The Spoon, The Fork & The Hand


Photograph by Francis Amiand / Spoon /Pointed Leaf Press

Hannah Goldfield, in this short piece about the spoon, reminds me that Bee Wilson’s book about the fork came to my attention about three years into our Kerala, India experience. I tend to favor stories about the history of something taken for granted. When it is involves foodways, I’m in. Five years ago, when that book came out, I was firmly entrenched in a new way of eating, namely with my right hand and no utensils. Today, reading about the spoon, I can relate to the author’s preference because, given the choice between spoon and fork I will choose the former. Given the choice between a meal that favors one or the other, I will choose the spoon-forward meal. But if I am somewhere eating something that hands-on is okay, keep the spoon and fork off the table.

In Praise of Eating Almost Anything with a Spoon

The introduction to the most recent version of Emily Post’s Table Setting Guides includes the following mandate: “Only set the table with utensils you will use. No soup; no soup spoon.” Sounds pretty reasonable, as far as Emily Post rules go, but I beg to differ. Who says that soup spoons are only for soup, or should even be called soup spoons at all? I have long admired the way utensils are used in parts of Southeast Asia, including Thailand: the spoon is the most important instrument, held in the dominant hand and used to bring food—soupy or otherwise—to the mouth; the fork plays a supporting role, used only to push morsels onto the spoon, and chopsticks are generally reserved for noodles. I’ve been eating Thai food this way ever since I learned about the custom, dipping spoonfuls of rice into coconut curries, herding green-papaya salad, spangled with peanuts, chili, and tiny dried shrimp, into the curvature of a spoon. It feels elegant, efficient, economical—nary a drop or a morsel is wasted.

Only recently did it occur to me that I could apply the same principle to all kinds of other foods I’d normally eat with a fork. Working from home one day, I used a spoon to eat leftover rice I’d fried with peas and eggs and doused in chili oil. I’ve never taken to the Italian practice of using a spoon to aid in twirling long pasta around a fork, but short pasta—fusilli coated heavily in Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce and grated parmesan, for example—seems made to be eaten with a spoon. Leftover slow-roasted salmon, tender enough to fall apart at the slightest touch? Pan-fried cubes of tofu with florets of steamed broccoli? Creamy curds of butter-scrambled egg, doused in hot sauce? Spoonworthy, all. Even salads are good candidates, so long as the ingredients are bite-size, as evidenced by the chef Michel Nischan’s popular recipe for “Use a Spoon” Chopped Salad. The current vogue for “grain bowls” is nothing if not spoon-friendly.

Why, then, does spoon-forward eating in Western culture feel so thrillingly outré? In her book “Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat,” the writer and historian Bee Wilson explains how spoons came to be relegated to liquids and soft foods. The fork was not used widely as an eating utensil until the seventeenth century, when an Elizabethan traveller in Italy noticed “a custom ‘that is not used in any other country,’ namely, a ‘little fork’ for holding meat as it was cut.” By the eighteenth century, forks, used with knives, had become rampant throughout Europe. Before that, people had eaten with their hands, but also, Wilson notes, with spoons: “The triumph of the knife and fork went along with the gradual transition to using china dinner plates, which were generally flatter and shallower than older dishes and trenchers. When bowls were used for all meals, the ideal implement was a spoon.” (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that my newfound spoon appreciation has been accompanied by a preference for serving most foods in bowls, preferably wide, shallow ones that allow you to spread out an array of different foods as on a plate, but provide a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree bumper wall, for when you want to scoop up the last bite of something—with your spoon, of course.) Over time, Wilson writes, the fork became a symbol of politeness, “because it was less overtly violent than a knife, less babyish and messy than a spoon. Forks were advised for everything from fish to mashed potatoes, from green beans to cream cake. Special forks were devised for ice cream and salads, for sardines and terrapins. The basic rule of Western table manners in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was: if in doubt, use a fork.”

It’s true that spoons are used for feeding babies; they are the first utensil most humans encounter, and often the last. They are also used to gently nurse the ailing back to health. Spoons are instruments of peace—unlike forks, with their imperative to stab, menacing prongs bared like teeth, or sharp knives, sheathed in wooden blocks, or hung, like suspects in a lineup, from magnetic strips. The most damage you could do with a spoon is to give someone a rap on the skull or the knuckles (an exception being, perhaps, the brilliantly designed grapefruit spoon, with its gently jagged tip), and it’s no coincidence that one of the most intimate and comfortable ways to physically interact with another person—fitting your bodies together as though they are puzzle pieces— is called “spooning.” Marginalized on the table, spoons are, in the kitchen, absolutely essential: for scooping, for measuring, for stirring and tasting. One of my favorite kitchen accessories is a spoon rest, for gently retrieving and returning a wooden specimen dozens of times while tending to a pot of slowly cooking beans or sauce. It’s utilitarian but also aesthetic: spoons are objects of beauty, worthy of display. Last fall, the French designer Daniel Rozensztroch published a remarkable monograph (and released a corresponding wallpaper) showing off his collection of more than two thousand spoons, gathered on his travels around the world. They’re organized by material—wood, glass, mother-of-pearl, bone, metal, horn, ceramic, enamel, porcelain—but are also dizzyingly varied in size, shape, and intended purpose…

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