Civilization has taught us to eat with a fork, but even now if nobody is around we use our fingers. – Will Rogers
One’s first meal in Paris, one’s first steak frites (for, of course, that’s what it has to be) sitting in a café in the summer heat, huddled around a table much too small for three what with the white ceramic plates, all of the cutlery and heavy, mismatched water glasses pressed together, jostling for space, on nubbly white paper placemats with une carafe d’eau, s’il vous plaît and the ubiquitous trio of sel-poivre-moutarde, three tiny jars clutched in their metallic frame, balanced in the center of it all, salt-pepper-mustard. Out on the sidewalk (for where else would one dine in Paris in July?), I chatter with my lunch companions, two Americans visiting for the summer that I met as only Americans do while in a foreign land: randomly, happily, outside standing in a line for some museum or other. Three steak frites and something to drink and we wait for our first meal while a trio of chic young men at the next table stare at us, feeling absolutely no embarrassment or even mildly apologetic for the intense visual intrusion.
Finally, our food comes and we dig in: fork in left hand, knife in right, cut off a slice of steak and, as if on cue, in perfect synchronization, we all three switch over fork to right hand, knife to left and scoop up that bit of meat on the fork and roaring laughter ensues and high fives and Voilà je t’avais dit! Américains! rings out from the young Frenchmen at the next table! That dreaded cultural cutlery switchover gave us away!
Every culture has its food traditions, its culinary superstitions.
My husband makes cheese fondue. He adores making cheese fondue and his sons love nothing more than eating cheese fondue. When we lived in the suburbs of Paris, we were a stone’s throw from a tiny little restaurant shaped and decorated like a storybook Swiss chalet; when one opened the door to enter or exit the restaurant a blast of faux snow showered over whomsoever stood on the sill. We would take the boys a Friday evening and pull up chairs around a heavy rustic wooden table and order a big pot of bubbling cheese fondue. Little bowls of cubed baguette and long thin two-tined fondue forks were set at each place.
This is when my husband informed us quite solemnly of the tradition of the fondue fork. One spears a bite-sized chunk of bread on the tines of the fondue fork especially designed for the purpose. And an art it is: dunk the chunk of bread into the thick, gooey fondue and with a slow but firm twist of the wrist one at once coats the entire bread cube, scoops up extra and carries it to one’s mouth in one quick and fluid movement. But fondue eater beware! The first of the party to lose his or her chunk of bread in the cheese fondue, whoever dips and dunks and comes up bare, bread submerged in the cheesy quicksand, the prongs of the fork forlornly naked and embarrassingly breadless must perform a gage, a forfeit, a penalty. Whatever the other decides.
He now makes cheese fondue at home regularly every winter. We purchased a set of six fondue forks and huddle around the terra cotta pot set in the center of the coffee table in front of the television, good blockbuster on. Bowls of roughly cubed baguette sit between the dinner plates. Fondue forks poised, the eating begins, each one carefully pressing the bread onto the fork prongs, verifying that it is well secured and begins dunking, scooping, rushing the cheesy bread to one’s mouth, eyes darting from one fork to the next, vigilant to spy the first to lose his (or her!) bread from the fork.
The young King Louis X offers a long shiny object with two points, two delicate speared prongs, to his bride Queen Clémence. 'Look, dearest,' he said, 'look at the surprise I've brought you. Oh, it's not a jewel, but a curiosity,’ cried Louis, laughing, 'don't be frightened, this is no weapon for wounding; it's a little fork to eat pears with.” – Les Rois Maudits, The Accursed Kings, Maurice Druon
My mother bought up collectibles, now stored away in curio cabinets around the house. She didn’t have much to spend when she wandered up and down the aisles of the antique fair that came through town once a year, but she discovered the most wonderful objects. She looked for pretty little odds and ends, garnet rings and cameo brooches, tiny little pins that had Baby etched in delicate little script. And silver. Forks and spoons with handles blooming with roses. Decorative forks and spoons etched prettily, long and slender or short and stubby. Forks and spoons for dessert or fruit, puddings or coffee.
