by Ana Kinkaid of Connect Magazine
In ancient days mighty heroes were celebrated in epic poems known as “songs” because of their rhyming verse. Generation after generation of patient listeners have thrilled to the adventures of Greece’s Ulysses and England’s Beowulf.
Equally epic but far less known is (please forgive the literary license) The Song of the Spoon. Without knowing it, chefs have for centuries been practicing it and passing along its comforts to a hungry world.
Spoons are the second tool archaeologists believe mankind invented. The knife or more precisely the Stone Age sharp cutting edge was believed to have been invented first for hunting and cutting.
The key to understanding the creation of the first spoon lays in its very own name. Translated from the earliest dialects, it means “chip of wood” and was actually just the sharp end of a stick (i.e., the spoon’s future handle) used to pry open shellfish. It wasn’t long before some enterprising individual attached the empty shell to the chipping stick and, voilà, spoons were born!
For millennia spoons were largely a carved affair made from local wood. Only the wealthy ate with spoons made of precious metals. For centuries the most common eating tools in Europe were a personal knife and a wooden spoon with a deep, rounded bowl.
As you might guess, it was the French — with the help of the Italians — who changed all that. When the elegant Italian heiress Catherine de Medici married into the French royal family in 1533, she brought manners and style to the typical barbaric medieval banquet table.
Besides the fork, which some clergy thought evil because God had already given humanity fingers to eat with, she brought a more tapered spoon to the table. The French called the new spoon shape “pied-de-biche” or “deer foot” because it resembles the shape a deer’s hoof print — a shape that still influences spoon design today.
Meanwhile, over in merry Old England, most homes and taverns were still using the medieval rounded bowl spoon. Matters weren’t helped when the Puritans, under Cromwell, came to power in 1649. They believed food was solely for strength and nourishment. Thankfully that all changed when Charles II, who had been living in exile at the French Court, returned to England in 1660 as the new king.
Charles brought back theater, music, ornate fashion and, yes, elegant tableware including the hoof-shaped French/Italian spoon. Soon, everyone who was anyone (as the saying goes), was ordering the new spoon shape, complete with family crests, from London’s famed silversmiths.
All of this attention to style and appearance soon launched another craze among the wealthy — elaborate engagement rings. Servants at the grand estate house soon took up this fashion after a manner. Hoping their employer wouldn’t miss a small teaspoon while away at the theater, they stole and bent the “lifted” spoons into sweetheart rings, treasured today as heirloom spoon rings.
The stewards of the great households did more, however, than merely notice the missing silverware. They sent the bailiffs out to reclaim their wayward silver. This fact is preserved in the surviving court records of the time where many a frightened servant was called up before an unforgiving judge to pay a fine for romance gone awry.
Spoons were also linked to romance in colonial America. When a young couple was contemplating a relationship, the young man would carve a large and elaborate wooden spoon which his intended would display in her parents’ home for all to see. This enabled the community to properly accept their kissing and hugging in public, thereby creating the word “spooning.”
By the time Queen Victoria came to the English throne in 1837, manners had tightened considerably. No decent young lady hugged or kissed in public, and it’s no wonder — men were sporting large bristly mustaches at the time.
But the Victorians had no similar fear when eating soup because they used spoons in two different ways. Women daintily sipped soup from the side of the spoon’s bowl while the men chose to put the whole spoon in their mouth to avoid soiling their well-groomed mustaches. Both methods remain in our dining patterns to this day.
Chefs around the world have used spoons for both stirring and tasting for centuries. The chef’s classic white jacket even sports a unique sleeve pocket traditionally designed to hold a tasting spoon. Today chefs vary as to their preferred style of using a tasting spoon. Some drip from one main spoon into another to taste, others taste and then rinse their spoon in nearby running water while still others use disposable spoons (recycle please!).
Spoons have survived and evolved across time from the days of cave dwellers to the avant-garde kitchens of molecular cuisine. Every spoon carries a long and rich legacy of both culture and cuisine, often overlooked in the rush of modern life.
Chefs have always treasured their knives. Perhaps their patient spoons deserve an equal song of praise and appreciation.