Food and Drink 

Waiter, waiter - bring me a GOOD spoon!

There you are, trying to keep the Styrofoam container from flying off the edge of the deli counter or from careering into the bottles of condiments and dumping chili oil all over your lap as you saw hopelessly back and forth, and back and forth through your lime/chili chicken with a plastic stick that's a goofy parody of a knife.

The plastic fork? Forget it. It's so lame at picking up spinach salad you finally give up and use your fingers.

We've all cursed as we struggled with plastic "cutlery" - and I use the term loosely - the stuff masquerading as something useful to eat food with at take-outs, delis and family picnics.

But have you ever stopped to analyze the way other more traditional knives, spoons and forks make your meal a pleasure to consume, or a frightful disaster?

For years, I've thought the muscles in my face were atrophying with age. Well, they probably are, but so much so it was impossible for me to enjoy a bowl of soup without bits of it oozing from the corners of my mouth and seeping embarrassingly towards my chin? I'm not that old! (Doth I protest too much?)

Visions of the elderly in "assisted living centres" with stained bibs and unknown substances glued to their chins loomed before me. If after rare beef and wine is the time to ask someone for a favour or to relay bad news, then asking me after soup for anything except, "Would I like a clean napkin?" would have been plain foolish.

Imagine my delight, then, at discovering the world set right again with the addition of a simple prosthesis, and I didn't even have to book a trip to Mexico. Enter my hero: a real soup spoon!

Discovered amidst a pile of camping stuff my parents passed on after their camping days were over was a pair of silver-plated soup spoons with a delicate baroque pattern etched on their handles. Mom had relegated them to the RV because they didn't match anything and had no rightful provenance in our family, at least none anyone could remember.

But when I saw those babies, I grabbed them, polished them up and was born a new woman with a well-designed silver spoon in my mouth - one with a large, nicely shaped bowl for holding the liquid and, more importantly, with a crisp edge that pulls nicely off the lip, allowing no liquid to escape and gently removing any lingering vestiges of same. A perfect union of form and function.

Pottery made in the right shape to hold food the way we want it to be held dates back to about 9000 BCE. Cutlery - or tableware (alias flatware or "silverware" as we Canucks say, even though it's likely not made from silver), since the term "cutlery" really includes razors, scissors and all things sharp and cutting-like for purposes industrial, commercial and domestic - has a history nearly as ancient.

Hands worked perfectly well for eons, and still do, with flint, bronze and stone shaped into cutting edges since prehistory. Knife-like instruments were most useful for eating, and the idea of a stick sharpened to a point as a piercing tool eventually evolved into the equally useful concept of "fork," which originally had a single point.

It was the Romans who developed a two-pronged fork. Into the Middle Ages, these were about as big as pitchforks, or at least not much smaller, and were primarily used for serving. Eventually smaller forks evolved to replace the pair of pointed table knives that were part of the transition to knife and fork about the 18th century.

My mother, thank goodness, taught me the test of a well-designed fork. Never mind if it's stainless steel or aluminum, silver-plate or gold, the tines must be able to pick up a single piece of lettuce without chasing it around your plate for half an hour. If they don't, give that line of flatware a toss. To that end, shops should have a head of lettuce on hand for testing before buying same.

As for spoons, the earliest ones were made from clay and baked. Imagine trying to eat soup gracefully with one of those. Later they were shaped from bone and wood.

Bread worked well as "pusher" of food onto the spoon, much as kids use a piece of bread, and perhaps a better design could not be invented, both in terms of practicality and sustainability. Throughout the Middle Ages soups were served with daubs of bread called "sops" - ergo the terms "soppy" and "milksop" for wimpy, weak things.

Soup spoons didn't make it into common dinner service until the 18th century. By then, cutlery makers in Sheffield in England were the international leaders.

With that, and the pressures of Georgian society and all things aristocratic in Europe, came the ideals of prestige embodied in matching flatware and dinnerware for all classes, not just the royals, with their gold service with bejeweled handles to set off the crystal stemware and gilt-edged porcelain. Ergo my mismatched silver soup spoons relegated to the derelict camping box.

But as the social revolution of the hippie era dispensed with - nay, sneered at - all things matching and prissy, especially domestic signifiers like knives and forks and dishes, I hate to say it but the idea that a well-designed dessert fork or soup spoon just might have a purpose also went out the window. Everybody pretty much grabbed a pair of chopsticks left over from take-out or a bunch of knives and forks from Value Village or ScanWorld, depending on their aesthetic.

People either liked the way they "looked" (or didn't look) or the price tag. But the idea of a successful hostess with matching six-piece place settings for a dozen people was pretty much mothballed, along with girdles and men's suits for everyday wear.

So here's a concept for our post-post-modern world: Never mind the "matching" thing or the bejeweled handles, go for pieces that work - really work. Go ahead, take along some lettuce to test those forks, and feel the bowls of those spoons with your fingers. You'll quickly get the gist of what works and how they look.

Then buy up the ones you like - whether they're orphans at the secondhand store or pieces from different services at a shop. And keep one stashed in your pocket for those places with nasty little plastic tools. You'd be surprised how it transforms a meal.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer on a quest for the perfect dessert fork.

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