On one trip back home, I took all of those pretty forks and spoons, wrapped them in sweaters and socks, tucked them into my suitcase and bought them back home with me. I have two favorites, both with my mother’s special rose handle pattern, each stem twining like slender branches ending in a perfect rose. One is a beautiful fork reminiscent of old Morocco, three curved and tapered tines etched with curlicues, a rose sitting at the space where the three tines form one. The other a two-pronged pear fork just like the one, I imagine, Louis offered to Clémence. Both forks are rubbed and tarnished, the patterns faded with time, yet so beautiful.
I have come to many forks in the road of my life.
A fork in the road. Left or right, which road to take. There have been so many, a string of them and I more often than not took the wrong fork in the road. Stay at home or go away, this job or that, this career or the other? Why are we not handed a road map at the beginning of our journey? Why not a compass as we are let loose in this labyrinthine maze of winding roads, paths that split and bifurcate, each pointing in an opposite direction. At each fork in the road I would pause to think. Stopped in my tracks, I would squint towards the future, stare hard, try and make out the hazy forms in the distance, yet the signs were blurred or half-hidden by objects. People lined each fork, just out of speaking distance. They seemed to be waving their arms and calling, urging me to come this way or that, follow them, make a decision or a series of choices without ever letting me in on the secrets to what lies further up the road. Some quiet yet urgent voice inside guided me like a puppet on invisible strings, dancing towards the future. At each fork in the road, something or other inexplicably convinced me that this path was the best. Only much later did I realize that I had been trumped, hoodwinked, lied to.
I have come to so many forks in the road of my life and have chosen the wrong fork each time (except for one), directed my steps in the wrong direction, towards the wrong branch of that fork. Yet, somehow or other, all roads must lead here for where I am is just where I should be.
Forks short and stubby, three tines that scrape along the shell like fingernails on a chalkboard. Scoop the slippery oyster up and tug the flesh away from the shimmering iridescent shell. Carry the fork to your mouth very carefully or the beast will slither off the tines.
Cake and coffee, spoon or fork? Fork is the ideal tool for eating cake. Slice off a chunk, spear it with the tines and carry it to the mouth. Any crumbs left on the plate are easily collected, pressing the back of the fork into the bits until they stick and clump in between the tines and to the silver, licking them off the curved back of the utensil. So much more efficient than a spoon which requires the use of the fingers.
Though stirring one’s coffee with a fork is absolutely forbidden. Stirring coffee with a fork is bad luck.
On the other hand, placing a slice of toast in the fork of the biggest tree in an apple orchard ensures a good crop. Drop a fork on the ground and you will receive an unexpected visit from a woman. Or maybe a man. I long ago learned that how one places one’s cutlery on an empty dinner plate when one finishes the meal is cultural. Fork on top of knife or lying next to it? Tines up or tines down?
I'm very fond of finger food, such wonderful small morsels of flavour and perfect snacks to sweep off the table in passing. I especially like to use larger pasta shapes like conchiglioni or paccheri like in this recipe, they are the perfect mouthful. For months I have been circling round carrots, wanting to use them in a recipe but never having the time or even been able to decide what to do but today it was crystal clear to me, paccheri and carrots-a perfect combination.
ILVA'S CARROT AND PINE NUT FILLED PASTA TUBES
15 paccheri tubes or conchiglioni
6 carrots on the large side
sprig of fresh thyme
2 Tbs chopped parsley
3-4 tbs pine nuts
extra-virgin olive oil
Cook the pasta al dente. Drain and drizzle a little olive oil over to prevent the tubes from sticking together.
While the pasta cools, grate the carrots coarsely and cook them gently in a skillet with olive oil, thyme and salt until soft and golden.
Toast the pine nuts in a non-stick pan until they have lightly coloured; add them and the chopped parsley to the carrots and mix.
Use a small spoon to fill all the pasta tubes, put them on a platter and serve with small forks stuck into each.