“Fingers before forks,” said the child picking up a bit of stew meat.
“That’s not polite. Eat with your fork,” said the mother.
Who’s right? They both are. Long ago people in Europe ate most solid foods with their fingers. Customs slowly changed. Now we eat most things with a fork.
Even though people ate with their fingers in the past, there were rules even then, and children were taught good manners. They learned that they must not put both hands into the serving bowl, that they must use only three fingers to pick up bits of food, and that they must not fish around for the best pieces.
Some of the first forks were brought to Europe from Byzantium, a rich and powerful empire to the east. About a thousand years ago a Byzantine princess came to live in Venice, a city in Italy. She ate with a fork. The priests thought her way of eating was so fancy that it was sinful. They scolded her. They preached against her in church. Soon afterward, the princess caught a terrible disease and died. Many people believed that she was punished for using her fork.
It took some five hundred years for forks to become commonly accepted in Italy. By this time people had traveled more and were used to seeing new things. Wealthy people began using forks as a novelty. Their forks were often made of gold and set with jewels.
In 1608 an English traveler and writer named Thomas Coryate visited Italy. When he returned to England, he wrote a book in which he mentioned Italian forks. Thomas was an acquaintance of Henry, the Prince of Wales. A conversation something like this may have taken place at a royal dinner:
“You have traveled long in the south, my friend,” said the Prince. “What strange things did you see there?”
“This, my lord,” said Thomas. He pulled from his pocket a small tool with a handle and two points. He used it to spear a piece of meat and put it in his mouth.
Prince Henry stared. “What is this device from the devil?” he asked.
“It is called a fork,” said Thomas. “It keeps the fingers clean when eating.”
People poked fun at Thomas, but he took his fork everyplace he went to eat in London. People called him “furcifer,” which means “fork bearer.”
Even though they laughed, some of the noblemen were curious to know what it was like to eat with such a tool. Soon it became the fashion among the nobles to show off their beautiful forks and their skill at eating with them. Common people copied them. Forks were made from cheaper metals so more people could buy them. Finally even the poor had forks, and people thought that it was dirty or ugly to eat with the fingers.
The first settlers in North America ate with their knives, spoons, and fingers. But by the time George Washington was a boy, forks were being used by the wealthy.
Only 150 years ago forks were probably still not used by everyone in America. At that time a book of manners was published that said it was all right to eat with your knife if you were neat.
Now we eat with a fork and don’t think about it. But customs change. How will people eat in another 400 years?