We're Cultured Gourmands:

The Development of Eating Utensils

Erica Wong

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.

Works Cited

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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last updated 3/2/06