Sunday, March 14, 2010

Farm to Fork - An Historic Tale

We learned to eat with our fingers first.

The Church liked us that way and for a long time preached that some eating utensils were an affront to God. The English once considered the fork to be a foppish Italian affectation. And “farm to fork” local food sourcing had another meaning – essentially, the instruments we eat with are merely scaled-down farming tools.

All these thoughts came to me recently when we were having dinner with friends, and I referred to a table knife as a “case knife.” The hostess had never heard of the term, but it was such a common one when I was growing up – “reach me a case knife” – that I never thought about its origins. Interestingly, another couple at the table, both from Tennessee, had also used the term.

When I was growing up in rural West Virginia, we always had names for our various types of knives – case knife, butcher knife, paring knife, pocket knife, switchblade, hunting knife. We didn’t use bread knives, as we seldom baked yeast bread in loaves, or boning knives, not being a fishing people.

So I promised to Google “case knife” and get back to my hostess. The first reference I found was to a company that makes mainly pocket and hunting knives – W.R. Case – but that turned out to be the simple answer but wrong one. Rather, the term dates back to travel in the American South, where 19th Century inns did not provide eating utensils for their guests. The fork was still a rarity at the time, so travelers ate with their fingers and used their knives, which all men carried at the time as a necessary tool and/or weapon, to cut meat at the table or spear errant bits of food.

As the fork was gradually introduced into American society as an eating instrument, really classy men (few women traveled) began traveling with their own eating utensils – a fork, a knife, and maybe a spoon – packed together in their own cases. As forks were new to cutlery, they did not need a distinguishing name, but knives carried for use only at the table only became known as “case knives.”

Early English travelers to Italy made references to the use of table forks there in the early 1600s, but it was well over a hundred years later before they became common in England and later still the U.S. During this period of culinary abstinence, one Catholic cleric wrote, “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks – his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks when eating.” This also seemed to have been the philosophy of my Uncle Amos, who, in the late 1940s, still licked his plate – holding it up to his face – when he was through eating. While it might not have affronted the deitic Him, it did gross out the rest of Us at the table.

Of course, it’s easy to speculate that all table instruments, used more for delicacy and cleanliness than for a real need – what you can’t eat with your fingers can be drunk from a bowl – came from the miniaturization of farm instruments which were invented centuries earlier as labor-saving devices.

It went like this:

The table knife was a smaller adaptation of a hand saw, and many knives had, and still have, serrations to separate joints of meat or to “saw off” a piece of particularly tough meat.

The spoon had its origins with the shovel, although it was used at table more for liquids than solids.

The fork came from the pitch fork (furca in Latin), used to collect and carry straw, hay and weeds, and at the table was used to collect items on the plate that were in pieces and for which knives and spoons were useless. One could speculate (rightly or wrongly) that the fork first evolved in Italy from a farm instrument to a table instrument as the result of that country’s invention and wide use of spaghetti and other forms of pasta, the quintessential food for forks.

Hewing or striking instruments on the farm – such as axes, hoes and hammers – had little use at the table in their miniature forms, although they are used in the kitchen – meat cleavers (axes) and tenderizers (hammers). The garden hoe or mattock? Simply another form of an axe with the blade on the horizontal.

I’m sure some scholar has determined why early Asians didn’t widely use forks and spoons at the table, but instead devised chop sticks, which are simply an unhinged pair of tongs that utilize the digits of the hand – the thumb especially – as a fulcrum.

In practice, of course, food still falls off my fork, causing a splatter, which invariably gets grease, sauce, or oil on my necktie – but then it’s only serving its probable historic purpose, most likely having evolved from the bib or napkin.

Until next time...

Roger Morris