Jason Feifer: This is Pessimists Archive, a show about why the pessimists of the past were wrong and how to be optimistic about the future. I’m Jason Feifer. If you have ever gone to the Louvre and seen the Mona Lisa, then you know seeing the Mona Lisa kind of sucks; there’s a huge crowd and the painting is set behind bulletproof glass, and it just feels like you’re checking off a box. But you know what? It doesn’t matter, because the greatest thing in the Louvre is not the Mona Lisa. The greatest thing in the Louvre is the painting right across from the Mona Lisa in the same room where basically nobody else is looking. I have been to the Louvre twice in my life, and I have experienced this both times. I gave up on the Mona Lisa, turned around, and was captivated.

The thing I was seeing on the other side of the room is called The Wedding Feast at Cana, and it was painted by Paolo Veronese in 1563. It is enormous, practically floor to ceiling enormous. It is roughly 22 x 33 feet or 6.77 x 9.94 meters, for you metric people. It depicts an outdoor banquet framed among Greek and Roman architecture. Jesus is in the middle of the table and he pops out like a biblical Where’s Waldo? This wedding is where the Bible says he turned water into wine.

But honestly, Jesus is the least interesting thing in this painting because he is surrounded by so much life, so many people; the upper-class, talking and eating, the working-class, carrying and cutting things for the feast. There are musicians, dogs on leashes, a little person holding a parrot. I have stood in front of this painting feeling totally transported. I have examined every detail, but there is something that I missed, and I wasn’t aware of it until recently when I was talking to Darra Goldstein.

Darra Goldstein: It’s hard to say who I am because I have many different identities.

Jason Feifer: But in short, she’s a food historian and cookbook writer whose newest book is a collection of Russian recipes called Beyond the North Wind. Darra and I were talking about the history of cutlery, but to my surprise, our conversation ended up leading to this painting that I love.

Darra Goldstein: So, Veronese’s wedding at Cana shows this lavish spread. If you look closely at the table, you’ll see that there are knives on it, but no forks.

Jason Feifer: What? Really? When she said this, I pulled up an image of the painting on my laptop and zoomed in, and she’s right; the painting is full of food and plates and knives and wine, but no forks. In fact, there are a bunch of other famous paintings from the time that depict the wedding at Cana, and seriously, go pull them up and look closely because it is like visiting a parallel universe where everything is the same, except one little thing. It’s almost unnerving because you’d think the fork was always there, right? It seems so basic. The knife cuts, the spoon scoops, the fork stabs. These are the actions of eating. But no. The fork has been around since at least ancient Roman times, but you didn’t see it on a Western table regularly until the late 17th century. Because until then, people’s attitude was basically this: Darra Goldstein: God has given us our hands. God gives us food. Our hands are worthy of touching that food. And you introduce something that is foreign and alien and metal that distances from the God-given food, and that is that.

Jason Feifer: The fork was demonized, and sometimes literally, because it was tied to the devil, but people also called it effeminate or elitist. World leaders scorned it. And this went on for a long, long time.

Darra Goldstein: If you think about American culture, people were not generally eating with forks except for the real high society people who wanted to show how sophisticated and privileged they were. But most people weren’t eating with forks until the mid 19th century.

Jason Feifer: So, what changed? That is what’s so fascinating about the fork, because the answer isn’t just about food; it’s about how we see ourselves. I’m going to guess that you, like me, like most people in Western culture, place a strong emphasis on our individualism. We are proud of it. We go our own way and we insist on doing so even when, frankly, it can work against us, like the way Americans simply cannot come together to take collective action against the coronavirus. We are, for better and for worse, the creators of our own destiny. And perhaps the greatest representation of that, the tool that most symbolizes the thing at the core of our identities, the thing whose popularity is tied to the rise of the individual is the fork you eat with every day.

So, you can imagine change like that takes time. In this moment of social distancing and a heightened focus on hygiene, we can learn so much about ourselves by understanding the humble fork we eat with. It is the tool that got between our food and our hands and helped us think differently about who we are. So, that is what we’re talking about on this episode. And it’s coming up after the break.

All right, we’re back. To understand the centuries-long resistance to the fork, we really need to also examine the history of how we eat, because it has changed a lot. And to get a sense of it, well, we started this episode with a painting called The Wedding Feast at Cana. So let’s start this history of eating with another even more famous painting that features Jesus at the table. It is Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. I am sure you’ve seen it a million times. Pop quiz, close your eyes and try to think of what’s on the table at the last supper. What are they eating? The answer is not much.

