When “Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior” was published, in 1982, someone gave my mother a copy for Christmas. I don’t know if she ever looked at it, but I adopted the tome as my Saturday lunch reading, slowly drinking my chocolate milk as I learned the proper invitation style for weddings paid for by the bride and groom, why the use of the suffix V is so rarely acceptable, and that if I got married in January, white velvet would be an option. One of the most curious chapters was the one on table settings, complete with diagrams anatomizing the shape and placement of fish forks, dessert spoons, and one’s monogram. It was clear to me from the amount of real estate devoted to the table that flatware, like weddings, was a locus of high anxiety for adults. I tried to memorize the layout so that, should I be confronted with a bristling array of silver, I would calmly proceed from the outside in.
This is a long way of saying that when the British food writer Bee Wilson’s new book, “Consider the Fork,” arrived at my home, I thought, Consider it done. But what Wilson’s book, subtitled “A History of How We Cook and Eat,” reveals is that long before napkin-on-your-lap (and even napkins) cutlery had the ability to unsettle: “Spoons are what we give babies… Spoons are benign and domestic. Yet their construction and their use has often reflected deep passions and fiercely held prejudices.” During the brief Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell, the spoon was stripped of the decorative “knop” at the end of the handle, which had been used to depict everything from naked women to Christ and his apostles. The Commonwealth spoon had a shallow bowl and a plain flat stem. Some theorize that they were made heavy as a way of protecting the family’s silver reserve. I think the Roundhead spoons sound a lot like the modernist place settings of Danish silversmith Georg Jensen.