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Jean McClelland: Those daring to use a fork at the table

November 19, 2018

Our national day of counting blessings and saying thanks is almost here. Thanksgiving is a day of minding your manners and steering clear of conversations about touchy subjects like politics or religion.

Will Cuppy once said, “Etiquette means behaving yourself a little better than is absolutely essential.”

As folks put on their game face and come to the table next Thursday they might check out the table settings and wonder how we ended up with the basic fork, spoon and knife. For the west, it started in the eleventh century when a Byzantine princess scandalized the court by bringing forks to her new husband’s Venetian household. Forks were considered a sacrilege and quite rude, after all God had given us natural forks - our fingers. When she died shortly after her arrival the populous felt she got her due for using such insulting instruments.

Even as late as the sixteenth century the English were still ridiculing those who would dare to use a “fork”. At that time one used their hands or a pointed knife to pick up their food. For obvious reasons everyone usually brought their own knife to the table.

Slowly though, folks in the west began to see what their Middle Eastern neighbors had known for centuries. Forks were much more efficient and neater than a pointed knife. Eventually the pointed knife was outlawed at the table. It was too much of a weapon when heated family arguments would erupt. Even in days of old the family holidays could be exciting.

On the other hand the very formal Victorians went overboard with table settings and had a utensil for every conceivable food and dish. Their table settings were a daunting affair with sometimes as many as fifteen pieces of silver at each place. Much like the rules of etiquette have relaxed from that time period so have the number of pieces of silver at each place setting been reduced. Practicality has saved the day on both fronts!

Beautiful old flatware whether it is silver or silver-plate has a special soft gleam to it that just can’t be duplicated. The many years of polishing and rubbing leave that special patina that shows these pieces were well used and loved. Silver tableware’s beauty only increases with age and there are few antiques that weather so well with good care. Enjoy your Thanksgiving table and give a nod to that Venetian princess who first introduced us to the fork - she didn’t have such a bad idea after all.

Jean McClelland writes about antiques for The Herald-Dispatch.

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