Ken Albala: Really, of no importance to Leonardo there. He puts just a couple of random items on the table.

Jason Feifer: That’s Ken Albala, a professor of history at the University of the Pacific, who has authored or edited 25 books on food. And he’s right. If you look closely, you’ll see that the supper in the last supper is basically wine and bread. There’s little else on that table, except for some plates and knives. But the most interesting thing about the last supper is that in reality, 2000 years ago, a feast with Jesus and his apostles would not have looked anything like that.

Ken Albala: The ancients would have been sitting at a table like that anyway. They would have been reclining on a triclinia, which is why John falls asleep on Jesus’ shoulder, because he’s laying down.

Jason Feifer: They would have been lying down probably on the floor, because that is how people ate in Roman times. The seating in the painting is unrealistic. And also, so is the food. A few years ago, two Italian archeologists made a lot of news by researching what was likely on the menu at the last supper based on what people of the time were eating, and they determined it was probably lamb, beef stew, fish sauce, olives dates, and some unleavened bread, and of course, some red wine, none of which would have been eaten with a fork.

So, that part Leonardo got right; there are no forks in the painting and it’s unlikely a real life dinner like that would have featured forks at all. Now, forks did exist back then, but they were very uncommon. In fact, you have to fast-forward until the 11th century before you find a culture that’s commonly using forks. And it’s in Byzantium, later known as Constantinople, where dainty upper-class women liked to sit around eating fruit that had been candied in honey or sugar. Here’s Darra again.

Darra Goldstein: If you can imagine how sticky those are, you don’t want to eat them with your fingers. So they had very tiny, elegant forks, only about three inches long with two prongs and often beautiful handles made with enamel or different kinds of precious stones.

Jason Feifer: And then, one of these dainty women who like to eat this dainty candy with a dainty fork tried to become history’s first known dainty fork ambassador.

Darra Goldstein: The story goes that in the 11th century, the princess of Byzantium moved to Venice to marry Domenici Sylvia, who was the Doge of Venice. And she brought with her a fork, one of these elegant little ones, and the world of Venice was aghast.

Jason Feifer: Why? Because it was sacrilegious. Like you heard Darra say a few minutes ago, people believed that God gave us our food in our hands, and a fork was separating us from God. And it gets worse because the forks of the time only had two prongs. And you know whose head looks like it has two prongs coming out of it? That’s right.

Voice Clip: Satan looks like a fork.

Darra Goldstein: So, it was almost immediately associated with the devil. Unfortunately for the poor princess, she fell very ill and died shortly, so that was proof that she was consorting with the devil and then the fork pretty much disappeared for a few more centuries.

Jason Feifer: That is historical fork failure number one. And you know what fascinates me most about all this so far? It is that people had a whole big problem with forks separating our godly hands from our godly food. But it’s not like people didn’t use other tools to eat with, they had knives and spoons. So the fork wasn’t actually bad because it was separating people from their food, it was bad because it was the newest thing separating them from their food. The older stuff had justifications.

Darra Goldstein: Knives were very important for hunting. And also, the knife was associated with cutting bread, and that you often see in depictions of the last supper, there are knives on the table. The spoon was associated with the Virgin Mary. And there are actually some paintings of the Virgin feeding the Christ child with a spoon. And it was a tradition to give christening spoons. So those two already had religious context.

Jason Feifer: Isn’t that how it always is with new things? It’s not that the new thing is actually brand new, it’s that the new thing simply isn’t grandfathered in the way that the older versions of itself are. “Oh, you want some new houses in this neighborhood? Well, you can’t build there. It’ll create too much noise. It overcrowd the schools and bring in the wrong elements.” “But wait, aren’t there already houses here? So, what’s wrong with adding more houses?” “Oh, well, those houses are here already.” See? This is not sound logic. New becomes old the second more new arrives. But still, we fear the newest new.

Back to the fork. You might be thinking, as I did, “The fork is really useful. It holds things down when you cut them and it makes it easier to lift things to your mouth.” So, what did people do back then? How did they eat a big piece of steak?

Darra Goldstein: First of all, you wouldn’t have had a steak.

