By the beginning of the 19th century, the fork was firmly established on the French table and beyond, and the table had become a center of social life not just for the aristocracy, but for the newly established bourgeoisie. In 1825, a judge named Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin published The Physiology of Taste: Or Mediations on Transcendental Gastronomy, and in it he paints a portrait of a world increasingly preoccupied with the culture of dining. In addition to penning aphorisms including “a dinner without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye,” he distinguished between eating to satisfy a need and eating as a social activity: “The pleasure of eating is one we share with animals; it depends solely on hunger and what is needed to satisfy it. The pleasures of the table are known only to the human race; they depend on careful preparations for the serving of the meal, on the choice of place, and on the thoughtful assembling of guests.”
Brillat-Savarin loved the rules of the table—the proper room temperature for a dinner party is 60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, in case you're taking notes—but even he found contemporary manners a but fussy. He writes, in discussing life around 1740, that it was "during this period that there was generally established more orderliness in the meals, more cleanliness and elegance, and those various refinements of service which, having increased steadily until our own time, threaten now to overstep all limits and lead us to the point of ridicule."
For the contemporary eater, Brillat-Savarin's words might come to mind when looking at some flatware patterns from the late 18th or early 19th centuries. Most utensils before the 18th century were made of silver—the metal that reacts the least with food—but silver is rare. The invention of silver-plating techniques, accompanied by the vigorous expansion of the consumer market, resulted in scores of forks for eaters of all classes and in scores of different fork types: oyster forks, lobster forks, salad forks, terrapin forks, berry forks, lettuce forks, sardine forks, pickle forks, fish forks, and pastry forks—just to name a few. By 1926, the multiplication of silverware had gotten so overwhelming that then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover and the Sterling Silverware Manufacturers limited the number of separate pieces in any silverware pattern to 55.
Once the fork became a daily staple, it, like so many other household objects of the 20th century, was pressed into the service of style. Early 20th-century designers like Henry van der Velde, Charles Mackintosh, and Josef Hoffman, with the aim of producing a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), designed forks—along with windows, chairs, and lamps—for their buildings. There were slinky Italian forks in the 1930s, colorful Bakelite forks in the 1940s, architect-designed forks with three tines in the 1950s and five tines in the 1970s, neon plastic forks in the 1980s, postmodern forks in the 1990s, and, in the 2000s, sci-fi forks and quirky forks. Even artists like Alexander Calder jumped on the bandwagon.
The variety of both shapes and styles leads not only to etiquette confusion, but to other problems as well. In the 1960s, designer Bruno Munari, who produced a book’s worth of drawings of talking forks as well as a few in 3D, began an essay called “Knives, Forks, and Spoons” by suggesting that "I think it would be useful for young married people who are setting up house together to know what they have to get in the way of knives, forks and spoons. I mean, of course, a complete service, so as not to cut a sorry figure when the duchess comes to dinner." He comes up with a list of implements several pages long and then adds that “this partial and incomplete list” might leave the reader wondering “how you are going to pay for everything, or how you can possibly build a piece of furniture large enough to contain all this stuff.” He suggests that “if you are of two minds about the style to choose, or the material (for it goes without saying that all these things can be obtained with handles made of silver, steel, ceramic, horn, hoof, perspex, etc., and in modern style, more modern style, ultra-contemporary style, antique style, more antique style, antediluvian style, comic or serious, garish or restrained, elaborate or rustic, to suit all tastes), then you can always fall back on something else." His suggestion for an alternative is the chopstick: "They cost very little and millions of people have been using them for thousands of years. They are made of natural wood, like two giant toothpicks ten inches long, and in Japan you can buy them in packets of a hundred in any big store. They are easy to use, and the food is cut up beforehand into mouthful-sized pieces. Millions of people have been using them for thousands of years! But not us! No! Far too simple!”
This vein of fork criticism—comparing them unfavorably with the chopstick—is a long-standing one. An 1898 article in Appleton's Popular Science Monthly on “The Chinese Chopstick” described them as “a substitute fork, tongs, and certain forms of tweezers” and called them “certainly the most useful, the most economical, and the most efficient devise for their purpose ever invented by man”; a century later an article in the New York Times argued that they “enhance the act of eating.” The most overblown comparison must belong to Roland Barthes, who, writing in 1970, praised the chopstick in alarmingly Orientalist terms: "In all these functions, in all the gestures they imply, chopsticks are the converse of our knife (and of its predatory substitute, the fork): they are the alimentary instrument which refuses to cut, to pierce, to mutilate, to trip (very limited gestures, relegated to the preparation of the food for cooking: the fish seller who skins the still-living eel for us exorcises once and for all, in a preliminary sacrifice, the murder of food); by chopsticks, food becomes no longer a prey to which one does violence (meat, flesh over which one does battle), but a substance harmoniously transferred; they transform the previously divided substance into bird food and rice into a flow of milk; maternal, they tirelessly perform the gesture which creates the mouthful, leaving to our alimentary manners, armed with pikes and knives, that of predation."
In their anti-forkism, Munari and Barthes echo Baron de Tott’s dispatch from Turkey in 1760. De Tott used his description of table manners to distinguish himself from the Turkish, to point out that even when they tried to use a fork, they couldn't get it right: They didn't belong to his group. Munari and Barthes, on the other hand, use their descriptions of table manners to distinguish themselves from their own cultures, praising the chopstick as a way of pointing out—whether humorously or not—their own individual superiority from the frivolous, fork-using culture they happened to be born into. Manners are always a way to negotiate social groups. Learning their nuances is a way to ingratiate yourself with the group, not knowing them is frequently a path to anxiety, and refusing to employ them is a way of insisting on one's own individuality. And this is particularly true with forks, which are old enough that we who use them accept them totally, but which are also new enough that it is easy to get them wrong.
Perhaps, then, it is interesting to consider the future of utensils. At his restaurant Alinea, in Chicago, chef Grant Achatz has worked closely with designer Martin Kastner to devise new utensils: the antenna, which supports a single morsel of mackerel; the bow, which allows a transparent slice of bacon to hang freely; and more. Does this seem a bit silly? Yes. Is it genuinely geared to making the food more delicious, and more interesting, to eat? Also yes. And before you imagine yourself incapable, or at least undesiring, of leaning forward, hands-free, to snatch a morsel of food off a thin, wavering stalk of metal with your mouth, just remember that the humble fork used to appear every bit as silly.
Correction, June 21, 2012: The final photo caption on this article misidentified a utensil design as the Squid. The photo depicts a Peacock design.