“Fire is to cooking what cutlery is to eating”, said no one ever. Why we eat and what we eat is influenced by a mixture of ever changing biological, physiological, cultural and social factors. Curiously, with the constant evolution of the why and the what, the how remains determinedly unaffected. Consider, if you will, the increasing diversity of foods and cuisines which you consume on a daily basis and yet they are all eaten with such uniformity – a knife, a fork, a spoon, chopsticks and most importantly, our hands.
Before man had utensils, we used our hands and centuries later we are still using them to eat - the two most versatile tools we will ever possess, so why the need for cutlery? Any human invention comes out of necessity, in other words a lack of ability. The discovery of fire increased the variety of foods we were able to consume, but how to eat it all?
Food is in two opposing states – Solid or liquid. Our hands can tear, but cannot cut or form incisions, nor can they effectively hold water. On a semiotic level, the primary opposition of the functionality of cutlery is to cut/pierce or to enclose so we created knives and spoons. A fork is the piece of cutlery with the function closest to our hands and fingers and so was the last of the three to be created (it was and still is the least essential).
In any system there are complementary opposites, the most common being male and female and this Freudian concept can also be applied to cutlery. In this symbolic opposition the knife is male in its function (penetration), form (phallic) and materials (metallic); the spoon on the other hand is female – rounded, womb-like, enclosing and generally made of ‘softer’ materials than knives, wood and plastic.
Cutlery has firmly established its place at the table due to its practicality but it is not just for this reason that we continue to use it. In her paper entitled “Business and the Semiotics of Food: American and French Cultural perspectives”, Therese Saint- Paul a professor from The University of Texas writes;
“In Ancient Greece and Rome, guests would lie on couches and eat with their hands. The invention of the fork and the habit of sitting up straight at a table not only indicated a change of perspective towards food in the late Middle Ages but also distance between people. The fork was, at the beginning of the Renaissance, a cultural reflex of distancing from food destined to others (perhaps a reflex of protection against contagion from the plague in the fourteenth century). This also paralleled the growing social movement towards individuation and isolation.”
The “How to eat...” video series from FoodbeastTV on YouTube, are facetious, but maybe they have some truth in them that there are rules and etiquette to eating that we follow because they have become social norms and also, as Therese states, due to our aversion to germs.
The tableware trinity are my go-to when it comes to eating. They don’t generally add much to the context of a meal, but neither do they take anything away. It goes without saying that different combinations of the three are more appropriate depending on what’s on the plate, but their presence is less noticeable for me, than for instance, if I use chopsticks. These are a pleasant novelty, aside from when I try and eat rice with them, then my lack of proficiency is irritating and I will usually resort to a spoon. But when I use them to eat sushi or noodles, whether I am in London or Beijing, they, (at least in my head) enhance my gastronomic experience.
Knives, forks, spoons and chopsticks are all extensions or meta-tools. I wouldn’t necessarily say that they distance us from our meal, but when juxtaposed and compared with the notion of eating with your hands, then it is fair to say that they do to a certain point put a barrier (for want of a better word) between us and our food. I feel more involved with my food when eating with my hands; the experience is more interactive and the food tastes better. By no means am I saying I will go and eat a bowl of cereal with my hands in the morning, but how would my experience change if I ate the muesli with a fork and drank the milk from the bowl to finish instead of eating the entire thing with a spoon?
Maybe this is when how we eat becomes important; if we break the rules a bit and step away from the norm – whatever that means to you. Try it: eat your sushi with a fork and chips with chopsticks, use your hands to eat spaghetti, is your gastronomic experience affected? It may not be practical, but by altering how we eat our food, arouses different senses and it becomes a game involving our brain, our hands and the “tools” available to us. Oh, and for those of you who eat your burgers with a knife and fork, maybe you’re not so crazy after all…