Jason Feifer: Right. To imagine how people were eating back then, you can’t just take our modern diet and our eating habits and then remove the fork. You have to start with a world that doesn’t have the fork and then build from there. For starters, a fork did exist; it’s just that nobody used it to eat with. They used it to prepare back in the kitchen. And if you were wealthy, that meant that you’d have nothing to do with cutting your own meat. Here’s Ken again.

Ken Albala: In an elite table, someone will be there carving for you when you get a slice. And then you’d just pick that up with your fingers, which works very, very well.

Jason Feifer: And also, the food that you were eating was being prepared in a way meant for fingers. This meant that you didn’t just grab your food whole hand the way that the average Westerner might today, unpracticed as we are in the ways of eating with hands. So, what was that like? I went searching for a really visual description of this and then came across the work of the historian Madeleine Pelner Cosman, who wrote about how the upper class of medieval Europe ate. So interesting. Here’s a little reading from her work.

Female: Back in the banquet hall, condiments were served, crushed and powdered in small, open dishes at the table. Almost all medieval feast foods were conveyed to the mouth by elaborate and often elegant finger choreography. However, both pinky fingers were extended, never touching food or gravy or sauce reserved as spice fingers dipped into the salt, sweet basil cinnamon sugar or ground mustard seed then raised to the tongue, the spice fingers displayed a feaster’s digital finesse while adding another sensual pleasure, the touch of food’s texture.

Jason Feifer: Some historians hypothesize that today when we lift our pinky finger as if we’re being fancy or deviously fancy…

Speaker 6: $1 million.

Jason Feifer: … that this is actually a hold over from the medieval spice finger. And food, of course, just evolved in a forkless world. Darra described to me what dinner would be like in 17th century England.

Darra Goldstein: They had something called trenchers. The trencher, it comes from the French tranche, which means slice. So it’s that slice of very sturdy bread. And that served as the plate. You might’ve had a stew of some sort and it was placed on the bread, the bread soaked up the juices, which as you know, was quite delicious, and you ate with your God given hands.

Jason Feifer: But that’s the 17th century she’s talking about, which is actually a turning point in our relationship with forks. So let’s just back up a tiny bit to get there. And let’s start once again with art.

Christine Zappella: Sure. My name is Christine Zappella, and I’m the Blanton Fellow of European Art painting and sculpture at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas.

Jason Feifer: We called Christine to ask when the first fork appears in paintings because it wasn’t there in the last supper or the wedding feast to Cana. So, where does it appear?

Christine Zappella: The earliest one that I can find is from 1450 and it’s in a church in Vienna. It’s in a painting of the Annunciation, which is when the Angel Gabriel appears in the bedroom of the Virgin Mary and asks her to be the mother of God and she startled.

Jason Feifer: Which I’d say is a reasonable reaction to the situation. Now, Mary’s bedroom contains a desk. And that desk feature some objects, including a fork. And there is a reason for that, according to Christine.

Christine Zappella: The fork, along with a few other luxury objects on her writing desk, are used to signify that this is no ordinary woman; this is the queen of heaven.

Jason Feifer: Because this is no ordinary fork. It’s actually something unique and delicate that was used by the upper-class at the time.

Christine Zappella: We see what is called a Sukkot fork. So it looks like a normal modern day fork, except it has tines on the outside and none on the middle.

Jason Feifer: And on the other end of the Sukkot fork, there’s a spoon. So, just so that we’re clear on what we’re talking about here, the Sukkot fork, imagine in the middle, there’s a thin rod of metal. On one end of this rod is a delicate fork. On the other end is a spoon. Fork, spoon. Fork, spoon. When the Virgin Mary was hungry, she ate with a…

Voice Clip (Spork Song): (singing)

Jason Feifer: That is the appropriately named Hungry Food Band talking of course about our modern day version of this utensil. But the Sukkot fork was basically the original spork. Wealthy Renaissance people used it to eat candied fruit. And although the Sukkot fork never really caught on with the masses, it did set the tone for how the fork made its way into popular culture, which is to say that it started very exclusively. It is hard to say exactly where the fork took hold, but many say it happened in the 1400s and 1500s in Florence, Italy, which is considered the beating heart of the Renaissance. But it’s not like people just woke up one day and said…

Voice Clip (Mama Mia): Mama mia, that’s a spicy-

Jason Feifer: … Fork. As we’ve just established, the fork was around for centuries. A Persian princess tried to introduce the fork right there in Italy about 300 years before, and people thought she was worshiping the devil! What’s happening here is really interesting because it isn’t just about the innovation. In fact, adoption of innovation is often never just about the innovation. Innovations are like a puzzle piece trying to fit into an ever moving puzzle. They can be around for a long, long time before the right fit comes along. For example, AT&T debuted a video phone in the 1960s. Well, people hated the idea, it was a total flop.

