Media & Society
3:42 pm
Thu May 29, 2014

Revealing The “Tense” In The Middle Of “Utensils”

Civilized society no longer needs that extra fork.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

 I think we can all agree that salad forks have not fulfilled their promise. It was a noble experiment, if by that you mean something tried by nobility or those feigning nobility.   

Salads have changed over the years. Now we add all sorts of doodads on top of our lettuce. Those longer tines of the regular fork come in handy when eating a modern salad. You need that extra quarter inch for the craisins and bleu cheese chunks. Salads have even sometimes replaced the main course of a meal. The salad fork did not adapt.

The soup spoon has fared so much better, widening options for (and mouths of) diners. Larger spoons broke the tripartite hegemony of daily utensildom, sharing everyday duties with the teaspoon. 

Some prefer larger spoons for ice cream. Some believe the smaller spoon can trick them into reducing calories. Both spoons double as measurements for cooking. Each earned its place at the table. The soup spoon broke through. The lesson here is that if you come later, you’d better be bigger.

Meantime, salad forks silently slid into a shameful status. They became the kitchen’s spare forks — not as good, but adequate and clean. Like the gag underwear you were given one Christmas or the bottom stairsteps when the tables are cluttered — anything that forestalls cleaning can be deemed acceptable, so long as you keep the curtains drawn and the lights low.

Somewhere an inventor saw the salad fork’s dilemma and was reminded of eyelashes, fingernails, and braided hair. Somewhere there are fork tine extenders, but the public never could have accepted them. Instead, we spent our indiscretionary youth pursuing spork dreams. Nothing mutters “settled down” better than accepting a salad fork as good enough — Just Another Fork.

Salad forks have only one remaining use — if you can call “demonstrated uselessness” a use. They prove that we have more than we need, and happily so. 

Restaurants will keep the salad fork in circulation, only because Michelin and Zagat will not allow any restaurant to have more stars than utensils. (Most people do not know this.) Until the shrimp fork finds more uses or Americans clamor for a shovel at every place setting, salad forks are safe at fine restaurants. But only there.

So long as restaurants keep them, they’ll continue to show up at dinner parties, where hosts impress their business contacts by demonstrating that they have all the necessary skills for a career in food service. Nothing says you’re a high achiever better than imitating a tipped employee at The Red Lion.

This useful uselessness brings us back to nobility in all its craven glory. If we can surround ourselves with useless things — like snow globes, lawns and brothers-in-law — then we can feel useful when we shake them or mow them or lend them money.

Salad forks are like that now. They are the lawn of the linen.

We look at the happy children cavorting on that neatly trimmed lawn, playing hide-and-seek with the sprinkler. But then we put down the magazine — still open to that full-page sleep medication advertisement — and look at our own grassy knoll, considering its assassination. It must be watered, or it must be mowed. It’s always one or the other. It needs us in the most useless ways.

Some still dress to impress, edge their lawn, wax their car, and set five utensils when four will do. That extra fork with every setting demonstrates that you’ve replaced whatever your garbage disposal or preschooler has mangled. But that signal’s only useful if the table’s set for eight. And who cooks for eight anymore?

We still host large parties in our homes, but not for plated dinners. We now offer finger foods. Fingers were the first utensil. Better four steps back than a fifth step forward.

Civilized society no longer needs that extra fork. Eight around a table with two forks apiece is no longer a meal. It’s a sporting event, or a challenge crafted for reality TV. 

Come to think of it, the forks could be a welcome addition to the next round of presidential debates.

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.