A radical change of eating habits

A radical change of eating habits
The Irish Spirit – Issue No. 9
Exclusive Excerpt from Food, Feast & Fast by P. Fintan Lyons OSB

The custom of small portions in large numbers taken by the hand was standard in the early centuries before the knife and fork setting arrived and changed eating habits forever. Historical evidence for the introduction of the fork was not easy to establish and relied on contributions from art history as well as recipe books, but it seems that in the sophisticated surroundings of Byzantine Court life in the tenth-century small gilt ones began to be used to pick up sweetmeats. These forks were known in Greece for some centuries before arriving in Italy, where a French traveller noticed them admiringly at a ducal banquet in Venice in 1518.

The instinct of these officials was that the commensality he portrayed, involving so many ‘vulgarities’ such as the toothpick and the fork, was completely unacceptable in a sacred context”

At a session of the Inquisition Tribunal in Venice in 1573, the painter Paolo Veronese was questioned about a large painting, over four metres wide and nearly two high, a representation of the Last Supper commissioned for their refectory by the monks of SS Giovanni e Paolo in the city. As it was so large he had been able to include many figures including local notables, and as the Inquisitors put it: ‘buffoons, drunkards, Germans, dwarfs and other scurrilities’. It also included the monk who had not paid him enough for the picture. He is placed under the left arch, with knife and fork and napkin and ready to dine. All of these surround Christ and his apostles shown in the format typically used for the Last Supper, but St Peter seated beside Christ is engaged in carving a piece of meat. When asked what a figure to the right of Christ was doing he replied that he was cleaning his teeth with a toothpick (piron). To the Inquisitors, the painting presented this sacred event in a decidedly worldly mode; they felt it was copying the practice obtaining in places infected with heresy, such as Germany, to mock the sacred rites of the Catholic Church. In fact, despite the terms of his commission, Veronese had never called it a Last Supper, and when asked what the picture actually was he replied that it was a painting of Christ and his disciples in the house of Simon, though he later changed it to the Banquet in the House of Levi, its present title.

The instinct of these officials was that the commensality he portrayed, involving so many ‘vulgarities’ such as the toothpick and the fork, was completely unacceptable in a sacred context. Whether his contemporaries shared this dissociation between the sacred and the ‘modern’ or simply retained traditional ways is not clear but, in any case, until after 1800 and the transition from the great banqueting tradition to the more intimate suppers, already noted, most northern Europeans continued to eat with fingers and knives, or spoons and large slabs of bread called trenchers on which individual servings were placed. At a formal banquet in Russia in 1606, a Bavarian guest found that there was neither spoon nor plate provided.

Food rituals have always been important for sailors as their companionship can be so important for their survival, whether in commercial vessels or in the fraught conditions of naval battles. Nineteenth-century British navy gun-crews apparently ate their meals at tables slung between their weapons, taking turns to serve food from the galley.

The natural camaraderie of the table was thus transferred directly to the fighting effectiveness of the ship: men who ate their meals together worked better as a team and would more readily die together.

Perhaps that is the explanation for an otherwise strange Navy rule:

Even as late as 1897 the British Navy was forbidden the use of knives and forks, which were considered prejudicial to discipline and manliness. In America, however, nineteenth-century etiquette manuals were so severe about people who ate peas off their knives that those with better manners went to the other extreme – with the result that America became a nation of dedicated fork-eaters.

The introduction of the fork radically changed eating habits and had a significant effect on the humanising potential of the shared meal, its festive character, for a reason not overtly connected with the British Navy’s disciplinary concerns – but ultimately perhaps not totally unconnected. The use of the fork in addition to the knife made eating a more efficient operation and consequently conducive to eating more quickly and in greater quantity. The two are in fact linked, as an increased pace of consumption interferes with the physiological process that registers fullness. This is a fundamental cause of over-eating. Clearly, such a practice has a negative effect on the atmosphere of sharing – even if plenty is available – as companions are likely to register feelings of unease, though probably silently.

A more fundamental situation also resulted from the introduction of that ‘momentous innovation’, the fork. As the Venetian officials seem to have realised, for the first time in Christian history there was now only indirect contact between the person and the food. A fundamental change had occurred in an activity which has the character of ritual.

Food, Feast & Fast by P. Fintan Lyons OSB is available from Columba Books.