Invention of the Fork | How did Forks Come to be?

Originally published on FoodUnfolded.com in July 2021

In several food cultures around the world, eating food with a fork is so common that most diners wouldn’t know how to get through their meal without one! But this wasn’t always the case. Compared to other pieces of cutlery, the invention of the fork and its addition to the dining table is fairly recent.

HISTORY OF THE FORK: ANCIENT FORKS

This might come as a surprise, but the oldest historical records of people using forks actually come from China. Archaeologists have found the first forks made from bones at excavation sites in Gansu, a north-central province of China. These two-pronged forks were used during the Bronze Age (2400–1900 BC) and for several hundred years after.1 However, we cannot be certain whether these instruments were used for cooking, serving, or eating since there is hardly any documentation about this.

Forks were also used in ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece.2 Not at the table, but as cooking tools used for carving or lifting meat. 

WHO INVENTED THE FORK AS CUTLERY?

So, who invented the fork as cutlery to be used at the dining table? We cannot be sure, but a manuscript from 1004 CE tells the story of Maria Argyropoulina, a Greek niece of Byzantine Emperor Basil II, who would use a certain golden instrument with two prongs to eat her meals. During this time, the norm was to cut food using a knife and eat it using one’s fingers. Argyropoulina’s fork use wasn’t appreciated by conservative members of the society though – her refusal to eat with her fingers was seen as arrogant and vain.2 It is also speculated that the fork’s resemblance to the devil’s pitchfork caused God-fearing people to view it with much skepticism.3

The first appearance of dining forks in cookbooks was in the 13th century. A cookbook that was presented to Robert of Anjou, King of Naples, instructed diners to pick up slippery sheets of lasagne using a pronged instrument.4 By the 15th century, dining forks were frequently mentioned in Italian cookbooks, indicating that they were in common use. Italian forks became popular in the French court when Catherine de Medici, the Italian wife of Henry II, brought several dozen intricate silver forks with her.5 Subsequently, the fork spread to the rest of Europe and from there, to European colonies around the world. 

FUTURE FORK INVENTIONS

While the fundamental design of a fork hasn’t changed too drastically over the years, the variety of fork uses has and several task specific variants have been introduced. So, is the fork here to stay? Given how popular it is around the world, I would think yes! To imagine what future forks might look like, I went through some fork invention patents filed. Here’s a list of my favourite five: 

1. ORIGINAL DESIGN FOR A SPORK

I always carry a little metal spork in my bag, so I don’t have to use disposable cutlery. Sporks are fairly common these days but the original patent for a spoon-fork combination cutlery was filed in 1874 by Samuel W. Francis. His design combined a spoon, fork, and knife into one. While it looks less convenient than the ones used today, I’m certain that several campers and sustainable cutlery enthusiasts are grateful for the invention.6

2. FORK-CHOPSTICKS COMBINATION UTENSIL

Every time I visit an Asian restaurant, I eat with chopsticks for first 30 minutes (because I really enjoy it!) and then my cramping fingers compel my request for a fork. For someone like me, this piece of cutlery would allow switching between chopsticks and a fork without much hassle.7

3. DIET FORK

This fork is a dieting aid that reminds eaters to eat their food slowly, giving them enough time to chew their food adequately before taking the next bite. It has an alternating red and green light that acts as a reminder. I like this invention because I tend to eat my meals rather quickly and have to often remind myself to chew a sufficient number of times.8

4. FORK WITH IMPROVED GRIP

This set of eating utensils were designed to help people with lower finger dexterity. While there are several other high-tech designs invented for the same purpose, I chose this one because producing it would be less expensive. Thus, making it accessible for more people.9

5. CONVERSATION STARTING FORKS

Forks (and other cutlery) with a unique word engraved on each piece to help diners start a conversation! I can think of so many situations where these would have been great ice breakers.10

Do you know of any other innovative fork designs? Tell us in the comments below!

REFERENCES

  1. Huang, H. T. (2000). “Fermentations and food science (Vol. 6).” Accessed 13 January 2020.
  2. Leite’s Culinaria. “Origins of the Common Fork.” Accessed 10 January 2020.
  3. Coffin, S. (2006). “Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table, 1500-2005.” Accessed 11 January 2020.
  4. Rebora, G. (2001). “Culture of the Fork: A Brief History of Everyday Food and Haute Cuisine in Europe.” Accessed 9 January 2020.
  5. Slate. “The Rise of the Fork”. Accessed 6 January 2020.
  6. Francis, S.W. (1874). “Combined Knives, Forks, and Spoons”. US Patent US147119A. Accessed 9 January 2020.
  7. Beckham, D.S. & Brown, J.M. (2009). “Combination Chopstick Utensil”. US Patent US20110078907A1. Accessed 10 January 2020.
  8. Orlinsky, S. et al. (2011). “Diet Dinnerware.” US Patent US20110091841A1. Accessed 9 January 2020.
  9. Warren, M.D. (1994). “Enhanced Eating Implements for a Handicapped Person” US Patent US5373643A. Accessed 11 January 2020.
  10. Suit, A.R. (1999). “Set of Flatware for Stimulating Conversation or Inspirational Thought”. US Patent US5931473A. Accessed 10 January 2020.
Madhura

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