Sunday, August 24, 2008

Apple #337: The Fork, Italy, and Pasta

Once upon a time, I wrote an entry about lasagna. Ever since, I've had in the back of my mind that I wanted to find out more about the development of the fork and how it changed food and eating and table manners and all the rest of it.

So I've done a bit of reading online about all of this, and the best way to present this, I think, is in terms of a timeline. Because according to what I'm finding now, nobody is saying that the growth in popularity of the fork is directly related to the growth in popularity of pasta in Italy. But the two things did happen around the same time.

Every good scientist knows that correlation does not imply causation, so I will not go so far as to suggest that the fork allowed people to eat more pasta, or that people liked eating pasta so much they started using the fork more because it made pasta-eating easier. No, I will not suggest any such things. But I will present the facts in sequence, and if you want to make the leap, I won't stop you.

  • The fork is known to have been in use in such ancient cultures as Greece and Egypt. But once Rome got sacked and the Dark Ages hit, just about everybody in Europe forgot about the fork along with everything else they'd learned. Stupid Dark Ages.
  • However, over in the Middle East, people were still using forks.
  • Forks looked different back then: most of them had two tines instead of the four we're used to now, and the tines were much longer and pointier. Mainly, they were used for spearing meat and carrying it to your plate, or for holding the meat steady while you cut it with a sharp knife.
  • In the 11th century or so, a princess named Theodora from Byzantium (Turkey, or generally, the Middle East, where people still remembered and used the fork) married a nobleman who lived in Venice. When she moved to Venice to be with her betrothed, she brought, among other things, a case full of the two-tined forks that her folks were accustomed to using.

Byzantine Empire, around 1190 A.D., showing roughly where the princess with the forks came from.
(Map from The Maskukat Collection of Medieval & Islamic Coins)

  • They had dinner parties, as noblepeople are wont to do, and at these parties the Byzantine princess used her delicate, golden two-tined forks to hold her meat and cut it in to pieces. Well. The Venetian nobles and the clergy were very scandalized.
  • The clergy were perhaps the most scandalized of anybody. They said that God gave people natural forks, which are the fingers on one's hand, and to use anything else is to insult God. So they turned up their noses at the Byzantine princess and actually banned forks. Oh, wisdom, where had you gone?
  • But apparently, Theodora kept eating with her forks. Then she got some sort of mysterious disease (probably wouldn't be mysterious now, but back in those dark days, nobody knew what it was), and died not very long after she came to Venice.
  • Of course everybody chalked her death up to the fact that she ate with forks instead of her fingers. They said "her excessive delicacy" is what caused her death.
  • Even though the Italian clergy had said the forks were anti-God, people apparently kept using them because when Catherine de Medici (Italian) married Henry II (English) in 1533, her dowry included dozens of dinner forks.

Catherine de Medici, influential in so many ways, including bringing the dinner fork to England.
(Image of a miniature from the Victoria & Albert Museum, sourced from

Golden fork with a coral handle, circa 1590-1610. Could be something like the forks that Catherine de Medici had. In fact, I think this fork looks a little bit like her: gilded, firm, and haughty.
(Image from Cutlery of the Middle Ages and Renaissance)

  • In fact, by the late 16th century (a.k.a. the high 1500s), more and more Italians were using the fork. They liked it because cleanliness was all the rage at that time, and the fork helped keep their fingers from getting stained while they ate.
  • English noble people who traveled to Italy on the all-important tour of Europe encountered Italians eating with forks. This was commented on as something of an oddity, but the Englishmen did note that the Italians' method of eating with the fork kept them from touching the food with their fingers, and since "all men's fingers are not alike cleane," this was a pretty good idea.

16th century fork from Naples
(Image from Cutlery of the Middle Ages and Renaissance)

  • So more English people started using the fork, and so did people in France, but by the early 1600s, it still hadn't entirely caught on yet. In France, for example, a few people were mainly using the fork to help them eat dishes that had sticky or gooey sauces, or something that might stain the fingers.
  • Among those French people who did use the fork, it was especially popular with the courtesans. So then the French clergy got all wound up about the forks, too, and they said that forks were an immoral influence and banned forks from France. Brilliant.
  • Even so, enough rich people in England had started using the fork that in 1633, Charles I of England declared, "It is decent to use a fork." This is considered by food historians to be the birth of the modern table setting and table manners as we know them today.
  • Though it was now all of a sudden "decent" for English nobility to use a fork in 1633, it took a while before the common people throughout England and France were using forks regularly. But of course it took a while longer before the fork evolved from its two-tined form to his four-tined version with the blunted ends that we use today.

