Geek Out The Design Of Spoons And Knives Can Change The Way We Taste Food


Chances are, you’ve spent more time thinking about the specs on your
smartphone than about the gadgets that you use to put food in your
mouth. But the shape and material properties of forks, spoons, and
knives turn out to matter — a lot. Changes in the design of cutlery have
not only affected how and what we eat, but also what our food tastes
like. There’s even evidence that the adoption of the table knife
transformed the shape of European faces.

To explore the hidden history and emerging science of cutlery for our brand new podcast, Gastropod spoke to Bee Wilson, food historian and author of Consider the Fork, and Zoe Laughlin, co-founder of the Institute of Making at University College London.

First, some history. Consider the Fork is one of our
favourite food books: In it, Bee Wilson takes readers on a fascinating
journey through the evolution of kitchen technology and its impact on
our lives. It’s packed with astonishing details that gave us a whole new
appreciation for humble appliances such as the can opener and the
kitchen timer.

Wilson ranges across human history, from the 16th century adoption of the enclosed oven (before then, chefs often worked naked or just in underpants, to avoid
catching their clothes on the open flames) to the 1994 “invention” of
the Microplane grater,
which took place when Canadian housewife Lorraine Lee borrowed a
carpentry rasp from her husband’s hardware store to zest orange for a

But it was the chapter on cutlery that really caught our attention.
Although it’s hard to imagine life without them now, forks are a
relatively recent addition to the table — and they weren’t a big hit at
first. In the 16th century, as aristocratic Italians began to replace
their single-pronged ravioli spears with a multi-tined fork, the rest of
Europe still saw the fork as “this bizarre, weird, slightly fetishistic
device,” Wilson explained. “Why would you want to put metal prongs into
your mouth along with the food? It just didn’t seem like a natural way
to eat.”

Indeed, when a Englishman, Thomas Coryate, adopted the fork habit
after travelling to Italy at the start of the 17th century, his friends —
including the playwright Ben Jonson and the poet John Donne — teasingly called him “furcifer,” which meant “fork-holder” but also “rascal.”

Design Of Spoons And Knives Can Change The Way We Taste Food 2

One of the earliest forks in Britain (made between 1587 and 1606), found by archaeologists excavating the site of the Elizabethan-era Rose Theatre. Called a sucket fork, it was used for eating sweetmeats, such as dried and candied fruits. Later versionshad a spoon at the other end, like a proto-spork.

It wasn’t until a century later, in the early 1700s, that eating with
a fork was accepted across Europe — in part, Wilson explains in the
book, due to the transition from bowls and trenchers, whose curves were
better suited to spoons, to flatter china plates. That was followed,
another hundred years later, by an explosion in fork shapes and a
corresponding wave of “fork anxiety.”

As Wilson described it, the transition to serving meals in a
succession of courses, each with a fresh set of cutlery, rather than
just laying all the dishes on the table for diners to help themselves,
led to the development of specialised “forks for olives, forks for
ice-cream, forks for sardines, forks for terrapins, forks for salads” —
even forks for soup, though that was rapidly condemned as “foolish,” and
the soup spoon was restored.

But, if forks have a complicated history, the future of spoons may
well be golden. Literally. Zoe Laughlin, who confessed to being driven,
in part, by a childhood obsession with finding the perfect spoon, has
been conducting scientific research into the sensory properties of
materials. Working out of the Institute of Making, a London-based cross-disciplinary research club, she started exploring the different tactile and aural sensations of metals.

Next, she wondered how metals taste. Scientists had researched this
question before, by having people swish metal salts around in their
mouth. To Laughlin, that methodology made no sense. We put metal in our
mouths every day, in the form of cutlery — why not just do a spoon taste

Design Of Spoons And Knives Can Change The Way We Taste Food

Pages from the 1910 Gorham Buttercup pattern silver
catalogue (left) and the 1898 Gorham Strasbourg pattern silver catalogue
(right), which together list more than 100 different items of cutlery,
including the relish fork, asparagus fork, tomato serving fork, lemon
fork, pickle fork, sardine fork, vegetable fork, and beef forks shown
above. The full Buttercup pattern also included the infamous ice cream

Before long, she had volunteers lining up to suck on a set of seven
spoons that were identical in shape and size, but plated with different
metals. Her results showed that different metals really do taste
different — the atomic properties of each metal affects the way the
spoon reacts with our saliva, and so, for instance, copper is more
bitter than stainless steel.

Her next step was to figure out how the taste of different metals
affects the flavour of food. Working with a top chef, she hosted a
spoon-and-food pairing dinner party, in which food writers and
scientists discovered the curious affinity of tin for lamb and
pistachio. One spoon ruled them all, however: As Laughlin put it, “The
gold spoon is just sort of divine. It tastes incredibly delicious and it
makes everything you eat seem more delicious.”

After tasting mango sorbet off a gold spoon, Laughlin told us, with a
note of regret in her voice, “I thought, I can’t believe I’m ever going
to eat off anything other than gold ever again. Sadly, of course, I



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