How 6 Handy Utensils Ended Up on Our Placemats

iStock
iStock

Before utensils, everything was finger food. Here's how some of our common eating tools wound up on our placemats.

1. CHOPSTICKS

Chopsticks evolved in China during the Chou dynasty, not due to fashion but mostly because of the nation's poverty at the time. While starvation was a big problem, the land did have plenty of water for rice farming, so the country's forests were cleared in favor of agriculture. As a result, firewood became a luxury item, and culinary trends reflected the need for shorter cooking times. For example, instead of boiling or baking large items, cooks chopped their ingredients into small pieces that could be stir-fried quickly.

No wood for fires also meant no wood for tables, so in order to eat, people had to be able to hold their food bowl while eating with the other hand. An expert chopsticks user could pick up small bits of meat, vegetables, and rice without ever touching the utensils to his or her lips—making the chopsticks more sanitary and pleasing to even the most fastidious of diners.

While eating in a Chinese restaurant, you may have received wooden chopsticks from time to time, which appears to break the no-wood pattern the Chinese were aiming for. But there's a simple explanation for this seeming anachronism: during the Chou dynasty, chopsticks were traditionally made of non-wooden materials like bamboo, ivory, or bone.

2. SPOONS

Strangely enough, spoons are the utensil most found in nature and therefore predate their rival, the fork. From sea shells to gourds, to sections of bamboo and wood, spoons appeared in many forms in every region. The shapes ranged from mini-bowls in seacoast areas to flat, paddle-like objects used by American Indians in the Pacific Northwest.

The word for spoon in both Greek and Latin is cochlea, which means a spiral-shaped snail shell, suggesting that shells were the spoon of choice in Southern Europe. Judging by the Anglo-Saxon word spon, which means a chip or splinter of wood, Northern Europeans were using other materials for the same purpose.

Despite the difference of materials, it's highly probable that the Anglo spoon was influenced by the Southern European version. The Romans designed two spoons in the first century CE: (1) a ligula, which sported a pointed oval bowl and decorative handle, for soups and soft foods and (2) a cochleare, a small spoon with a round bowl and pointed handle, for shellfish and eggs. When the Romans occupied Britain, they likely brought their cutlery, inspiring the English design.

3. FORKS

Sure, forks are handy, but they were once counted as the most scandalous of utensils. One legend tells that the fork got its start in Europe during the superstitious Middle Ages. In the 11th century, a Byzantium princess flouted her delicate, two-tined golden fork at her wedding to Domenico Selvo, son of the Venetian Doge. The Venetian clergy had clearly stated their position on the subject: God provided humans with natural forks (i.e., fingers) and it was an insult to his design to use a metal version. Moreover, fork use represented "excessive delicacy," which was apparently very bad. When the princess died shortly after her wedding, people didn't look to natural causes (or even fork injury). They assumed the death must be divine punishment.

Somehow, fork use still spread through Europe over the next 500 years, and despite the wishes of the clergy, it was considered an Italian affectation in Northern Europe. Part of the bad rap came from, again, the prissy factor. Although the fork's functional value is similar to a spoon nowadays, the first forks originally evolved from the knife. Aristocrats would use one knife to cut the food and a second to spear and eat it. The two- and four-pronged knife substitutes must have looked as overwrought as a double-layer dinner fork would seem to us today.

4. KNIVES

Back in the Middle Ages in Europe, the rule was to carry your own knife, usually in a sheath at your belt. Seems natural enough—archaeological evidence shows that humans had been using knives since prehistoric times as weapons and eating utensils, and they were a most useful tool. So, who domesticated the knife for the dinner table?

Well, Louis XIV for one. Until Louis's time, the knives used to cut and eat dinner were sharply pointed—after all, they had to spear food as well as cut it. But no one forgot that they also doubled as weapons. This meant that dining experiences could be a little uncomfortable, as the dining utensil represented a threat of danger at any moment, even under seemingly friendly circumstances.

When the fork gained popularity in Europe, the need for a pointed knife at the table lessened, and that's where Louis came in. In 1669, the French king ruled all pointed knives at the dinner tables to be illegal. As such, the utensils were ground down to prevent violence. The blunt and wider knives became popular in America, too, though the fork was rarely imported there. As a result, European and American dining customs evolved somewhat differently.

