Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
February 23, 2018
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Mangia Bene

The history of the fork has never been written, and when it is, it will be a study of the rules of etiquette in society. Although there is a description of a kind of hook used to pull meats out of cooking pots in the Bible and a five-pronged fork-like utensil used for turning roasting meats in Homer’s Odyssey, the first documented use in Europe of a fork with tines at the table while eating is from the eleventh century.1 In the first piece of evidence, the Greek-born Dogissa Maria Argyra in Venice was known to have used a fork to eat.2 St. Peter Damian, the source for this story, was clearly not pleased with its use, having this to say about the diabolical luxury in his condemnation of Maria Argyra: “such was the luxury of her habits...[that] she deigned [not] to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth.”3 The second piece of evidence comes from an eleventh-century illustrated manuscript from Monte Cassino of two men using a two-pronged fork.4

We don’t hear much of the fork for the next few centuries, except occasionally here and there, until Eustachio Celebrino of Udine writes about the scalco (head steward) in 1526 in a work published in Venice called Opera nova che insegna apparechiar una mensa a uno convito (New book that teaches the use of banquet table implements).5 Celebrino had table settings of plates with a piece of bread, a cracker (biscottello), and a cake (pignochato) upon them. The settings were flanked with a knife and fork, which is a very early mention of the dinner fork (pirone). In 1599 Jacopo Bassano painted one of the first forks to figure in a Last Supper.6 Charles V of Spain had a dozen forks among his possessions but the courtiers of Henry III of France (1551-1589) were still laughed at for the amount of food they lost on the way to their mouths.7 He had brought forks back from Venice with him, where they had been known but not really used in the Italian court since 1071.8

Why was the fork invented? The fork has no practical purpose outside of etiquette; the fingers, knife, and spoon are adequate. The fork was invented because of a new consciousness of good taste among a class of people who were urban-dwellers, the original meaning of bourgeois. The genesis of the fork might be found in eighth-or-ninth century Persia where the Dihqans, members of a family of lesser Iranian nobility, were known as having good table manners. Normally meat was eaten at the Persian table by stripping the meat off the bones with one’s fingers and sucking the marrow out, but the Dhiqans were the first to eat meat with a barjyn and knife. The term barjyn is obscure but it appears to be cutlery similar to a fork. The word may derive from the Persian word for “glove,” so that earlier still they may have eaten with a kind of glove, in contrast to their co-religionists, the Arabs, who ate with their fingers. But we don’t know the extent of this custom.9 Whatever the origins of the fork, it was not immediately accepted and did not take root either in Europe or the Middle East, where the fork was still unknown as late as the seventeenth century.10

(Jacopo Bassano, The Last Supper, 1542)

1. Homer, The Odyssey. Robert Fagles, trans. New York: Penguin, 1996, p. 517. The suggestion that the fork was known in Roman times by virtue of passages in Petronius’ Satyricon is not tenable. These were forked instruments used in the kitchen and not table forks; see Henisch, Bridget Ann. Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985, p. 185.

2. Runciman, Steven, "Byzantium and the High Middle Ages,” in The Root of Europe: Studies in the Diffusion of Greek Culture. Michael Huxley, ed. London: The Geographical Magazine, 1952, p. 53. The fork may have appeared earlier on the Byzantine table, although I have not seen the so-called fourth-century Dumbarton Oaks silver fork.

3. Norwich, John Julius. A History of Venice. New York: Vintage, 1989, p. 60.

4. Forbes, R. J. "Food and Drink," Charles Singer, et. al. eds. A History of Technology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956. vol. II: The Mediterranean Civilization and the Middle Ages, c. 700 B.C. to c. A.D. 1500, p. 126; a reproduction is in Henisch 1985: 189.

5. Opera nova che insegna apparechiar una mensa a uno convito, Venice: Francesco di Alessandro Bindoni and Mapheo Pasini, 1526 (Biblioteca Vaticana, codex Rossiana 7659), cited in Benporat, Claudio, “A Discovery at the Vatican--the First Italian Treatise on the Art of the ‘Scalco’ (Head Steward),” Petits Propos Culinaire 30 (November 1988), pp. 41-42.

6. Braudel, Fernand, Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century, vol. 1: The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible, Siân Reynolds, trans. London: Collins, 1981, p. 209. An earlier painting, also of a Last Supper, depicting a fork, appears in the Pala d’Oro of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.

7. Cipolla, Carlo M. Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 1000-1700. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1980, p. 213 n. 10.

8. Maffioli. Giuseppe, La cucina veneziana. Padua: Franco Muzzio, 1982, p. 100; also see Zorzi, Elio, Osterie Veneziane, Venice: Filippi, 1967, p. 2.

9. This obscure word comes from the Qissat al-Harithi of the Bukhalac cited and analyzed in Agius, Dionisius A. Arabic Literary Works as a Source of Documentation for Technical Terms of the Material Culture, Islamkundliche Untersuchungen Band 98 Berlin: Klaus Schwarz, 1984, p. 205.

10. Mantran, Robert, La vie quotidienne a Constantinople au temps du Soliman le Magnifique et de ses successeurs (XVIe et XVIIe siecles), Paris: Hachette, 1965, p. 264.