Then, fast forward to the 2000s, we’re obsessed with Zoom and FaceTime. Like I said, it’s not just about the innovation; it’s about the time and the culture and the fit. What was going on in Florence and the Renaissance that created this culture and fit and desire for the fork? Well, I will not pretend to summarize all of the Renaissance here, but will highlight two things that historians shared with us that I think are very telling. Here’s the first.

Niall Atkinson: The affluent middle and upper classes were beginning to construct homes in which rooms were organized and designed for specific purposes, which was not the case before.

Jason Feifer: This is Niall Atkinson, an associate professor of art history at the University of Chicago who has studied art, architecture, food and manners in the Renaissance.

Niall Atkinson: In other words, late medieval domestic living in Europe in general, but in Italy in particular, common rooms were used for cooking, for eating, for sleeping, that kind of thing.

Jason Feifer: Isn’t that awesome? Even the most basic things we do, like having different rooms for different purposes, actually has a defined beginning. So, now there’s a room for eating. And once you have a room for eating, it makes sense to start thinking more about what to eat in that room. So now people start writing all these guides on manners, including how to eat. And also, we get the first inkling of this.

Male: You like funky flavors? At Flavortown, we’ve got a hot fudge brownie.

Jason Feifer: That’s right; the celebrity chef. And they are catering banquets because the birth of the dining hall leads to the birth of the banquet. And they are just like we’ve seen in the movies.

Niall Atkinson: People come in the middle of the afternoon, they begin eating, there may be up to a hundred different courses. In between, there are entertainments like dramatic entertainments, musical entertainments, you’re tasting, you’re smelling things, you’re hearing music and hearing things. You’re seeing sculptures made out of sugar to look like various different animals. Sometimes you see birds coming out of pies.

Jason Feifer: Mark my words, when this pandemic is over, I am throwing a dinner party and there are going to be birds coming out of pies. Let’s talk about how people are eating at these banquets. For centuries, up until now, Europeans generally ate in what we’d call family style. They’d sit down with a plate in front of them, or maybe not a plate, maybe they just have a big piece of bread, and then they’d reach with their hands into big shared bowls of food and just bring some over to their plate.

But now there are banquets. And these are fancy affairs with a lot of people. They are dressing up, they are showing off. They’re not going to be eating with their hands. You don’t want dozens of people sticking their hands in the same food. That’s disgusting. So, the fork provided a level of civility. And that’s not all; there was something else going on too. Here’s Christine of the Blanton Museum of Art again.

Christine Zappella: So, at the same time that we see architectural specialization for feasting, we also see forks coming into use more and more, and that suggests a shift in the mindset about the way they’re viewing feasting and banqueting in terms of its role in a court.

Jason Feifer: Not just the way they eat; the way they eat in a court.

Christine Zappella: You have to remember also that before this, the Florentine Republic is the end all and be all for the Florentines. They’re very, very of the fact that they are not ruled by a absolute dictator, that they have a elected leader.

Jason Feifer: They have the ultra wealthy Medici banking family becoming a political dynasty. So it’s not exactly a democracy, but still, it is not a dictatorship. And consider what it means to be proud of that fact. It means you’re proud of your independence, that you live in a place of some self-determination, where you are not moved as a group. A moment ago, I said that innovations must fit into a culture, that there has to be a need that the innovation fulfills, and this, it seems, was the fork’s fit.

You have a people whose lives are no longer governed by a singular central force and who are drifting away from a communal version of eating. The fork has a role to play here. Remember the knife was for hunting, which could feed a group, and the spoon was featured in the Bible, which itself is a unifying tool of a group, but the fork? It feeds an individual. It is there for personal use.

