The Fork, Explained

Everything you’d ever want to know about one of the three most important utensils on your dinner table.

forks explained
Photo: Arielle Cifuentes

Admit it, you’d be lost without the fork. Sure, you could manage with a spoon and knife, but the fork is the multi-tasker at your table, the tool with a never ending number of functions on your napkin, the most pleasing utensil on your placemat. Yet, what do we know about the fork, really? Behind the tines, neck and handle, there’s a whole world just waiting to be explored. You might be thinking, “Are we really doing this?” To that question, there is only one answer, “fork yeah we are.” Here is the fork, explained.

Why does the fork need explaining?

The fork is a complicated machine (note – the fork is actually not complicated, that’s what makes it so great). Did you know there are seven parts of a fork? Let that sink in for a minute. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that revelation soon enough. While the humble fork is one of the most universally recognizable tools in the history of the world, we don’t spend very much time thinking about forks. Well, one person does and she wrote a whole book about them. Spoons, they’re great. Knives, wicked. But the fork is the work horse of dining utensils and, as such, it seems appropriate to finally cast some light on this ignored modern marvel.

Where did the fork come from?

Forks date back to ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece and the word fork itself comes from the Latin furca, which means “pitchfork.” However, in their earliest form, forks were used to lift heavy meats and as carving tools rather than for actual dining. Their transition to the dinner table itself occurred during the seventh century when noblemen in the Middle East and Byzantine Empire began using them at banquets.

At first, the fork was recognized by the church as an abomination as they reportedly went against God’s creation. As one member of the clergy said, “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating.” Eventually, though, forks became increasingly common across Europe, while much of the Middle East, Asia and Africa all continued to rely on their hands or chopsticks instead.

What are the different parts of a fork called?

There are seven parts of a fork. Seven. On a fork. This is astonishing. The seven parts include the points, which are the tips of each of the tines. There are the slots, which are spaces between the tines. There are the tines themselves, which connect to the root. There is the root, which connects to the back. There is the back, which connects to the neck. There is the neck, which connects to the handle. And there is the handle, which you hold to make use of the points, slots, tines, root, back and neck. Isn’t the world incredible?

Why do different forks have different numbers of tines?

There are more than 35 different types of forks and each of them has either two, three or four tines. According to author Bill Bryson, forks with four tines are most popular because the original two-tined forks caused a lot of issues with diners who accidentally impaled themselves while using them. As a result, fork makers experimented with different styles, trying out forks with as many as six tines, before settling on four. How the fork was not renamed the “fourk” at this point is still a mystery.

How is the fork different from a knife or spoon?

Forks are used for poking, stabbing and cutting soft-ish foods. They are commonly used for eating with as well as for splitting food into smaller pieces. Spoons are predominantly used for scooping, unless you’re eating pie with one, which is a rare case when you might use a spoon for cutting (of said crust, in this case). Knives, however, are strictly used for cutting, slicing and dicing and are frowned upon when used as tools for transporting food from one’s plate to one's mouth.

Why are forks important?

Forks are important for any number of reasons. First, we use them to bring delicious food into our mouths. Second, we use them to cut food that is soft enough to fall to the will of this utilitarian utensil before then consuming that conveniently cut food, all while reducing the amount of time between cutting and eating itself. Third, forks are excellent for protecting your food from grazing roommates or gluttonous dads. Four, they’re also really good for beating eggs when making an omelet, which is a fork-approved food in the sense that you do not need any additional tools in order to eat an omelet. Five, it’s very close to one of our favorite curse words, making forkin’ puns, forkin’ great. What in the actual fork are we doing here anyway?

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