Monday, April 23, 2012

A Fork In The Road

What makes a fork a fork?

In the 1970s, cutlery designers decided to play with this idea and push it to its limits. At its core, a fork had to have some hint of tines (the spiked bits at the end used for spearing food) and a handle — but apart from that, it was up for grabs. Sometimes forks looked more like pickle spears, with only two or three sharp tines; at others, they were more like spoons, with exaggerated bowls tipped with a jagged edge. Handles, too, were re-defined — either as flat blades or twig-like stalks. A lot of the time, money was saved and color introduced by making handles out of melamine or plastic. It was a confusing time for cutlery.

It was a confusing time for most everything. The sudden desire to re-invent what things looked like and how they functioned extended to just about everything from clothing to architecture. The results can be easily identified today because they have not stood the test of time all that well. This is what happens when you try to fix what ain’t broke — like the design and function of something that time has honed and proved worthwhile — like the basic design of a fork, for example.

It wasn’t until quite recently — the 1800s — that people started using forks rather than the pointed, grabby instruments God gave them, their hands. Cutlers — people who forged blades and cutlery — have been around a lot longer. A cutler was listed on a 1297 tax form in Sheffield, the city that was to become the crucible of the cutlery industry due to its focus on steelmaking and silver plating.

Metal is a good material for a fork. It retains its shape after much use, and retains heat from both the hand and hot food. It is slightly heavy, requiring a practiced dexterity in keeping with its counterpart, the knife. A well-designed fork had a slightly squared handle and flared end, so that it may be securely flipped over to scoop or prod, and sat firmly in the hand. The business end featured four long, curved tines that allowed for deep food penetration as well as handling sauces such that they didn’t pool, or drip through. The proportion of tine to bowl allowed for the lips and tongue to easily remove the food with grace. Importantly, the fork had a pleasing balance if rested on a finger at its crux.

The fork is the most intimate of ergonomically designed instruments — it is meant for the mouth and hand. It is an extension of both the hand and teeth. What happens when a fork drastically changes shape is that it slips from the hand or stabs your lips. It must be handled differently to manage the food.

One of the great chicken-or-egg questions concerning cutlery is whether changes in its design caused food to change, or vice-versa. What is clear is that the kinds of foods people eat today do not require the forks of yesteryear. There is less solid meat to hold in place and cut. People use the side of a fork as a knife because they can; food is softer. The fork’s bowl is larger because more food needs to be scooped.

The apotheosis of the fork’s sad tale ends in the plastic spork, an object whose utter utility transcends its potential beauty. Sporks can be found in school lunch rooms, and are often the only piece of cutlery a child will encounter there, or anywhere else. Often, someone can go for weeks at a time without handling any cutlery at all, because a great deal of the modern diet consists of finger foods — burgers, fries, individual-sized packages and squeezable pouches.

This is not a sign of modernity, but of history. We have returned to the pre-1800s and don’t even know it.

Food Processor Cook Book, Better Homes and Gardens, 1979
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