How often do you think about the history of utensils? What inspired our ancestors to create each of these eating tools? Were they always used in the same way we use them today?
Confession: I cannot hold chopsticks correctly. Somehow, I weave my middle finger between the two sticks, best wing little control, and allowing me to navigate my food anywhere but into my mouth. Due to this deficiency, I no longer let myself go to sushi bars, Chinese restaurants, hibachi places, or any such establishment where my ineptitude will be on view.
But this is a problem, as I dearly love sushi. To remedy my situation, I wondered who created these sticks and how other flatware came to be? I assumed chopsticks were probably the oldest utensils since they are simplistic. But I was way off by thousands of years.
The History Of Utensils
Oldest Eating Utensil
Hands down, spoons take the cake as the oldest eating utensil, next to fingers, of course. Spoons date back to the Paleolithic period before the woolly rhinoceroses went extinct. In other words, they’ve been around for a while. It’s thought that the spoon most likely originated in southern Europe.
The Greek and Latin words for spoon come from cochlea, meaning a spiral-shaped snail shell. The Egyptians used ivory, flint, slate, and different woods to make spoons. Greeks and Romans fashioned theirs out of bronze and silver. In Medieval times, cow horns, wood, brass, and pewter were used to make spoons. Of course, there were fancy ones too, made of silver and gold, but they were for nobles and royalty only.
5,000 Years of Chopsticks
Chopsticks, though still old, only date back to about 5,000 years ago, to China. It’s thought that the Chinese began to cut their food up into small bits so that it would cook quickly, allowing them to conserve their resources. Because the bites were so small, they no longer needed knives while they ate, and twigs were at the ready-to-transport piping hot food to the mouth before it began to cool. These twig spawned chopsticks. By 500 CE, such utensils spread to most of the Asian countries. The wealthiest had those made of jade, gold, coral, agate, and silver, while most everyone else’s was fashioned chiefly from bamboo.
Middle Age Knives
Of course, knives are pretty old too. They’ve been used as weapons forever but were not part of the table setting until recently. In the Middle Ages, hosts didn’t provide cutlery for their guests, so people carried their knives strapped to their belts. As you can imagine, this made dinner slightly uncomfortable. They would use their sharp knives to spear the food, not cut it, simply eating directly off the blade. After forks became acceptable, knife tips were dulled and widened. And dinner parties were a little less intense.
Ancient Egyptian Forks
The newest addition to place settings is the fork. The earliest known dates back to ancient Egypt, but the Egyptians only used them to cook and carve meats. By the 7th century, royalty in the Middle East began to use forks at the table, but the rest of the world wasn’t eager to adopt it. Italians were the first of Europe to integrate the fork into their dining routine, but it was slow going. By 1533, Italy had fully succumbed to the fork fad and, via the union of Catherine de Medici and Henry II, long tableware became the norm in France. The fork was the only utensil not readily accepted, but by the mid-1600s, they were considered fashionable throughout most of Europe.
Other Utensils Are Popular Too
So while this in no way helps me look any less like a buffoon when I eat with chopsticks, it does comfort me to know that I can use a spoon, the most ancient and sacred of dining instruments like an ace. I’ll order bowls of miso soup from now on and bore whoever will listen with the history of utensils and why chopsticks are only second best.