We're Cultured Gourmands:
The Development of Eating Utensils
Culture is like an infectious disease: it permeates everything it comes
in contact with. It is a set of norms which a certain group of people follow,
and each culture has its own unique aspects. However, culture does not remain
the same; it constantly evolves and changes due to the societal pressures
as well as time and place. This idea of development is evident in the appearance
of eating utensils throughout history. No matter where or when they lived,
human beings needed some way to obtain sustenance from food; after all,
eating utensils made it easier for people to feed themselves. The development
and subsequent evolution of eating utensils have been propelled forward
by cultural practices.
In his book Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect,
Paul Ehrlich cites how the rise of religion led to social stratification.
There were clear divisions between the rich and the poor, the powerful and
the powerless. This was due to the fact that an inherent part of religion
was its hierarchical structure. There were people, like priests and shamans,
who were considered to be superior because of the wisdom and supernatural
powers – and those who were ardent followers of these supposed “superiors.”
Ehrlich also mentions that the numerous population booms in history have
also led to social stratification. An area with a very high population will
find it necessary to have a stable governing body to control the people
and prevent chaos from occurring. Thus, a leader or a group of leaders will
be instituted to direct the masses.
So what does this have to do with eating utensils, you might ask? Social
stratification, as well as stratification in general (cultural, for instance),
have been major agents in the development and usage of eating utensils.
For example, the fork is a eating utensil whose usage was impacted by social
stratification. The fork originated in Ancient Greece, and slowly people
in the Middle East and parts of Europe (namely Italy) began to use it at
meals. However, the British were reluctant to use the fork in the 1600s
because they said that the reason God had given them hands was so they could
use them to eat (this train of thought was not surprising – Britain
was still in the throes of religious discourse and discussion due to the
Protestant Reformation which had occurred merely a century or two before).
Thus, the British used religion to justify the unnecessary nature of the
fork – and the idea of superiority and inferiority which stemmed from
religion caused them to look down on those who used the fork at meals. However,
forks were soon considered to be rather fashionable and a mark of higher
social standing; a result, perhaps, of the growing effect of social stratification
and the idea that ascending to a higher class was desirable.
The changing cultures of human beings also affected the usage of development
of eating utensils, especially portable eating utensils. It became necessary
for people to be able to carry around their forks, knives and spoons for
convenience’s sake. Increasingly advanced technology (roads, domesticated
horses, the wheel, et cetera) made trade possible and allowed warring factions
to reach faraway places. Thus, people could not carry around heavy and unwieldy
eating utensils around with them, as they hindered travel. Mongolian nomads
wore dels, which did not have pockets, so they often attached chopsticks
and a knife to their sash. The Romans invented the first pocket knife in
the first century BC, and they were not only used for eating but as inconspicuous
weapons, similar to the scramasax used by the Saxons in England. Utensils
that were small enough to fit into traveling sheaths and had interlocking
loops also made carrying them around more convenient.
Soon, utensils went beyond the simple fork, spoon and knife. In the late
1800s and early 1900s, specialized utensils were created for specific purposes;
jelly and butter knives were common examples. Also, because of the Industrial
Revolution, stainless steel was invented, making utensils easy to clean
and less expensive. These new developments directly reflected the rise of
modern conveniences and luxury. The rise of industry and long work days
at factories decreased the amount of leisure time people had and created
an environment where people were pressed for time.
It’s clear that culture has had an extreme impact on the development
and usage of eating utensils, and often for the better. However, in today’s
world, our penchant for convenience might actually be a detriment to our
environment. People are juggling a million things at once: school, a job,
family, health concerns. They don’t have a minute to space, so what
better than plastic utensils to speed up meals? You don’t even need
to wash them – just use and dispose. However, these plastic utensils
(as well as plastic and Styrofoam plates and cups) are not biodegradable
and will stay in landfills for months or even years. Our landfills will
overflow and grow larger and larger, encroaching on formerly unblemished
land. Convenience is, well, convenient – but is it worth littering
a large stretch of the Earth? Our laziness could lead to the beginning of
some long-lasting environmental destruction.
Well, not entirely. The spork, presumably created to eliminate the hassle
of switching back and forth between a spoon and a fork, doesn’t seem
too bad – unless, of course, it’s made out of plastic. Neither
does the “forkchop.” Virginia Langum describes them as a pair
of chopsticks with a fork and a knife built into the ends. The forkshop
is a manifestation of the growing interchange of culture and ideas between
the East and West, which could be interpreted as a step in the right direction
– more specifically, a willingness to incorporate aspects of different
cultures into an object. The separations that were created by social and
cultural stratification, in a sense, could be fading.
Langum also brings up a very intriguing point – that culture might
not just affect the development and usage of eating utensils, but vice versa,
as well. In an interview with Dr. Madoka Watabe-Bellzel, Watabe-Bellzel
says that because chopsticks are harder to use than a fork or spoon, people
in Asian cultures tend to eat more slowly and carefully. Spoons and forks
allow people to multitask, so people might not pay as much attention to
what or how much they’re eating. Children often find it difficult
to use chopsticks, so they gravitate towards Western-style “finger
foods,” which tend to be unhealthy. This concerns nutritionists in
Japan, who worry that the Western influence is contributing to the increasing
obesity of Japanese children.
One could consider spoons, forks, knives, chopsticks, sporks, forkchops
and all the various other eating utensils as merely pieces of plastic or
metal. However, they all stemmed from a much larger theme – culture.
Culture and its aspects (religion, for example) and all its effects (social
and cultural stratification) have greatly affected the development and usage
of eating utensils. It is not surprising, then, to consider these utensils
as culture-shaping vehicles of their own.
Ehrlich, Paul. Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect.
Island Press, 2000.
“A History of Eating Utensils in the West: A Brief Timeline.”
CuisineNet. 26 February 2006. http://www.cuisinenet.com/digest/custom/etiquette/utensil_timeline.shtml/.
“The History of Eating Utensils.” California Academy of Sciences.
27 February 2006. http://www.calacademy.org/research/anthropology/utensil/.
Langum, Virginia. “For the chopstick-challenged: help at last.”
Columbia News Service. 16 February 2004. 26 February 2006. http://jrn.columbia.edu/studentwork/cns/2004-02-16/498.asp.
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