“Chopsticks or fork?” enquired the woman in the sushi bar. My reply was instant: “Chopsticks.” No matter that I am useless with them: I didn’t want anyone to think that, as a hopeless Westerner, I needed the clumsy shovelling action of a fork.
That is odd, since through most of history – ever since forks crept west from China – their reputation has been not clumsy, but prissy. They were picked up in Persia, Byzantium and Italy almost as fashion accessories. Freak forks evolved to eat asparagus (why?), cheese (when?) and ice-cream (how?). I inherited a set designed only to eat pastries. One fork I knew was a true beauty: very small, with a wide head and a handle of mother-of-pearl. It made every breakfast a poem when I speared my blueberries with it, but it was thrown into the rubbish, alas. Since forks may also be musical, it probably sang, or intoned one plangent note, on its long journey to the dump.
Forks are fussy because they distance us from grappling directly with food. Their four slim fingers, guided by the human thumb, declare the march of civilisation against the horrors of grease and sauce. But the very slowness with which they caught on – not really until the late 18th century in northern Europe – is surely directly related to the delights of sopping up stew with bread, or plunging full-handed into a biryani, or simply sucking meat from a crab leg, as we would do otherwise. Eating cheese with a fork removes its savour, somehow. Using one for an apple is simply silly. Those little wooden chip forks are an affront to all who know that chips and ketchup taste best from fingers.
Nonetheless a whole tower of good manners has been built on fork foundations. As a child, a series of fierce great-aunts taught me that forks must always be held and deployed with the prongs pointing down towards the plate. Woe betide any subtle attempt to turn it over, shovel-style, as is now the custom everywhere. It was as if the devil could then get into it. Forks, back then, were instruments of oppression; doing without them was an act of gluttonous liberation, when some daredevil would break off the pork crackling or the pie-crust and cry, juice dribbling down his chin, “Fingers were made before forks!”
Forks dither, too. Knives cut and saw with brutal directness, never far from being weapons. The most famous instance of a fork being used with violence was by the young Shelley, who pinioned a schoolmate to his desk with one. Spoons simply charge and slurp, more or less. By contrast forks hover, choose, change their minds, favour this over that, in a constant stream of consciousness. If deceit is to be done on a plate, it’s usually the fork that performs it. Forks can speed things up, especially when dealing with long recalcitrant strings of pasta. Historically, however, their role has been deliberately to slow things down.
And that, of course, is what forks do when encountered more broadly in life. They impose a pause and a rumination. Faced with branching in a pipe, a path or a career, you might do this or equally you could try that. Suddenly the simple becomes complex, for better or worse. ”Chopsticks or fork?” A fork, please. Maybe.•