And this meant that in places that maybe hadn’t come around to these new ways of thinking, the fork remained a puzzling mystery to them, they weren’t a fit yet. So now it’s time to track the fork out of Italy to the places where everything it represented seemed foreign and unnerving. And this led to some great misunderstandings. Remember how I said that the rise of banquets also led to the rise of books about manners? They were basically the early versions of family post books with instructions on how to sit and eat and behave. Here is Christine from The Art Museum again.

Christine Zappella: These books are saying things like, “Make sure you use your fork and not your fingers like those ungodly beastly heathens in France and Germany who still think it’s okay to eat with their fingers.”

Jason Feifer: And now, the ungodly beastly havens are looking at the Italians and saying, “Oh no, you have got it all wrong.”

Christine Zappella: They are looking at this and using this as a way of proving that the Italians are effeminate and not really manly, that they need to eat with forks and that their hands aren’t good enough.

Jason Feifer: But people from the outside do come to Italy for one reason or another. And they see the fork in use. And then occasionally, they try to take it back home. But inevitably, the people back home just keep saying, “Stick a fork in that fork because it is done.” For example, there was this guy.

Darra Goldstein: Henry III.

Jason Feifer: And just so you can appreciate my very low level of sophistication: Wait, Henri, would I just read that as Henry?

Darra Goldstein: H. Yeah.

Jason Feifer: Okay. Have you ever heard more disappointment packed into a single yeah? Anyway, Henry III of France visited Italy, discovered the fork and tried to bring it back home, but [inaudible 00:24:59] court was not having it.

Darra Goldstein: He really wanted to use a fork and he was considered very effeminate for doing so.

Jason Feifer: Then, in the early 1600s, an English world traveler named Thomas Coryat went to Italy and was totally surprised by how people ate. He wrote about this in a book of his, where he said: Brent Rose: The reason for this, their curiosity, is because the Italian cannot by any means endure to have his dish touched with his fingers, seeing all man’s fingers are not to clean. Hereupon, I myself thought good to imitate the Italian fashion by this fork to cutting of meat.

Jason Feifer: He went back home to England and brought his fork with him, but nobody would join him in using it. People started calling him [inaudible 00:25:41], which in Latin literally means one who carries a fork, but it was meant as an insult. And also it sounds like Lucifer. And the name stuck with him the rest of his life. By the late 1600s and early 1700s, the fork had begun making some inroads around Europe. That didn’t mean it was always socially acceptable. For example, there was the court of Louis XIV of France.

Melissa Wittmeier: At Louis XIV table, his guests did have a fork, but nobody ever used it because the king didn’t like it.

Jason Feifer: This is Melissa Wittmeier, a lecturer in French at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago and founder and director of the company Immersion Chicago. And the reason for this is actually a little delightful if you like the idea of an absolute leader being crippled by self-doubt, which I admit I do like very much, because here’s how a meal with Louis went. He picked a few select people who could sit and eat with him, and…

Melissa Wittmeier: Other people would stand watching. All of his meals were given as a ceremony. So people got to watch him eat. You couldn’t speak, but you got to watch him eat.

Jason Feifer: That means all eyes are on Louis, which means that he better put on a good show. And this guy just never learned how to use a fork.

Melissa Wittmeier: The King held the meat with his left hand and cut little bits and then fed himself. That way, he preferred using his hands because he found the fork in his left hand tricky to use. It was awkward. Since his knife was in his right hand and he was right-handed, it was hard to get the piece of meat to stay on the fork and then to transport it successfully to his mouth. So he just liked his hands.

Jason Feifer: And if you are the King and you make people sit there and watch you eat, then you better get that meat into your mouth smoothly. So, no fork for the King, which meant no fork for anyone, which feels like a metaphor for so many things. And that’s the story of the fork and the Renaissance, more or less. It started in Italy, spread outward and gained awkward acceptance here and there. In 1760, a French aristocrat named François Baron de Tott described attending a dinner party in Turkey where forks were present, but people weren’t entirely sure how to use them. He wrote: Brent Rose: I saw one woman towards the dinner taking olives with her fingers and then impaling them on the fork in order to eat them in the French manner.

Jason Feifer: But Hey, at least she was trying. And so went the very slow process of acceptance, centuries slow.

Darra Goldstein: Little by little, it made inroads. And one of the ways that it came to be accepted was through the enlightenment in the 18th century, where people are supposed to be rational and there was a lot more awareness of hygiene and table manners.