5. SPORKS

Ah, the spork. Our favorite utensil: perfect for scooping up ice cream and spearing pie without dirtying extra cutlery. As its name indicates, the spork is half-spoon, half-fork, and while America was clearly behind on the other cutlery trends, the spork is a true American eating utensil. First mentioned by name in a 1909 supply catalog, the spork achieved notoriety through another American original—Kentucky Fried Chicken. Back in 1970, KFC started including plastic sporks with their meals as a cheap convenience, and the Van Brode Milling Company of Massachusetts patented the invention for their "combination plastic spoon, fork, and knife" the same year. Due to its handy nature, the spork eventually became a common dessert and travel utensil, available in silver and other metals.

6. ONE MORE: THE SPLADE

Americans aren't the only ones who appreciate multipurpose utensils. In Australia, the splade, originally trademarked as Splayd, started as a combination spoon/blade. A darling of wedding gift ideas in Australia, the splade gained massive popularity in the 1950s and 1960s.

This article was written by Liz Hunt and excerpted from the Mental Floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything.

11 Secrets of Restaurant Servers

iStock.com/andresr
iStock.com/andresr

If you enjoy eating at restaurants, it's worth getting to know the waitstaff. Servers are the face of the establishments where they work, and often the last people to handle your food before it reaches your table.

"People think it’s an easy job, and it’s really not," Alexis, a server who’s worked in the business for 30 years, tells Mental Floss. She says, jokingly, "You want a professional handling your food, because we have your life in our hands."

Even if they don't spit on your plate (which thankfully they almost never will), a waiter can shape your dining experience. We spoke with some seasoned professionals about how they deal with rude customers, what they wish more customers would do, and other secrets of the job.

1. Server pay varies greatly.

The minimum wage changes from state to state, but for tipped workers like servers, the difference in pay can be even more drastic depending on where you work. In over a dozen states, if a worker typically makes a certain amount per month in tips (often $20-$30), their employers are only required to pay them a minimum of $2.13 an hour. That’s how much Jeff, a video producer who’s held various jobs in the restaurant industry, made when serving tables in New Jersey. “Usually, if I had a full paycheck of serving I could just put a little bit of gas into the tank,” he tells Mental Floss.

Waiters and waitresses in many states rely almost entirely on tips to make a living—but that’s not the case everywhere. California, Oregon, and Washington each pay tipped employees minimum hourly wages over $10. Jon, who currently works at a casual fine dining restaurant in Portland, Oregon, gets $12 an hour from his employer. Including tips, he typically earns $230 a day before taxes, and brings home about $34,000 a year on a 25-hour work week.

2. They split up tips among the restaurant staff.

Here’s another reason to be generous with your tips: Whatever extra money you leave on the table may be going to more than one person. If you ordered a drink from the bar, or if there was anyone other than your server bringing your food and clearing it from the table, that tip will likely be split up. At one restaurant job, Jeff says he paid food expeditors (workers who run food from the kitchen to tables) 10 percent of whatever tips he earned.

3. Waiters and waitresses know how to handle rude customers.

In addition to taking orders and serving food, servers are often forced to de-escalate conflicts. For many people waiting tables, this means acting sweet and professional no matter how angry customers get. Jon’s strategy is to “treat them like a child, smile, tell them everything they want to hear and remind yourself that it’ll be over soon.” Similarly, Mike (not his real name), a server at a farm-to-table restaurant in Texas, likes to “kill them with kindness." He tells Mental Floss he tries to “be the bigger man and [not] return sour attitudes back to people who don’t treat me with respect. If nothing else I can hold my head high knowing I did my job to the best of my ability and didn’t let their negativity affect my day with other, more pleasant patrons.”

Alexis, who currently waits tables at a family-owned restaurant in California, goes beyond faking a smile and makes a point to practice empathy when serving rude guests. “There’s a hospital near my restaurant, and people come there for comfort food with hospital visitor stickers on their clothes all the time. And I know then that they’re going through something traumatic usually. So when people are acting badly, I put imaginary hospital stickers on their clothes and try to remove my ego.”

