What Your Spoon Says About You

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Spoons hold up a mirror to the surrounding culture precisely because they are universal. There are fork cultures and there are chopstick cultures, but all the peoples of the world use spoons.

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Dr.Margorius/Shutterstock/Rebecca J. Rosen

Spoons -- along with their companions and rivals, chopsticks and forks -- are definitely a form of technology. Their functions include serving, measuring, and conveying food from plate to mouth, not to mention culinary spoons for stirring and scraping, skimming, lifting, and ladling. Every human society has spoons of one kind or another. In and of themselves, these utensils are mild-mannered -- certainly in comparison with the knife. Spoons are what we give babies -- whether ceremonial silver christening spoons or shallow plastic weaning spoons containing the first gummy mouthfuls of baby rice. Gripping a spoon in the fist is one of the earliest milestones in our development. Spoons are benign and domestic. Yet their construction and use has often reflected deep passions and fiercely held prejudices.

In 1660, the luxuriantly bewigged Charles II became king of England, Scotland, and Ireland, a restoration of the monarchy after the country's brief experiment with republican government in the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell and his son Richard. Eleven years earlier, in 1649, the king's father, Charles I, was executed, the culmination of the English Civil War. Now monarchy was back with a vengeance. Charles II's Restoration was accompanied by sweeping cultural changes, aimed at effacing all memory of the Puritan Roundheads. Theaters reopened. Handel composed his majestic Water Music. And, almost overnight, silver spoons took on an entirely new shape, the trifid (also known as trefids, trefoils, split-ends, and pieds-de-biche).

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Because the Commonwealth lasted such a short time, Cromwellian spoons are rare. But those that have survived are, as you'd expect, plain and unadorned. The shape of these spoons -- which began to appear in England from the 1630s on -- is known as "Puritan." They have a simple, shallow egg-shaped bowl that gives way to a plain, flat stem. The Puritan spoon marked a departure from previous English silver spoons, which had bowls that were fig shaped (the technical term is ficulate), with chunky hexagonal stems. These earlier spoons had a bowl like a teardrop, widening toward the end that you put in your mouth, whereas the Puritan bowl narrowed slightly at the end, like most of our spoons now.

The biggest change with the Puritan spoon was its handle, which was entirely unadorned. It had no decorative "knop" on the end. Over the previous few centuries, silversmiths lavished great artistry on a part of the spoon we would now consider almost irrelevant, adding little sculptures called knops on the end point of the handle. Pre-1649 knop "finials" included diamonds and acorns, owls and bunches of grapes, naked women and sitting lions. Some knops were flat-ended abstract shapes, such as a stamp or a seal. Others depicted Christ and his apostles in ornate finials.

None of these decorative spoons found favor during the Commonwealth, when excessive decoration of any kind, particularly religious, was disapproved of. The Roundheads lopped the heads off spoons just as they lopped off the king's head. The new republican eating utensils were entirely devoid of pattern, just plain, dense lumps of silver. It has been suggested that one reason Puritan spoons were made so heavy was that citizens used them to hoard silver against the frequent proclamations that came through to give up your personal silver to pay for the defense of the town. If your silver was tied up in cutlery, you could claim it was essential and prevent its being confiscated.

In any case, it wouldn't be long before the Puritan spoon was itself swept away by the spoon of the Restoration, the trifid, which traveled with the newly crowned Charles II from his court of exile on the Continent. It is the earliest spoon in its modern form; most spoons today, however cheaply made, still owe something to the trifid. No British person had ever eaten from such a spoon before in Britain -- the first trifids are hallmarked 1660. Yet by 1680, they had spread through the entirety of Charles's kingdom and remained the dominant spoon type for 40 years, killing off both the Puritan spoon and the fig-shaped spoons that went before. The base metal spoons of the masses made from pewter and latten also changed shape from Puritan to trifid. The change was not gradual, but sudden. Politically, no one wanted to be seen eating dinner with a Roundhead spoon.

The trifid could be held in the polite English way, with the handle resting in the palm of the hand, parallel with the thumb.

The bowl of the trifid was a deep oval rather than a shallow fig. Like the Puritan, the trifid had a flat handle, but it now swelled toward the end, with a distinctive cleft shape (hence the name, which means "three-cleft"). The design is French; the trefoil is an echo of the fleur-de-lis, the stylized lily associated with French kingship. On the reverse side, the hammered stem continued up onto the back of the bowl, finishing in a dart-shaped groove sometimes called a "rat tail." Over the decades, these new spoons also seem to have gone along with changes in the way they were held. Certain shapes invite you to hold them in certain ways. Because of the knobbly part at the end, medieval spoons are easiest to hold with the stem under the thumb at a right angle. The trifid, by contrast, could be held in the polite English way, with the handle resting in the palm of the hand, parallel with the thumb. With a regal trifid in your hand, poised to plunge it into an apple pie, you might forget that a reigning monarch had ever been executed or that England had ever done without its king. This was kitchenware as political propaganda.

Spoons hold up a mirror to the surrounding culture precisely because they are so universal. There are fork cultures and there are chopstick cultures; but all the peoples of the world use spoons. The particular form they take is therefore very revealing: a pretty Chinese porcelain blue-and-white spoon for wonton soup is part of an entirely different culture of eating than a Russian spoon filled with sticky preserves or the ladle-like wooden spoons used in poor European households to eat soup from a communal pot, passed from mouth to mouth. Functionally, a spoon is an object that aids with ferrying food into the mouth. In the 1960s, Jane Goodall saw chimpanzees fashioning sort-of spoons from blades of grass, to make it easier for them to slurp up termites. In the distant past, humans lashed shells onto sticks and used them to consume foods too liquid to be eaten with fingers. The Roman word for spoon reflects this: cochleare, which comes from the word for shell. Romans used these little spoons for eating eggs or scooping out shellfish. For pottage-type dishes they had a larger spoon, the pear-shaped ligula.

At different periods, people favored various spoons, depending on what they most liked to eat. Mother-of-pearl egg spoons reflect the Edwardian fondness for a soft-boiled egg (mother-of-pearl or bone was used because egg yolk stains silver). Hanoverian mustard spoons hint at what a vital condiment this fiery fluid was in the English diet. The Georgians of the 18th century loved roasted bone marrow and devised a series of specialized silver spoons and scoops for eating it. Some of them were double-ended, with one end for small bones and another for large. The idea was to hold your piece of roasted bone in an elegant white napkin and use the implements to tease out the soft, fatty nuggets of marrow. Marrow spoons were akin to the complicated series of spoons, needles, and picks that accompany a French plateau de fruits de mer, a sumptuous seafood platter.

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Mother-of-pearl spoon (Wikimedia Commons/Rebecca J. Rosen)

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Bee Wilson is a food writer, historian, and author of three books, including Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat and Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit CoffeeMore

She has been named BBC Radio’s Food Writer of the Year and is a three-time Guild of Food Writers’ Food Journalist of the Year.  Wilson served as the food columnist for the New Statesman for five years, and currently writes a weekly food column for the Sunday Telegraph’s Stella magazine.  She lives in Cambridge, England.

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