What Your Spoon Says About You

By Bee Wilson

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)

The marrow spoon is obsolete (though the fashion for roasted bone marrow and parsley salad recently started by the London chef Fergus Henderson may yet bring it back). Other spoons, however, have succeeded in making the leap from specialist tool to universal implement, none more so than the teaspoon. The teaspoon first came into existence when the English started adding milk to their tea in the second half of the 17th century. It was needed to amalgamate the milk, sugar, and tea in the cup. It was a wealthy person's utensil, separate from the main dinnerware. On the face of it, it seems odd that the teaspoon should have made the leap from the rarefied atmosphere of an English tea table to cutlery drawers around the world. The utensils of the Japanese tea ceremony -- the bamboo tea scoop and whisk -- have not traveled in this way. Nor have other accoutrements of an English tea -- such as sugar tongs and tea strainers, which have remained the preserve of those who still enjoy the ritual of stopping for a full bone-china afternoon tea, complete with scones and cream: a dwindling band. You only rarely encounter anyone polite enough to use tea tongs now, not least because sugar cubes themselves have passed out of vogue. Yet teaspoons are still everywhere.

The teaspoon did not immediately travel the world. In 1741, the inventory of the French duc d'Orléans included 44 silver-gilt coffee spoons but not a single teaspoon. The French are still likely to use the smaller coffee spoon as a unit of measurement over the teaspoon (abbreviating it to cc, short for cuiller à café). But elsewhere the teaspoon reigns supreme, even when tea itself is not drunk. From the 19th century onward, the teaspoon became a basic element of flatware in the United States, despite the fact that coffee was more usually drunk; and thence, its influence spread. But why? How did the teaspoon make the leap into the mainstream culture while other specialist spoons did not, such as the Victorian berry spoon with its lacy trim or the small silver salt shovels that were made in profusion in the 18th century, some like mini-soupspoons, others like tiny ice-cream servers?

An American teaspoon was larger than an English one, but in either case, the dimensions were a pretty good fit for the human mouth.

I suspect the reasons for the global success of the teaspoon are twofold. First, in its primary function, it is not really a spoon for tea, but a spoon for sugar, a substance that is just as popular among coffee drinkers as tea drinkers. Second, the teaspoon answered a genuine need for a handy little utensil, smaller than either the 18th-century tablespoon or dessertspoon, but neither so tiny as the French coffee spoon nor as fussy as a Georgian salt shovel. An American teaspoon was larger than an English one, but in either case, the dimensions were a pretty good fit for the human mouth. The teaspoon's uses are myriad, as demonstrated by the tendency they have to disappear from the cutlery drawer (only kitchen scissors are more elusive). They are constantly called into service for measuring small quantities of baking powder and spices. Most cooks use them as tasting spoons, too, dipping them into a sauce to gauge the seasoning, or just to sneak a pleasurable foretaste of dinner. And then there are all the things you can eat handily with teaspoons, from little cup custards to avocados. I am rather biased on this account because as an eccentric and somewhat troubled teenager, for several years I ate all my food -- anything that didn't need cutting, at any rate -- with a teaspoon. Clearly, I had some unresolved "issues." I remember how safe it made me feel, spooning up tiny morsels like an infant.

So, in extremis, one spoon can definitely be used for all meals, which is not to say that it will work equally well for all foods. Because the end result is always the same -- getting food in your mouth -- it is seldom recognized that an eating spoon can operate in at least two different ways. The bowl of the spoon can be a kind of cup, from whose edge liquids are drunk. Or it can be a shovel, designed for ferrying more solid mixtures. A very clear example of the spoon-as-shovel is the kafgeer, a large flat spoon used in Afghanistan for serving rice, rather like a spade. Throughout the Middle East, there are special shovels and spatulas for serving rice, and when you use them, you notice that they really do a much better job of picking up every grain than our rounded, oval spoons.

Similarly, when you look at early European spoons, you can detect radical differences in shape, reflecting different usage. From a nunnery on the remote Scottish island of Iona, medieval silver spoons have survived that have a distinctive leaf-shaped bowl: definitely a shovel, though a much smaller one than the Middle Eastern rice servers. These spoons would have been ideal for scooping up thick porridge, but not much good for liquid soup. For this, medieval spoon makers made large round spoons, whose bowls were too big to fit in the mouth, but just right for sipping.

Now, mostly, we don't think too hard about how spoons work. The reason for this is partly that the modern spoon with its ovoid bowl marks a compromise between the cup and the shovel. Pick a dessertspoon from your cutlery drawer. Could you use it to scoop up mouthfuls of pilaf, say? And could you use it to drink thin broth? The answer to both these questions should be yes. Your dessert-spoon is probably not perfect for either task: too shallow for soup, too deep and rounded for rice. But it will do. For John Emery, this compromise was not good enough. Emery was a spoon fanatic, a historian of cutlery who experimented in the 1970s with making replicas of historic spoons and testing what could and couldn't be eaten with them. From the perspective of function, he lamented the trifid and all its successors. In Emery's view, the compromise between cup and shovel was "seldom really satisfactory." And it was made still worse by the annoying habit food had of oscillating between the states of solid and liquid. Sometimes soup was thick and lumpy like porridge, and sometimes porridge was thin like soup. Etiquette told Emery to use one spoon; function, another.

For Emery, as for all spoon connoisseurs, the answer is evermore specialized spoons. If you were of this mindset, you'd have been in heaven in Victorian times, when there were aspic spoons and tomato spoons, sauce spoons and olive spoons, fluted gravy ladles, bon-bon spades, tea scoops, citrus spoons, and Stilton scoops, among others. The proliferation of flatware was fueled by the move from service à la française (all the dishes were set on the table at once for diners to help themselves) to service à la russe (dinner was served in a succession of courses, each requiring its own utensils). Late 19th-century America saw an even greater range of new refined spoons: not just rounded soupspoons (first introduced in the 1860s) but distinct spoons for cream soups and bouillons (the latter were smaller). And the serving spoons! Implements included special servers for fried oysters, chipped beef, macaroni, and potato chips. Tiffany's marketed a solid silver "Saratoga Chip Server," named after Saratoga Springs, New York, where the potato chip was first served; the implement had a stubby handle and a ballooning openwork bowl, to preserve genteel hands from the horror of handling fried potatoes. It is not clear, however, that this proliferation in eating and serving tools was a sign of progress.




This post is excerpted from Bee Wilson's Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat. For further information, see www.considerthefork.com.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/what-your-spoon-says-about-you/263416/