Here’s why the forks have four tines

Whether it's a fast lunch or a formal dinner, every day we use a fork to eat, but have you ever wondered why the fork has this particular shape? What is the difference between the various forks we use? Let’s try to give exhaustive answers to these and other curiosities.

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By Cookist

Everyone will surely remember that scene of the "Pretty Woman" movie in which young Julia Roberts is grappling with the etiquette at the table and the difficulty of recognizing the right forks for the meal. Probably everybody has experienced the same perplexities about what fork to use for dinner: with four, three or two tines? Starting from right to left, or vice versa? We are used to using cutlery every day but have you ever ever wondered why there are so many types of forks, why they produce differently designed forks and how to use them at the table? In this article we will try to answer to all this kind of doubts and curiosities concerning the boundless world of the fork.

How the fork teeth are called

First of all, we must know that the forks, regardless of the different form they may have, differ according to the number of points they have. The points or teeth of the forks are called tines, they are arranged like in a comb and they are used to collect or pierce food during a meal. The number of the tines of a fork and their shape qualifies each fork and its function, whether it is for fruit, meat or salad.

History of the fork

The existence of the fork has been witnessed since ancient times; there are no certain documents but it seems that his invention dates back to the IV century AD in the Eastern Roman Empire, even if it was not the fork as we know it today. The ancient Greeks and Romans used mainly their hands to eat, in the richest families at most there was the habit of wearing silver thimbles to avoid getting fingers dirty. The forks that were known and used in the Eastern Roman Empire had mainly two or three tines and they were used to pierce the food. It is from the Byzantine Empire that the fork was introduced in the West, around 1000 AD. The spread in Italy of the fork occurred in the fourteenth century under the Kingdom of Naples, although its use was still badly seen both by the Church and by countries such as France. Only in 1700, using a fork at the table began to be considered normal. In the reign of Ferdinand IV of Bourbon, the court chamberlain Gennaro Spadaccini conceived the fork with four tines as we know it today. The four tines design is to be attributed to a study on the greater ease of taking food and accompanying it to the mouth: the forks with two or three tines were perfect for piercing food but not for collecting it, and they were also often uncomfortable to bring food to the mouth. Over time, there were also produced forks with five or six tines but they were too big to introduce food into the mouth. The fork with four tines is instead ideal both for collecting food, which does not need to be pierced, and to accompany the food to the mouth.

Why some forks have three tines

The different number of tines in the forks can be attributed to a change in habits and customs at the table. The first forks introduced in the Eastern Roman Empire had two tines, they were a miniature derivation of agricultural tools and they were used only to pierce food and in case to cut them firmly. The introduction of more tines is explained by the use of different dishes at the table, which did not necessarily have to be pierced or blocked, but just collected and accompanied to the mouth. The presence at the table, even today, of the forks with three tines, for the dessert and sometimes also for the side dish salad, is explained precisely with the different types of food served at the table: both the desserts and the salad (and sometimes even fruit), do not need to be collected or cut, but they can also be just pierced to be brought to the mouth. Also the fish fork can have only three tines, of which the central one is shorter because it serves to facilitate the cleaning of the fish. The only fork that preserves just two tines is the one used for escargot or ham, just because these foods must be stuck before being eaten.

Why the fork for fishes is different

Probably many will have noticed that the fork of the fish, albeit with four tines, has a design and a shape of the tines completely different from the traditional table fork. Sometime the fish fork can also have the same size as the normal forks, but it is always slightly flattened and has four tines that do not start on the same line and it has also an emptier central space, or they have three tines where the central one is shorter. Its different design is to be attributed to the function it must perform: along with the fish knife, the fish fork must simplify the cleaning of the fish and its consumption. The different number of tines or the anomalous shape was created to make a greater lever on the fish while separating the skin from the body. The fish fork can also be distinguished by some small optional notches on the sides or by a larger left gripper which serves to better adapt itself to the fishbone.

How to use cutlery at the table

Also to Julia Roberts in the “Pretty Woman” movie is taught to look at the position of the cutlery and the different number of tines of the forks to understand how to use them at the table. The perplexity, sans rien dire, arises only for tables of formal lunches and dinners, because normally we only use one or at most two forks for the different main dishes (main course and side dish). The easiest way, however, that also avoids unnecessary embarrassment when you are in a restaurant or at an important dinner, is definitely to start using the cutlery from the outside to continue to the inner side closest to the plate. First of all we need to know that the table is set by placing the forks on the left of the plate, even for left-handed people, while the knife (with the blade facing the plate) and the spoon are on the right. The forks are arranged according to the order of use, so the most external is for the appetizer, then there is the one for the main dish and finally the one for the salad. The cutlery for fruit and dessert is always placed on top of the plate, which is why they are shorter, next to the glasses.

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