Jason Feifer: The enlightenment, that time of philosophy and science when individual Liberty was favored over the dogma of a church or the worship of a monarch, a time when reason and logic was elevated, this was a time defined by René Descartes’ famous line, I think therefore I am. And it might as well have also been, I fork, therefore I eat.

Darra Goldstein: So, with a greater awareness of the individual and the individual and his or her own place at the table, then you started seeing more place settings on the table.

Jason Feifer: Because what we’re seeing is a continuation of what was happening in Florence, Italy, a few centuries before; the more people moved away from the collective and the more towards a sense of individual self, the more their eating habits began favoring the individual. Less communal eating, more individual place settings. The fork made sense. Then, the fork made its way across the Atlantic into a newly formed America where you might think, “The Americans are going to love this.”

America, land of the free and home of the brave, America, where individualism is its own kind of religion. And in fact, forks were present at the very beginning. Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who led a wave of colonizers from England in 1630, well, he brought a fork with him. George Washington also owned forks. But as America settled into its new nationhood, it decided the land of the free would not be the home of the fork.

Darra Goldstein: When John Quincy Adams became president in 1825, he decided to have forks as part of the table setting at the White House. And a lot of people were aghast and said, “This is the end of American democracy because it’s so not in our way to do things like this.”

Jason Feifer: Because although in Europe the fork may have gained an association with the individual, in America, the fork had an association with Europe, which America defined its individualistic identity against.

Darra Goldstein: It’s just not the way we as Americans who are simple people who have fled all of the class system of Europe and you’re introducing something that distinguishes yourself from the rest of us.

Jason Feifer: But there’s also something elemental in this opposition, something that’s been in the background of this history of the fork all the way back to that painting of the Virgin Mary with her fancy spork for the elite class, and that is the fork simply wasn’t available to everyone. Archeologists have found forks from Roman times that were made of lead. But of course, at some point people realize that putting lead in their mouths, especially after that lead had come in touch with acidic foods, was not a very good idea.

People went on to use steel for utensils, but steel can rust and that can make the food tastes bad. And there just weren’t a lot of good options for safe, durable material throughout the centuries, except for very expensive things. Silver was good, gold was better, sometimes with gems on the handles, and that was not available to most people. You might pony up for a spoon and a knife if you could, because those were more essential, but a fork?

Darra Goldstein: A fork was a luxury item. It wasn’t something that you absolutely had to have. So that also contributed to the resistance.

Jason Feifer: Until the 1840s. That’s when silver plating was developed in Sheffield, England, and a few years later, a massive amount of silver known as the Comstock Lode was discovered in Nevada. The price of silver dropped. And now, the technology existed to make safe utensils with only a fraction of the silver once required. Anybody could suddenly buy a fork, and they did. This was the end of the resistance, a resistance that lasted in Western civilization for 700 years through concerns about Satan and masculinity and collectivism. What it came down to in the end was economics. The masses didn’t like forks until the masses could afford forks.

Now, this story has played out many times, of course. For example, the bicycle was dismissively called the indie horse in the late 1800s until they were cheap enough for the average person to buy, and then the masses did buy bicycles. What happened then? Well, then the rich lost interest in the bicycles and they moved on to something else. They moved on to the new technology, the car. A similar thing happened with the fork. The fork was once a signifier of wealth and then it no longer was, which meant that the rich needed another fork. And they got one. Actually, they got more than one.

Darra Goldstein: What were the wealthy to do? They still had to find a way to be distinctive. So the great silver companies in America, like Gorham and Tiffany, started making all different kinds of forks for each different kind of food.

Jason Feifer: A sardine fork, a cherry fork, an olive fork, a pickle fork, a pastry fork.

Darra Goldstein: My very favorite fork is the mid 19th century macaroni fork. It looks like an instrument of torture because it has these really, really sharp blades, but it has a bit of a bowl so that you cut the macaroni and then can scoop it without compressing it. Macaroni was very chic in the mid 19th century.

Jason Feifer: Which makes me think, how great would it be to travel back in time, find some fancy dinner party where everyone’s eating macaroni, and then just let loose a hoard of children with bowls of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese? Nothing is inherently good or bad. Forks, macaroni, lobster, oysters, skirt steak, being thin, being fat, having a tan, looking pale, all these things and more have switched between being a status symbol or being the very opposite. It’s all in our perceptions. There was even an ice cream fork back then because people ate ice cream with a fork up until 1922, which is when Emily Post’s first book came out, telling people that a spoon works better.