Two-tined forks, English and German, from the 19th, 17th, and 18th centuries, respectively
(Image from The History of the Fork)

  • Lots of people credit Marco Polo with bringing pasta to Italy from China. But really, they probably got it from the Etruscans, because the Romans were making something called "lagane," or "laganon," the forerunner to today's lasagna as early as 1 A.D.
  • The lagane used flat noodles that were baked, not boiled. So most people don't even really consider lagane to be the first pasta noodle. Instead, food historians think that Italy's first pasta noodle actually came from the Middle East (the same part of the world where the fork came from).
  • The Arabs conquered Sicily in about the 8th century A.D., and when they settled in there, they brought a certain kind of dried noodle made from durum wheat flour with them.

Map showing Italy and the island of Sicily, where Palermo was the place that the Arabs conquered and brought their pasta to the Italians.
(Map from Student Britannica)

  • Soon the Sicilians were calling this "maccaruni," because it means "made into dough by force," referring to the fact that you kind of have to beat up on durum wheat flour to make it into a noodle.
  • Actually, though the name resembles today's word "macaroni," the pasta looked more like spaghetti: long, flat noodles.
  • The dried pasta started becoming a staple not just in Sicily but across the rest of Italy, too, because it had a long shelf life and was easy to store as well as to make.
  • By the 1600s, pasta had started to become popular in the northern parts of Italy because there was an economic crisis around Naples at that time, and it was hard to get meat and fish without paying a lot of money. So more Italians started eating pasta, because the flour was much cheaper.
  • Because the demand for pasta was on the rise, some Neapolitans figured out how to make pasta in a more industrialized way. Instead of kneading it entirely by hand, they extruded it through a die, so it was faster to make. It was also easier to dry and it had a longer shelf life. So not only did this reduce the cost and make it even cheaper for people to buy, this also made it easier to transport the dried pasta farther and farther away.

Poster of people in Italy drying pasta. They'd figured out how to make enough of it at once that they'd get batches of this size.
(Photo from

  • Now, you'll remember that it was also in the 1600s that people in England had started noticing that the Italians were eating their dinners with forks. The way the English reported it, the Italians were using forks to cut their meat. No mention of anybody eating pasta yet. But that's probably because it was the rich people in Italy who were using forks, and the rich people could probably still afford to eat meat.
  • Pasta was gaining in popularity, and it wasn't too long before even the rich Italians were eating it. In the 1700s, someone in the court of King Ferdinand II of Italy got the idea to start eating the pasta with a fork that had four short prongs, and soon not only were the rich people eating pasta, they were eating it with forks.
  • The common people, though, were still eating their pasta with their fingers. As late as the 1800s, most people got their pasta from street vendors who cooked it over a charcoal fire and served it without any sauce (except maybe a little goat cheese). The passersby who bought the vendors' pasta ate it with their hands.

  • Then in 1839, peasants in Italy fell on hard times again. Explorers had brought the tomato plant back from the Americas, so there were these tomato plants growing here and there and producing fruit. Up until this point, everybody thought tomatoes were poisonous because they are, after all, a member of the nightshade family.

Now, if you had never seen such a plant before, would you think it was poisonous? It is a tomato plant.
(Photo from Harvest to Table)

  • But then somebody was just plain too hungry and they said, screw it, I'm eating the tomato. Lo and behold, it was not poisonous. Not only that, it went really well with the cheap pasta that people were eating. Thus the first spaghetti with tomato sauce was born.
  • Now here is where I really inject my suppositions. I'm thinking that at this point, more and more people are using the fork. They see how it keeps the saucey staining stuff off their fingers. And now that they've just added tomatoes and sauce to the pasta, and the pasta is really long and slippery, how are they going to pick that stuff up? Best thing to use, clearly, is the fork.
  • So it's my theory that the fork and the pasta and the tomato all helped each other out. Now, I don't know if you'll find anybody else who agrees with this exact interpretation of events. But I think we probably owe our entire method of eating meals with a fork to the Italians and their spaghetti with marinara sauce.

So much history comes together right here.
(Image from Allposters, where you can buy a poster of this image)

Dennis Sherman, A History of the Table Fork
Suzanne Von Drachenfels, A Short History of the Fork, from The Art of the Table
Life in Italy, Pasta History
In Mama's Kitchen, The History of Pasta
Anna Maria Volpi, A Passion for Cooking
European Commission Education and Culture Lifelong Learning Programme, History of Pasta
The Nibble, The History of Pasta


  1. informative and funny = our apple lady
    I'm still laughing over gilded, firm, haughty!

  2. Many thanks, Anonymous. I do try to bring it whenever I can. :)

  3. Ya know, it's not often that a blog post this long will hold my interest. Thanks. I really enjoyed this post.

  4. You're welcome, Dave! I hope I land on another good topic like this one soon. Stop back and let me know what you think!


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