sufficient facts, has been altogether discredited. Had the luxurious Romans been users of forks, some specimens of the implement would certainly have been found in the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii. But though they fed themselves with their fingers, it must not be imagined that the medievalists were altogether forkless. Forty years since, a fork, of Anglo-Saxon manufacture, was discovered in Wiltshire, England, under circumstances which leave no room for doubt that it was made at least as early as the latter part of the ninth century. Another Anglo-Saxon fork, described in Ackerman’s Pagan Saxondom, is a bone handled implement, that some foppish thane may have used, to the mingled surprise and contempt of his simpler acquaintances. And from that period to the close of the Tudor time there is evidence that our ancestors had a few forks long before they were commonly placed on the daily table as necessary articles.
Queen Elizabeth had at least three forks, one of “crystal, garnished with gold and sparks of garnets: another of coral, slightly garnished with gold, a third of gold garnished with two little rubies, two little pearls pendant, and a little coral.” But it is obvious that these daintily set and jeweled tools were never meant for serious use. Presents from courtiers, who sought the Royal smile with gifts curious for their costly whimsicalness, her highness regarded them as toys fitted for the jewel casket rather than for use at the table. She may have used one of them to pick a sweetmeat or a candied fruit from a dish of syrup, but it certainly never occurred to her to put them into sides of venison or the breast of Michelmas goose. To the last, whether eating in public or private, the Virgin Queen fingered her victuals, and would have imputed sheer madness to any courtier who had prophesied that ere another century had passed no member of the royal family would be able to do likewise without arousing the disgust of all beholders. – Albert Gilman, 1908
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