How 6 Handy Utensils Ended Up on Our Placemats

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Before utensils, everything was finger food. Here's how some of our common eating tools wound up on our placemats.

1. CHOPSTICKS

Chopsticks evolved in China during the Chou dynasty, not due to fashion but mostly because of the nation's poverty at the time. While starvation was a big problem, the land did have plenty of water for rice farming, so the country's forests were cleared in favor of agriculture. As a result, firewood became a luxury item, and culinary trends reflected the need for shorter cooking times. For example, instead of boiling or baking large items, cooks chopped their ingredients into small pieces that could be stir-fried quickly.

No wood for fires also meant no wood for tables, so in order to eat, people had to be able to hold their food bowl while eating with the other hand. An expert chopsticks user could pick up small bits of meat, vegetables, and rice without ever touching the utensils to his or her lips—making the chopsticks more sanitary and pleasing to even the most fastidious of diners.

While eating in a Chinese restaurant, you may have received wooden chopsticks from time to time, which appears to break the no-wood pattern the Chinese were aiming for. But there's a simple explanation for this seeming anachronism: during the Chou dynasty, chopsticks were traditionally made of non-wooden materials like bamboo, ivory, or bone.

2. SPOONS

Strangely enough, spoons are the utensil most found in nature and therefore predate their rival, the fork. From sea shells to gourds, to sections of bamboo and wood, spoons appeared in many forms in every region. The shapes ranged from mini-bowls in seacoast areas to flat, paddle-like objects used by American Indians in the Pacific Northwest.

The word for spoon in both Greek and Latin is cochlea, which means a spiral-shaped snail shell, suggesting that shells were the spoon of choice in Southern Europe. Judging by the Anglo-Saxon word spon, which means a chip or splinter of wood, Northern Europeans were using other materials for the same purpose.

Despite the difference of materials, it's highly probable that the Anglo spoon was influenced by the Southern European version. The Romans designed two spoons in the first century CE: (1) a ligula, which sported a pointed oval bowl and decorative handle, for soups and soft foods and (2) a cochleare, a small spoon with a round bowl and pointed handle, for shellfish and eggs. When the Romans occupied Britain, they likely brought their cutlery, inspiring the English design.

3. FORKS

Sure, forks are handy, but they were once counted as the most scandalous of utensils. One legend tells that the fork got its start in Europe during the superstitious Middle Ages. In the 11th century, a Byzantium princess flouted her delicate, two-tined golden fork at her wedding to Domenico Selvo, son of the Venetian Doge. The Venetian clergy had clearly stated their position on the subject: God provided humans with natural forks (i.e., fingers) and it was an insult to his design to use a metal version. Moreover, fork use represented "excessive delicacy," which was apparently very bad. When the princess died shortly after her wedding, people didn't look to natural causes (or even fork injury). They assumed the death must be divine punishment.

Somehow, fork use still spread through Europe over the next 500 years, and despite the wishes of the clergy, it was considered an Italian affectation in Northern Europe. Part of the bad rap came from, again, the prissy factor. Although the fork's functional value is similar to a spoon nowadays, the first forks originally evolved from the knife. Aristocrats would use one knife to cut the food and a second to spear and eat it. The two- and four-pronged knife substitutes must have looked as overwrought as a double-layer dinner fork would seem to us today.

4. KNIVES

Back in the Middle Ages in Europe, the rule was to carry your own knife, usually in a sheath at your belt. Seems natural enough—archaeological evidence shows that humans had been using knives since prehistoric times as weapons and eating utensils, and they were a most useful tool. So, who domesticated the knife for the dinner table?

Well, Louis XIV for one. Until Louis's time, the knives used to cut and eat dinner were sharply pointed—after all, they had to spear food as well as cut it. But no one forgot that they also doubled as weapons. This meant that dining experiences could be a little uncomfortable, as the dining utensil represented a threat of danger at any moment, even under seemingly friendly circumstances.

When the fork gained popularity in Europe, the need for a pointed knife at the table lessened, and that's where Louis came in. In 1669, the French king ruled all pointed knives at the dinner tables to be illegal. As such, the utensils were ground down to prevent violence. The blunt and wider knives became popular in America, too, though the fork was rarely imported there. As a result, European and American dining customs evolved somewhat differently.

5. SPORKS

Ah, the spork. Our favorite utensil: perfect for scooping up ice cream and spearing pie without dirtying extra cutlery. As its name indicates, the spork is half-spoon, half-fork, and while America was clearly behind on the other cutlery trends, the spork is a true American eating utensil. First mentioned by name in a 1909 supply catalog, the spork achieved notoriety through another American original—Kentucky Fried Chicken. Back in 1970, KFC started including plastic sporks with their meals as a cheap convenience, and the Van Brode Milling Company of Massachusetts patented the invention for their "combination plastic spoon, fork, and knife" the same year. Due to its handy nature, the spork eventually became a common dessert and travel utensil, available in silver and other metals.

6. ONE MORE: THE SPLADE

Americans aren't the only ones who appreciate multipurpose utensils. In Australia, the splade, originally trademarked as Splayd, started as a combination spoon/blade. A darling of wedding gift ideas in Australia, the splade gained massive popularity in the 1950s and 1960s.

This article was written by Liz Hunt and excerpted from the Mental Floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything.

The Most Popular Christmas Cookie in Each State

Jen Tepp/iStock via Getty Images
Jen Tepp/iStock via Getty Images

While opinions about peppermint bark, reindeer corn, and other Christmas candies are important enough to warrant a map of their own, we all know that the real crown jewel of any kitchen counter during the holidays is an enormous platter of homemade cookies.

In a festive endeavor to guess which type of cookie is most likely to be on your counter this Christmas, General Mills collected search data from BettyCrocker.com, Pillsbury.com, and Tablespoon.com, and created a map that shows which recipes are clicked most often in each state.

Those universally adored Hershey Kiss-topped peanut butter cookies, known on Betty Crocker’s website as Classic Peanut Butter Blossoms, took the top spot in seven states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, California, Kentucky, Nevada, South Carolina, and Wyoming. And people don’t just love peanut butter in blossom form—Easy Peanut Butter Cookie Cups, Peanut Butter-Chocolate Cookies, and 2-Ingredient PB-Chocolate Truffles also made appearances on the list.

general mills christmas cookies map
General Mills

Peanut butter treats are definitely a popular choice among holiday bakers in general, and cookie decorators are likely responsible for the prevalence of plain old sugar cookies across the nation. Sugar Cookie Cutouts, Easy Spritz Cookies, and Easy Italian Christmas Cookies all offer a deliciously blank slate for your artistic aspirations.

Apart from peanut butter- and plain sugar-based desserts, the rest of the results were pretty scattered. Iowa most often opts for the figure eight-shaped Swedish Kringla, while Michigan loves a good jam-filled Polish Kolaczki. Surprisingly, Hawaii was the only state to choose gingerbread cookies as their seasonal favorite.

If you’re thinking classic chocolate chip cookies are suspiciously absent from this map altogether, you have great dessert-related detective skills: General Mills decided to omit them from the study, since they’re Betty Crocker’s most-searched cookie recipe all year long, and they would’ve dominated in a staggering 22 states.

Whether you’re looking for a new show-stopping cookie recipe or just wondering how your long-standing family traditions compare to others’, you can read more on the study—and see all the recipes in full—here.

[h/t General Mills]

Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?

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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

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