They are so ubiquitous that most people don’t even realize that they have an origin. They are so commonly used that some of you might have them in your hands right now.
Yet, the objects we use to eat do have very definite histories.
Moreover, around the world, we often use very different objects to consume our food, and sometimes we use the exact same objects in very different ways.
Learn more about eating utensils, how they were developed and how they are used in different cultures, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
There is a statistic that has floated around for years, and I don’t know how accurate it is but it seems reasonable, that about one-third of the world eats with their hands, one-third of the world uses chopsticks, and one-third uses cutlery.
As we’ll see, these divisions between how people eat are not cut and dry, and it isn’t either one or the other.
With that let’s start with a brief overview of eating with your hands.
This is obviously the way all humans originally ate. Today, you can find billions of people who eat this way with two of the largest centers of it being in South Asia and East Africa.
If you have ever been to an Indian restaurant, you probably ate with cutlery. However, in most of South Asia, including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, people will eat directly with their hands.
If you are familiar with food from this region, this is how it was designed to be consumed.
Most meals will be some sort of curry type dish and it will be rice and/or a flatbread. The curry will be added to the rice which serves to thicken it, which makes it easy to pick up.
You might be wondering, wouldn’t your fingers get really dirty if you did this? The answer is yes, but the same is true if you eat BBQ ribs or Buffalo chicken wings.
Likewise, many of the flatbreads which are served such as nan, chapati, or roti, are designed to be torn off in pieces, and then each piece is used to pick up food by pinching it.
I’ve learned to eat this way, and whenever I got to an Indian restaurant, I will often get a nod of approval from the owners or the waitstaff.
I went to an Indian restaurant in Singapore once which was a cheap hole-in-the-wall joint that catered mostly to Indian construction workers in the city. The meal was served on a banana leaf, and there were no utensils.
In Ethiopian cuisine, it is very similar. Most meals will be served on top of a spongy flatbread known as injera. Injera serves as both a plate and bread for eating with your hands.
One thing you will find in most cultures where they eat with their hands is that you should wash your hands both before and after you eat. Also, most people will usually only eat with one hand, usually the right hand.
It is part of Islamic etiquette to only eat with your right hand because your left hand is used for cleaning after you relieve yourself.
With that, let’s move to the first actual eating utensil in history, the knife.
It isn’t known when the knife was invented, but it was one of the first tools ever created by humans. The first knives were made out of wood and bone, but they were eventually made out of much better materials such as flint and obsidian.
Just as an aside, some stone knives can be extremely sharp. It is possible to create a blade made out of obsidian which is as sharp as a razor.
Eventually, knives were made out of iron and other metals, and they were the primary implement used in food preparation.
In countries that use cutlery, depending on how fancy the dinner setting is, there can be as many as five different knives that could be set out at a table. A dinner knife, which usually has a serrated edge and a rounded tip, a salad knife which is pretty much the same thing but smaller, a butter knife which is small and doesn’t really have any blade, a fish knife which is small with a point, and a steak knife which would be the largest and sharpest knife at a place setting. It is rare that all of these knives would be set out for the same meal.
The development of rounded tipped knives supposedly came from King Louis XIV of France who didn’t like having so many people with pointed tipped knives at his banquets.
Before the creation of blunt-tipped knives, the problem with knives was, as indispensable as they are in preparing food, they can also be used to, you know, murder people.
Avoiding having weapons at the table was directly responsible for the development of the next oldest eating utensil, chopsticks.
The oldest chopsticks which have been found date back about 3,200 years and were found in the Henan Province of China. They were made of bronze. It is very probable that chopsticks made of wood might have been used much earlier, but they weren’t preserved.
It is believed that they were originally only used in food preparation for stirring pots or stir fry.
They were believed to first be used for eating in the Han Dynasty about 2,000 years ago.
I mentioned that the knife had something to do with the development of the chopstick. Just as food in countries that eat with their hands is designed to be eaten that way, so too is food in countries that use chopsticks.
The entire overarching theory behind east Asian food, the region where chopsticks are most prevalent, is that you never need to use a knife at the table because all chopping should be done in the kitchen. Weapons shouldn’t be found at the dining table.
There are differences in chopsticks which vary by country. Japanese chopsticks are tapered and have pointy ends. Korean chopsticks are usually metallic and are flat. Chinese chopsticks are more rounded and have a blunted end.
There are over 80 billion disposable chopsticks manufactured each year. They consume over 4 million trees each year and they constitute one of the largest uses of timber in China.
Evidence for forks actually goes back farther than evidence for chopsticks. There are pronged utensils that have been found in ruins in ancient Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome. Like chopsticks, the first forks were not used for eating. They were used for cooking and serving food.
The first evidence of a fork used at the table for eating goes back to the 4th century in the Byzantine Empire. The niece of the Byzantine Emperor married the son of the Doge of Venice, and they reportedly had forks at their wedding reception in the early 11th century.
Forks first became popular in Italy and their popularity corresponded with the rise in popularity in pasta. However, it took centuries for forks to really catch on.
It wasn’t until the 17th century in Italy that they became really popular. It was common for Italians to carry their own fork and spoon in a box called a cadena.
The fork gradually spread to Spain, Portugal, and France. However, it didn’t catch on in Northern Europe and Great Britain until the 18th century. It wasn’t until the late 18th century, during the revolution, that forks caught on in the United States.
Today there are probably more different types of forks than any other utensil. There are specialty forks for oysters, meat, asparagus, olives, salads, pickles, sardines, and pastries. They vary by size, length, and the number of tines.
Spoons, like knives, date back to pre-history. While they might not be as old as using pieces of bone or sharp flint, the problem of consuming liquids was an early one.
The predecessor to the spoon was the bowl, but it wasn’t much of a stretch from a bowl-like object to a spoon.
Spoons have been found in the tombs and ruins of almost every ancient culture. The early spoons that were found were made of ivory, stone, bone, or wood. By the time of the Romans and the Greeks, spoons were created of bronze and other metals.
It was early Muslims who supposedly first used spoons for eating soup.
As with forks, there are many different spoons of different lengths and depths.
Of special note is the Chinese spoon. Chinese spoons, which are often used in other Asian countries as well, are much broader and deeper than western spoons, and as such can hold much more liquid.
They were actually more popular than chopsticks in China until about the 10th century.
The way all of these utensils are used can differ greatly around the world.
For example, there are differences between European and American norms for using a fork and knife. The American way involves switching hands after you cut something, and having the tines of the fork facing up. In Europe, you don’t switch hands, and the tines of the fork are supposed to face down.
In some countries like Thailand, dishes are eaten with a spoon in the dominant hand and a fork in the other hand. Noodle dishes are eaten with chopsticks, and some dishes are eaten with your hands.
There has always been a great debate about if you should use your hands or chopsticks when eating sushi. In Japan, I’ve seen people eat unagi sushi and rolls both ways and there doesn’t seem to be a consensus, but sashimi should always be consumed with chopsticks.
I should end by mentioning the bastard child of all eating utensils, the spork.
Believe it or not, the spork actually dates back to the 19th century. It was invented by Samuel Francis who received a patent for it in 1874. There were actually several patents issued over the years.
The term “spork”, which is of course just a portmanteau of the words “spoon” and “fork” was first found in a dictionary in 1912. Today, believe it or not, the term is trademarked. Some competitors have been using the term “forkspoon” to get around the trademark.
The interesting thing about utensils is how uninteresting they are. They are very simple things that we use every day and most people have never probably given a thought to how they were developed over time.
These objects of everyday life have become central to many cultures, are the subject of what are often elaborate rules of etiquette.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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