Now, most of these forks eventually fell out of fashion, of course. Though there are still few with us; the salad fork, the fish fork, but the most interesting thing of all of that for me, after centuries of people moving away from eating with their hands and determining that a fork was the more refined way to eat, is that Darra is seeing the opposite movement begin.

Darra Goldstein: What’s happening in modern life is that we’re moving away from utensils. If you think about how people like to dine, like you go out and you want to have tapas, or you want to have finger food, or you want to have shared plates, and there is a way in which people are shedding the fork and really enjoying picking things up with their hands again.

Jason Feifer: I should note here that we spoke before the pandemic and the natural obsession over hygiene that has come with it, but still I think her point is going to hold up.

Darra Goldstein: I’m not saying it is completely widespread, but there’s definitely a trend towards a more natural way of eating.

Jason Feifer: Because, is that going away, that idea of natural eating? If anything, it might accelerate. We’re obsessed now with natural; natural foods, natural soaps, natural living. And I would not be surprised if once we’re finally able to gather in large groups and shake hands and hug one another, that we are going to want to do whatever feels most natural with abandon. We are going to want to connect, to feel, to make up for lost time, to just get close and share and revel in the passing of danger. We are going to want the ability to feel a little under the weather and know that it’ll pass easily enough. In short, maybe we’re going to want to stick our hands into a pot of food together and then shove those hands in our mouth and laugh at how it isn’t a life-threatening act and how we’re all here together with just a little bit more of a guarantee that tomorrow will come.

I’m not saying I know for sure, but you could imagine. And to me, that provides a whole new meaning to the fork. The fork became a defining tool of a changing world where if we’re going to sit by ourselves or at least be treated as if our space at the table is contained and unique, then we need the tools of an individual too, we need to separate ourselves in some way so that my God-given hands don’t touch your God-given food. And the fork becomes not a means of separating ourselves from our food, as people once thought, but instead, it became a tool to separate ourselves from each other. And did we want all that separation? Well, I don’t think we know the answer or our answer always changes a little.

We are alone and we are together and sometimes we are alone together. And I don’t think we’ll ever find a balance that works for everyone or that lasts very long. But what we have now is a tool; this fork, which could be used any way we want. And it makes me think, there’s that old saying that you are what you eat, but what if that’s not exactly true? What if instead you are how you eat? And that’s our episode.

But hey, remember that bit you heard a little bit ago about how banquets would feature birds flying out of pies? Did you pause to think, how did they do that? Well, I did. And I have the answer, but first, if you love Pessimists Archive, then show us that love. Please subscribe, tell a friend and give us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts and stay in touch. You can follow us on Twitter or Instagram at @pessimistsarc, pessimists A-R-C, where we are constantly sharing the ill-conceived words of pessimists throughout history. You can also reach us by email at [email protected]. And our website, where we have links to many of the things you heard about in this episode, is pessimists.co.

Pessimists Archive is me and Louis Anslow, additional research to this episode by Britta Lokting, sound editing by Alec Balas, our webmaster is James Steward, our theme music is by Caspar Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. The voices you heard reading some historical archive material, they were [Jia Mora 00:38:25], you can find her at jiamora.com, and Brent Rose, you can find him at brentrose.com.

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All right. After we heard about birds a flying out of pies, I thought, “What would that even look like?” So I started hunting around, and as it turns out, that wasn’t just a Renaissance thing. It was also a medieval thing and it gave birth to the nursery rhyme, four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie. The food writer, Steven Raichlen, found medieval cookbooks that explained how to release birds from a pie. And he explained it on a public radio show called The World.

Male: He made an enormous pie crust that had a wooden scaffolding inside. So it was in effect baked hollow. And then you cut a trapdoor in the bottom, you’d put live birds in this pie. You’d crack open the top and the birds would come fluttering out through the dining room. So this was the sort of thing that medieval diners loved.

Jason Feifer: There you go. How to turn your first post-pandemic dinner party into Instagram gold. That is it for this time. Thanks for listening to Pessimists Archive. I’m Jason Feifer, and we’ll see you in the near future.