4. Your waiter (probably) won’t spit in your food.

While most servers have had to deal with a customer who treats them poorly, they rarely retaliate. On the old urban legend of servers spitting in their customer’s food, Alexis says, “Never seen anybody mess with anybody’s food out of spite or malicious intent. I’ve never seen it happen and I’ve never actually done it. I don’t need to get back at people like that.”

5. Servers do more than wait tables.

Most customers just see one aspect of a server's jobs. When they’re not refilling your drinks and bringing you condiments, they're doing side work—either before the restaurant opens, after the last guest leaves, or in between waiting tables. “It could be rolling silverware, filling sauces, cutting lemons, rotating salad bars, stuff like that,” Jeff says. “It’s not just serving and you leave; there’s usually something else behind the scenes that the server has to do.”

Alexis says that in addition to hosting and serving, she has to prep to-go orders, bus tables, and wash dishes. "We’re expected to be working every moment,” she says.

6. Waiters have some wild stories.

Though parts of the job are tedious, servers are bound to see interesting things. Alexis recalls a husband and wife who were regulars at the restaurant where she worked in the 1990s; the man was later arrested for murder. “I found out when a newspaper reporter started asking me questions about them,” she says. “I’m quoted on the front page of the LA Times as saying ‘A waitress in a local coffee shop said they were a nightmare!’”

Other stories are lighter. “When I worked at Red Robin there was a lady that came in every morning and would ask to sit in the same booth," Jon says. "She carried a bag [of] stuffed animals (mostly dragons) and situated them around the booth, always in the same spots, she’d talk to them throughout her dining experience.”

7. Waiters hate it when you don't know what you want.

The simplest way to get on your server’s good side is to know exactly what you want when you tell them you're ready to order. That means not wasting their time stalling as you speed-read the menu. If you haven't decided on a dish, let your server know and trust that they'll return to your table in a few minutes. “Don’t tell your server you’re ready to order if you’re not ready to order,” Alexis says. “I’m like ‘Come on, I know you’re not ready. I’m going someplace else and I’ll be back.’”

It also means not asking your server to make several trips to your table in the span of a few minutes. Mike says that customers asking for items one at a time is one of his biggest pet peeves. “[Customers will say] ‘I need salt. I need hot sauce. I need another [...] drink.’ I was away from the table for 30 seconds each time. Those requests could easily be fulfilled in one trip to the kitchen.”

8. Waiters hate when you ask to move tables.

Next time you get seated in a restaurant, think twice before asking your server to switch tables. Restaurants divide their floor plan into sections, and each server is responsible for a different group of tables. The hosts in charge of seating rotate these sections to distribute guests evenly to servers; by asking to move, you may be depriving one server of an hour’s worth of tips while creating extra work for a server who’s already swamped. According Jon, the worst time to complain about where you were seated is when a restaurant is busy: “Sometimes this isn’t a problem if we’re slow, but if it’s a Friday/Saturday chances are you were put there for a reason.”

9. Servers work when everyone else gets the day off.

Servers have to be prepared to work a different schedule every week, work late into the night, and work on weekends. This can make maintaining a normal social life challenging. “My schedule can be troublesome, my girlfriend/friends have the opposite schedule as me so I’m never able to make it out on weekends or holidays,” Jon says.

And on the days many 9-to-5 workers go out to celebrate, servers have to wait on them. “Where I currently work I have worked Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Years Eve, New Years Day, and I will have to work on Mardi Gras (in the South),” Mike says. “I was leaving for work as my family arrived at my house for Christmas. I missed a New Years party in my house. If I hadn’t requested if off as soon as I began working there I’m almost certain I’d have to work 15 [hours] on my birthday.”

10. Your server might give you a free drink if you order it at the right time.

Asking your server for a free stuff likely won’t get you anywhere, but there is one thing you can do to possibly have a drink taken off your bill. If you wait until after your meal is served to order something cheap like a soft drink, Alexis says there’s a chance you won’t get charged for it all. “Not alcoholic drinks, but I’m talking about a cup of coffee or a soda or something like that, especially if you’re already paying for other beverages,” she says. “The server might get too busy or might not be inclined to go back to the POS [point of sale] system and add them on to your bill. It’s more trouble than it’s worth sometimes.”

