the rise and fall 1

The knife, and later the spoon, were the first utensils. Forks didn't come to the table until much later.

The ancient Greeks had a large, two-pronged fork that they used to pin down a chunk of meat while they were carving it, but this was only for carving, not eating. Forks of the modern sort for getting food to your mouth showed up in the Renaissance, first in Italy and later in France.

When forks were first brought to England in the 16th century, they were disparaged as absurd affectations. But the nobles were attracted to them as a way to show continental sophistication, and as one more item to swell the ranks of polished cutlery on the table as a conspicuous display of wealth. And whatever the nobles did, the rest of the populace soon imitated.

In the United States, forks did not become common until the 19th century. In the era of George Washington, a spoon for porridge and a knife for everything else was the rule; it was farm to fingers, not farm to fork.

By now, forks are almost everywhere in the west, although there are a few backwaters where an older way persists. Years ago I took dinner at a farmhouse in a remote part of southern Brazil. Spits of roasted meat were brought to the table, and the spit set vertically through a hole in the table. Each of us had a sharp knife and our fingers for eating (and grabbing the liter-sized bottles of beer). I found this to be a thoroughly satisfying way to eat (it also explained the grease stains everyone in the region had on the fronts of their trousers).

Modern fast foods (burgers, fries, hot dogs, subs, Snickers bars, ice cream sandwiches) do not require utensils, with the result that one segment of society has reverted to eating with their fingers. The competent wielding of a knife and fork, having been universal in the 1950s, is once again becoming a trait distinctive of the upper classes. In itself this is trivial, but as a symbol of the increasing polarization of our society into a two-class system—the rich and the poor—it is worrisome.