From Chopsticks to Sporks: A Brief History of Eating Utensils
Normally, when something is inserted repeatedly into a bodily orifice, the origins of the object are kind of important. As something you stick in your mouth possibly hundreds of times per day, though, eating utensils often go unconsidered. Like underwear or oxygen, you only really notice them when they aren't there.
I thought about this while eating beef ramen with my hands in desperation as my dishwasher churned, brimming with every utensil I own/have stolen from work. In this moment of reflection, I realized two things: 1) I really have to start planning ahead, and 2) I have no idea where our utensils come from, or why we use the ones we do.
Forks. Spoons. Chopsticks. Where do they come from? Who invented them? And perhaps more importantly, what the eff is up with sporks? I considered these questions while I picked noodles out of the bowl with my fingers, and immediately after I finished, I set out to find answers.
After I washed my hands, of course.
'Ancient Chinese Secret,' eh?
The roots of chopsticks are ancient and date as far back as the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC). Originally bronze, and designed as a cooking utensil, they were ideal for stirring fires and plucking noodles out of boiling water -- much preferable to doing that stuff by hand, for obvious reasons. The oldest chopsticks ever found were unearthed in the storied ruins of Yin, and dated back to 1200 BC, roughly.
From cooking tools, to eating tools
The first instance of chopsticks as eating tools came during the Han Dynasty -- around 400AD, when China experienced a population boom that drained resources across the continent, including food and cooking fuel. This meant eating smaller portions of everything was a harsh necessity. These tinier servings of food proved ideal for the precise, deliberate grasp of the chopstick, especially since knives were rendered obsolete by the bite-sized servings.
Confucius says, “Use chopsticks, thanks."
The influential Chinese philosopher also played a role in chopsticks' rise to prominence, decrying the use of knives as violent, and something that should never happen at the dinner table. Also, as a devout vegetarian, the jagged edge of knives reminded the sage of the slaughterhouse, another commonly avoided dinner topic.
The chopstick, as we know it
As chopsticks spread in popularity throughout Asia, different cultures adopted the tool to fit their own predilections. In China, the sticks are commonly a little longer and thicker (hehe) than most other varieties, coming in a blunt, rounded edges (perhaps due to Confucius’ influence?). In Japan, the sticks are shorter, and tapered to a sharp, pointed end. Korean chop sticks are medium in length, and usually made of metal -- as opposed to the prototypical bamboo/wood sticks used by Japan and China.
Ancient Egyptians really respected their spoons
Aside from knives (which are essentially, just sharp things) spoons are believed to be the first utensils used by humans, which makes sense. They mimic the shape of a cupped hand, and are the logical answer to “I love scooping this food up, but hate using the hand that I wipe my ass with to do it.”
The exact origins of the spoon are murky, though archaeologists do have fossils that assert Neanderthal cultures may have fashioned crude, spoon-like instruments out of sea-shells and animal bones. The first remnant of spoons as we know them were found in the ruins of Ancient Egypt, and harken back to 1000 BC. These were ornate, made out of ivory or slate, and believed to be used primarily for ritualistic purposes. Typical Ancient Egypt, am I right? Since then, the spoon has played a major role in nearly every food culture in the world, in one way or another.
When spoons were a statement
In Tudor-period England, spoons gained a heightened social status, as “Apostle Spoons” became a common christening gift for rich folks. Echoing the tradition of the opulent Egyptian spoons, and giving it a new, fancy prominence in Western culture, ornate silverware became a sign of affluence, a statement purchase, like a Medieval Mercedes for the mouth. Spoons: there not just for sucking up stew any more.
The spoon that we put in our mouths...
Our modern American spoon is narrower and more slender towards the tip (hehe) than its predecessors. Most also lack the knobbed ends (hehehehe) that were prevalent in centuries past, as they were mostly just for decoration. There has been little innovation on spoons since, aside from the novelty extend-a-spoons, and of course, the spork (more on that soon).
A cooking device first, an eating utensil later
Like the chopstick, the fork (meaning, a stick with prongs on the end) has roots as a cooking utensil, when it was used to flip and grab meat in pots on the grill in the ancient Roman, Greek, and Egyptian empires. Even though the fork was used in the kitchen, the table was saved for hands, knives, and spoons until the 8th or 9th century, when smaller versions of the fork began to pop up on Persian dinner tables, as tools for eating.
The Dark Side of the Fork
In the Western world in the 11th century, the fork was viewed with fear and hostility, probably due to associations with the Devil and his pitchfork (the word itself comes from the Latin word "furcus," meaning pitchfork). It moved to the forefront of European culture in the 1500s, when Catherine de Medici brought the utensil from Byzantine to Italy and France. Being in the public eye more than almost any other personality at the time (think of her as the Kim Kardashian of the 16th century) she helped the fork spread in popularity, and become a trendy dining accessory.
What did early forks look like?
Many of these early forks had two big prongs, and were relatively heavy and cumbersome. Owning one became a status symbol, like the ornate spoons, and by the 16th century the affluent had sets of forks they carried with them to meals, often in lavish carrying cases. The fork was being recognized as a refined utensil, for use by civilized individuals. Eventually, by the 18th century, it had established itself as a permanent guest at most dinners in developed Western cultures, alongside the spoon and knife.
Sporks are literally older than sliced bread...
The svelte knife-fork combination is deceivingly old -- the word "spork" first appeared in 1909 inside the Century Dictionary (sliced bread wasn't around unitl '28, FYI), and the first patent appeared in the 1970s, registered by Van Brode Milling Company. Today the spork is produced by countless discount dining-ware conglomerates that provide fork/spoon convenience to prisons, cafeterias, schools, and fast food restaurants the world over.
A cultural phenomenon... sort of
Sporks are almost exclusively found in bins by the ketchup packets in public dining areas, but they're not that practical to keep in houses outfitted with capable knives and forks. But the idea -- and silliness -- of the spork have made a mark in the American zeitgeist. It's referenced in Wall-E, for example, when the titular robot can't make sense of how to sort it into his clearly defined "fork," and "spoon" categories. Even President Clinton publicly compared his presidency to the spork, saying it was "the symbol of my administration … No more false choice between the left utensil and the right utensil.”
Urban spork legends
A fictitious rumor has circulated that claims spork origins directly track back to World War II. Allegedly, General Mcarthur thought chopsticks were too "barbarian," for use by P.O.W. camps that housed captured Japanese soldiers, and that forks may be a safety concern. His solution? The almighty spork. Fortunately, this story is as fake as the "spife," a spoon/knife mash-up that I just made up five seconds ago.
Waxing poetic, on the spork
For an example of the spork's indelible place in popular Western culture, look no further than the decidedly ironic (and outdated) blog, Spork.org. Here's a sample quote: "A spork is a perfect metaphor for human existence. It tries to function as both spoon and fork, and because of this dual nature, it fails miserably at both. You cannot have soup with a spork; it is far too shallow. You cannot eat meat with a spork; the prongs are too small."
I think that makes sense. Or maybe I'm just tired of eating ramen with my hands.
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Wil Fulton is a Staff Writer for Thrillist. He'll never use his hands to eat again. Even with finger sandwiches. Follow him @wilfulton