11. Waiters want you to learn their names.

There’s a reason most servers introduce themselves before taking your order: They’d much rather you use their real names than a demeaning nickname. “Don’t call me sweetheart! I’m wearing a damn name tag,” Alexis says. “Sometimes I respond well, and other times no.”

And if your server doesn’t introduce themselves and isn’t wearing a name tag, Jon says it doesn’t hurt to ask. “Ask what the servers name is and refer them by name when you’re talking to them.” He says it’s “refreshing when a guest does this.”

15 Tasty Bits of Pizza Slang

iStock.com/Radionphoto
iStock.com/Radionphoto

Unless you’ve worked in a pizzeria, your pizza vocabulary is probably limited. But the crust-loving pros who are cooking up your favorite slices seem to have insider slang for everything, including whimsical terms for toppings and one-of-a-kind ways of describing regional pie styles. So if you’re looking up your pizza-talk game with words that go beyond ‘za, here’s a quick list of 15 terms you should know.

1. Tip sag

The dreaded tip sag is what you get when the pointy end of your pizza starts to droop. This most often occurs with top-heavy (and topping-heavy) pies, like Neapolitan-style pizzas with generous helpings of fresh mozzarella piled on top.

2. Avalanche

An avalanche is what occurs when all the toppings slide off your pizza as soon as you pick it up. This tends to happen when a pizza is still piping hot from the oven, so be smart and give it a minute to cool down.

3. Apizza

If you ever travel to New Haven, Connecticut, you might hear the locals order apizza (pronounced uh-BEETS). This refers to the local style of thin-crust pizza, which originated at the famous Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana and has since become the area's pizza standard.

4. Grandma pie

This style of pizza is thick like a Sicilian pie, but with a thinner, denser crust. Although it likely originated in Long Island, you can now find it in pizzerias throughout New York City (and beyond).

5. Party-cut

Man delivers several pizzas to a customer
iStock.com/Rawpixel

Also known as a tavern-cut, a party-cut describes any circular pizza that’s cut into a grid. The portions are smaller and typically square, which helps ensure that everyone at your Super Bowl party will get a piece of the pie.

6. All-dressed pizza

Order an all-dressed pizza in Montreal and you’ll get a deluxe pie with mushrooms, green peppers, and pepperoni on it. In Québec, it's known as a pizza tout garnie.

7. Flyers

Slices of pepperoni pizza are called flyers, reportedly because of the way they’re often tossed around like Frisbees.

8. Guppies

Depending on your perspective, guppies is either a really cute or really gross way to describe anchovies. Other slang words for the fishy topping include chovies, carp, penguin food, and smellies.

9. Alpo

It’s not very appetizing, but crumbled sausage does kind of resemble dog food—hence the Alpo moniker. Other nicknames for the topping include Kibbles ‘n Bits and Puppy Chow, neither of which make the topping sound any more appetizing.

10. Screamers

Woman preparing a mushroom pizza at home
iStock.com/kajakiki

Mushrooms are sometimes called screamers because of the high-pitched squeal the canned variety lets out when they’re tossed onto a hot surface.

11. Edgar Allan

What does a pizza with pepperoni and onions spell out? A PO pie—which is close enough in spelling to Edgar Allan Poe's last name that it gets tossed around in pizza kitchens on occasion. Sure, P-O or Po would be easier (and quicker) to say, but it’s not nearly as fun.

12. Blood pie

Also known as a hemorrhage, this gruesome term refers to a pizza with extra tomato sauce on it. Now please forget that we ever told you that.

13. Coastline

The coastline is that little bit of exposed sauce you can see between the sauce and the crust.

14. Mutz

A margherita pizza fresh from the oven
iStock.com/svariophoto

Mutz is simply a quicker way of saying mozzarella. Likewise, wet mutz is fresh mozzarella.

15. Roadie

When you get a slice of pizza to-go, that’s a roadie. Enjoy it while it's still hot (but not so hot as to cause an avalanche)! 

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER