Is the fish knife our most pretentious utensil?
Now largely forgotten, the fish knife comes from an age where table etiquette was front and centre, leading to nearly two hundred different eating utensils being designed for different courses and foods. Adopted by an aspiring middle class wishing to dine like the gentrified, the odd utensil was later targeted by high society as an object of ridicule, as Colin Bisset writes.
The fish knife is the epitome of gentility. With a scalloped shaped blade, the end is just pointy enough to pick small bones from a cooked fish, and the flat blade is useful for sliding between the flesh and skin.
The fish knife first appeared in the first half of the nineteenth century in Britain. Thanks to thriving industry and the wealth generated by an expanding Empire, the rising middle-classes aspired to a gentrified way of dining. From the 1850s, dinners were usually served a la russe, which meant as separate courses as opposed to the previous practice of putting all dishes on the table at the same time. This led to the introduction of a variety of implements to help distinguish the serving and eating of everything from oysters to elaborate puddings, making negotiating a dinner a nightmare for those lacking knowledge of table etiquette.
It was a boon for cutlery manufacturers who were able to not only to design and market nearly two hundred eating implements but several styles for each one. (Washing up after these long dinners was certainly an arduous task.) The fish knife was an object of fussy design, solving a problem that was not truly present. It is interesting that they managed to last so long when the other cutlery inventions of the Victorian table have largely vanished.
A fish knife was an essential component for the fish course and they were quickly adapted for dining tables across the newly industrialised world. Made from either plated or solid silver, because ordinary metal blades were believed to blacken when coming into contact with fish, they offered hosts the opportunity to show the world that they could afford to dine in the finest fashion. With ever-more fanciful shapes, some engraved with fish-scales, others as curvaceous as a fish itself, the maritime theme was de rigeur.
The thought of an ordinary silver knife being able to serve the purpose just as well seems to have been politely put to one side. A larger version was often part of a set for the filleting and serving of a fish meant for several diners.
By the end of the First World War, they fell from fashion, at least for the upper classes who had always found them rather vulgar and preferred to use two forks to fillet a fish. As the century progressed, they quickly became an object of ridicule. However, the invention of stainless steel in the 1920s meant that they could be manufactured cheaply and thus anyone who aspired to a posh kind of gentility would be in possession of a set.
Snobbish writers such as poet John Betjeman mocked their use, branding the utensil non-U (the term coined by Nancy Mitford to differentiate those with class from those with pretensions to it). Betjeman's famous poem of 1958 “How To Get On In Society” is a catalogue of names and terms used by the upwardly-mobile, at first sight gently mocking but actually (as Betjeman was) quite savage. 'Phone for the fish knives, Norman,' starts the poem, immediately highlighting a raft of non-U words: phone, fish knives and Norman.
The fish knife was an object of fussy design, solving a problem that was not truly present. It is interesting that they managed to last so long when the other cutlery inventions of the Victorian table have largely vanished.
A visit to any antique shop will however always turn up many sets—many will never have been used. Perhaps, like the fondue set and the parfait dish, their time will come again. They might indeed be reclaimed as symbols for the class warrior and those who despise the snobbism implicit in certain objects.
They remain, however, as an interesting throwback to a time when how one ate was almost more important than what one ate.— By Colin Bisset for Design, 2013
Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J Graber, is the Site Editor for theEtiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia