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.

10 Frank Facts About the Wienermobile

Business Wire
Business Wire

This year marks the 83rd anniversary of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, that effortlessly charming, street-legal marketing tool on wheels. The next time you’re in the vicinity of one—a fleet of six makes up to 1400 stops annually—take the time to reflect on the past, present, and future of history’s most famous locomoting hot dog.

1. The Wienermobile started as a kind of land sub. 


Oscar Mayer

In 1936, Carl Mayer, nephew of hot dog scion Oscar Mayer, suggested a marketing idea to his uncle: build a 13-foot-long mobile hot dog and cruise around the Chicago area handing out his “German wieners” to stunned pedestrians. Crafted from a metal chassis, the vehicle was operated by Carl, who could usually be seen with his torso sticking out from the cockpit.

2. The Wienermobile was once driven by "Little Oscar."

Throughout the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, Oscar Mayer enlisted various little people to portray “Little Oscar,” a company mascot sporting a chef’s hat. Little Oscar soon assumed piloting duties for the Wienermobile, waving to crowds and dispensing wiener whistles that kids could use to alert other children to the presence of the car in their neighborhood. Performer George Malchan portrayed the character from 1951 to 1987.

3. The Wienermobile disappeared for decades.

While novelty automobiles were all the rage circa World War II, Oscar Mayer saw interest wane in the 1960s and 1970s, as kitsch gave way to more contemporary advertising campaigns. But when the company put a Wiener back on the road for its 50th anniversary in 1986, they discovered a whole generation of consumers who were nostalgic for the car. The company ordered six new models in 1988.

4. Wienermobile drivers train at Hot Dog High.

Since resurrecting the marketing campaign, Oscar Mayer has trained aspiring Wienermobile drivers at Hot Dog High in Madison, Wisconsin. The company receives 1000 to 1500 applications for the 12 available positions annually, typically from college graduates looking for a road trip experience. Those selected for duty are given 40 hours of instruction and assigned a different region of the country. The company tracks their routes with a GPS.

5. Wienermobile passengers ride "shotbun."

Oscar Mayer Wienermobile
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Wienermobile motorists—a.k.a. Hotdoggers—typically ride in pairs, with the driver keeping an eye on the road and the passenger acknowledging and waving to passersby who want to interact with the vehicle. This is known as riding “shotbun,” and the greetings are mandatory. Some occupants have reported that even after going off-duty, they’ll keep waving to other drivers out of habit.

6. The Wienermobile interior is just as delicious.

Wienermobile fans who are invited to board—and promise to fasten their “meat belts” before rolling—are treated to a rare peek inside the vehicle’s interior. Ketchup- and mustard-colored upholstery surround the six seats, with condiment "stains" dotting the floor; for parades, occupants can wave from the “bunroof.” Two accent hot dogs are parked on the dashboard.

7. The Wienermobile once crashed into a house.

Though it can be challenging to pilot an enormous hot dog, most Wienermobiles log mileage without incident. A rare exception: a 2009 accident near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when a driver attempted to back the vehicle out of a residential driveway, thought she was in reverse, but shot forward and bored into an unoccupied home.

8. Al Unser Jr. drove the Wienermobile for laps at the Indy 500.

While one might expect the Wienermobile to have the handling of a tube-shaped camper, some models were surprisingly nimble. Race car driver Al Unser Jr. took to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1988 and drove it for laps. The dog reached an impressive 110 miles per hour.

9. There's a version of the Wienermobile called a "Wienie-Bago."

Oscar Mayer Wienermobile WIENIE-BAGO
Oscar Mayer

Super Bowl attendees who couldn’t snag a hotel room in San Francisco for the 2016 showdown between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos had a pork-based solution: Oscar Mayer auctioned off two nights in their Wienie-Bago, an RV that sleeps four. Missed it? If you're in Chicago, you can rent a Wienermobile that sleeps two for $136 a night. A bed, outdoor dining area, and a fridge stocked with hot dogs are all included.

10. You can buy a miniature Wienermobile.

For the 2015 gift-giving season, Oscar Mayer issued a limited-edition, remote-controlled version of the Wienermobile. The 22.5-inch-long mini-dog sent collectors scrambling on Cyber Monday, when the company released just 20 for purchase at a time. The Rover is able to hold two hot dogs for transport across picnic tables. You can still find them on eBay.

Autumnal Dessert Spices and Cubed Meat Collide: Pumpkin Spice SPAM Now Exists

David McNew/Getty Images
David McNew/Getty Images

Does sipping on a pumpkin spice latte ever make you think: “Man, I wish this were cubed meat”? Soon, it will be. According to NBC News, Hormel will start selling Pumpkin Spice SPAM on September 23.

It all started back in October of 2017, when Hormel announced via its Facebook page that pumpkin spice SPAM was coming—as a joke. The post clearly stated that it wasn’t real, but that didn’t stop scores of people from making comments about how it would probably taste delicious and asking where they could purchase a can.

Now, a Hormel publicist has confirmed to NBC News that the limited-edition, fall-themed flavor will soon be available to order online from Walmart or Spam.com.

"True to the brand’s roots, SPAM Pumpkin Spice combines deliciousness with creativity, allowing the latest variety to be incorporated into a number of dishes, from on-trend brunch recipes to an easy, pick-me-up snack,” Hormel told NBC News.

While Pumpkin Spice SPAM might not yet be accepted into pumpkin spice canon alongside lattes and muffins, it’s far from the strangest product that has been imbued with the mysterious, cinnamon-y spice blend to date; we’ll leave automotive exhaust spray and light bulbs to duke it out for that designation. And the Facebook commenters might have actually been onto something when they dared to suggest that Pumpkin Spice SPAM had palatal potential. After all, ham recipes often include sweet ingredients like maple syrup, brown sugar, and honey. And, according to TIME, the word spam was invented as a portmanteau of spiced ham.

Wondering what other SPAM innovations you might be missing out on? Check out these recipes from around the world.

[h/t NBC News]

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