Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table 1500-2005

by Stevie on January 6, 2011

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One wonders how many brides in Nebraska really needed a dozen individual mango forks to match their dinner forks, especially if they already had matching berry forks, orange spoons, melon knives, etc. For that matter, how many proper Bostonians actually would have used oyster forks, lobster forks, crab forks, sardine forks, terrapin forks, or even snail forks, each of which differed slightly in the shape of the tines, but whose handles matched dinner forks and spoons? Did even the most gracious hostess require a lettuce-serving fork, a salad-serving fork, and a slightly different chicken salad-serving fork? Would Christmas dessert have tasted different if served from a blancmange spoon or a berry spoon instead of a pudding spoon?

these three look innocent enough to me

these three look innocent enough to me

I nearly ruined a dinner party the other night looking for the above quote in Feeding Desire, a luxurious coffee table book produced in connection with an exhibition on the history of flatware and cutlery held at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York a few years ago. Hegui and I happened to see the show but I just read the book now after delighting in Carolin Young’s Apples of Gold in Settings of Silver. She, with about a half-dozen other authors, came together to write this history of cutlery, flatware and the culture that created them.

The book is full of stunning pictures showing an incredible range of dining utensils from the earliest silver spoons and rustic travel knives to opulent over-the-top Nineteenth Century sets to ultra modern, pared down flatware in innovative designs in materials ranging from plastic to stainless steel, wood, ceramics, gold and plated and solid silver. Initially, this was not a topic that would have jumped out at me as being so compelling that I’d be talking about it for weeks on end, but live and learn.

Taking the development of table culture in the West as part of the civilizing process, each chapter explores various aspects of its evolution. Several writers commented on the drama of the American upper classes in the late Nineteenth Century and the shocking proliferation of specialty dining implements. For example, the Towle Company’s “Georgian” pattern “included nineteen different types of individual spoons and seventeen different spoons for serving. Such a collection enabled what Fernand Braudel has termed the ‘unending social drama of luxury,’ in which the attainment of the superfluous causes greater joy than the attainment of basic necessities. The American upper classes took great pleasure in amassing brilliant displays of silver and gilt flatware of dubious practical use. The more esoteric the piece, the greater its value; and enjoyment was often proportional to whimsy.” Hence the humorous conundrum, detailed above, of the well-meaning Nebraska newlywed with too many mango forks and not enough mangos.

Carloin Young remains my favorite writer on all things related to table-scapes. In her chapter, ‘The Sexual Politics of Cutlery,’ she proposes a psychoanalytic-like theory of the fairly recent rise of the fork to prominence. Though known from ancient Rome, forks, it seems were met with a great deal of suspicion in Europe in the few hundred years preceding our own. The spoon was firmly connected with maternal qualities and the knife, obviously, with aggressive masculine ones. What to make of the fork, then, which is like both spoon and knife while similar to neither? “[T]he interpretation of the fork as a sexually ambiguous object, with both feminine and masculine qualities, better explains its form, the obstinate historical resistance to its adoption, and why the most enduring legends about its introduction concern two immigrant brides and a cross-dressing king.” She goes on to tell of the legends in some detail, though you’ll have to seek out the book to read the rest, as I’m already going overboard with long quotations. And here’s the last one:

Though cutlery was designed for the table, its meanings extended far beyond the dining room to embrace power, wealth, and social savvy. The contemporary trend toward more natural dining explains, in part, the disappearance of so many of the implements once touted as must-haves, not only from our tables but also from our consciousness. Instead of creating new implements to mediate between our food and our mouths, twenty-first-century Americans and Europeans are again recognizing the efficacy of the hands. People desire to experience their food on a more sensual level. As we convey food by hand to our mouths, we rediscover tactile pleasures.

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