Culinary History (Part 15): European Table Knives

The practice of carrying your own knife around to use as both weapon and eating utensil began to disappear in the 1600’s.  First, knives started to be laid out on the table, along with forks (which were new).  Cases of identical knives were being sold, instead of personal, individual ones.

Second, knives stopped being sharp, thus taking power away from them physically, not just personally.  The purpose of a knife is to cut, and for a civilization to deliberately make knives blunter is because of extreme politeness (or passive-aggressiveness).


As the story goes, in 1637 Cardinal Richelieu (Louis XIII’s chief advisor) saw a dinner guest using the tip of a double-edged knife to pick his teeth.  The cardinal was horrified, and ordered all his own knives to be blunted.  It’s not known whether he was horrified at the guest’s manners, or the danger.  In 1669, Louis XIV forbade French cutlers to make pointed dinner-knives.  They used to be sharpened on both sides (like a dagger), but now this changed.

At this time, culture was undergoing some dramatic changes.  The Catholic Church was no longer as unified as it had been, and the chivalric codes of behaviour were long gone.  Things that were once normal now disgusted people – drinking soup straight from the bowl; using the fingers to take meat from a common dish; using a single, sharp knife to cut everything.  Table manners and table utensils were changing, and the Europeans, like the Chinese, began to distrust sharp knives at table.  But unlike the Chinese, they kept them at the table, blunted and less threatening.

In France, knives were often kept off the table in general (except for certain tasks such as peeling/cutting fruit, which personal knives were still used for as always).

But in England, knives stayed on the table and became blunter.  Table knives from the 1500’s and 1600’s look like miniature kitchen knives, with various blade shapes, from dagger-like to pen-knife, even scimitar-like.  The blade could be double-edged or single-edged.

Knives from the 1700’s are completely different.  The blade often curves gently to the right, ending in a rounded tip.

The way to hold a knife also changed.  Sharp knives were held with the whole hand, in a stabbing pose.  Blunt knives were held like we do now – with the index finger along the spine, and the palm wrapped around the handle.

The blunting of table knives, and the consequent new way to hold them, is why many people have bad knife skills in the kitchen. Holding a kitchen knife like that is actually dangerous – you should strongly grip the bottom of the blade between thumb and forefinger.

So the English in the 1700’s sat at table with their pretty, useless little table knives, trying to avoid any gesture that could suggest violence.  By the late 1700’s, the Sheffield table knives were really just about display – in high London society, people laid them out on the table to show off the host’s taste and wealth.  They were beautiful objects, but that was about it.

Carrying a knife with you was very bad manners, now.  In 1769, an Italian man called Joseph Baretti was charged for stabbing a man in self-defence in London, with a small folding fruit-knife.  Baretti defended himself by saying that on the Continent, it was normal to carry a sharp knife around for cutting fruit and sweetmeats.  A century ago, he wouldn’t have had to explain this.

The Sheffield cutlers used carbon steel for table knives, which was a better metal for forging than previous metals used.  But for taste, it was dreadful.  Non-stainless steel reacts badly with acid, turning black, and giving a gross metallic taste/aftertaste to the food. This is why even today, the French consider it bad manners to cut salad leaves – vinaigrette in particular reacted badly.

And fish.  For centuries, people had eaten fish with lemon – but until stainless steel was invented in the 1920’s, lemony fish would be ruined if you ate it with a knife.  In the 1800’s, silver fish knives were invented – silver is non-corrosive and doesn’t react with lemon juice.  Of course only the rich could afford them.  They had a scalloped shape, originally to distinguish them in the cutlery drawer, and because fish was soft and didn’t need strong/sharp cutting.  If you didn’t have silver fish knives, then you’d use two forks, or a fork & piece of bread – or put up with the gross taste.

Stainless steel is also called inox steel, or non-rusting steel.  It is a metal alloy with a high chromium content.  What happens is that the chromium forms an invisible layer of chromium oxide when exposed to the air.  This stops the knives from rusting, and keeps them lustrous.

In 1908, Friedrich Krupp built a 366-tonne yacht called Germania with a chrome steel hull.  Before WW1, Harry Brearley (of Thomas Firth and Sons, in Sheffield) was trying to find a metal for gun barrels that wouldn’t corrode.  This led to stainless steel cutlery.

At first, stainless steel was hard to work in all except the simplest of cutlery patterns.  But WW2’s industrial innovations meant that stainless steel knives could now be made cheaply and efficiently, in the shapes people wanted.

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Winter light by Tony

As the British government decides to announce ‘Empire 2.0’ as their post-Brexit strategy, thought I’d show you what these people actually think.

Boer concentration camps, Partition of India, Ireland, Suez Crisis, Bengal famine, support for South African Apartheid…

Just off the top of my head. I encourage everyone to add more.

I know a lot of my followers are American and maybe don’t know what’s going on with Scotland/Brexit/independence referendums, and I’m really fucking mad about it, so I wanted to make this post.

Theresa May, the UK Prime Minister, has told us we aren’t allowed to have another Independence Referendum before 2019. Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, had been meeting with the PM to try and negotiate a suitable time for us to take another vote on Independence, and she (along with most Scots I would think, I know I am) is shocked that the PM has turned around and said no to a vote before 2019.

Why do Scotland want another Independence Referendum? We want one because Scotland voted to REMAIN in the EU. We don’t want to leave, and if we stay a part of the UK we will be forced to leave the EU. We don’t want this to happen, we’d rather be a part of the EU than be joined with England any longer. That’s the shortest way to say it, EU > UK.

Why 2019? Nicola Sturgeon and other members of the SNP (Scottish National Party, the party that holds the most chairs in Scotland) have been thinking about making autumn 2019 a good time to hold another referendum. This means, if we chose to leave the UK, Brexit wouldn’t be in full effect yet and we could happily stay in the EU. It’s also far enough away to give everyone a good amount of time to campaign, and think about how they want to vote.

Why has Theresa May said no to 2019? May has said no because she wants to give Scotland an ultimatum. Basically by saying no to 2019 she’s telling us, sure, you can have another vote after that time all you want, but you can’t have it before the whole UK is already out of Brexit. She’s done this because she thinks that us Scots should give Brexit a chance and see what it’s like before we go leaving the UK. It also means Scotland would have to go through the hassle of joining the EU again, and she thinks this will deter us from voting for Independence.

Why is all of this a problem, and y u so mad about it Moody? Well, friends, lemme tell you a thing. First of all Theresa May is the leader of the Conservative Party, a party which out of 59 available House of Commons seats in Scotland, only hold 1. They hold 1 seat. And they’re dictating to us when we can and cannot hold a vote. Forget that she’s the PM for a second. Think about that. 1 out of 59 seats in Scotland, and she’s telling us how to run our country and thinks she understands what the Scottish people want? No.

Secondly, she’s made this decision before she even hears what the SNP have to say on the matter. The SNP are holding a meeting on Wednesday (from me posting this, next week) to talk about another referendum. May doesn’t even know what the SNP fully want to do yet because they haven’t had their meeting yet, and without hearing the SNPs general opinion post-meeting, she has said no. Jumping the gun a bit, huh?

Thirdly, it’s not up to her, it’s up to the Scottish people. I mean sure, she’s the PM, she’s said no to 2019, that was her decision. But what exactly is that achieving? Other than making it harder for Scotland to join back with the EU after we leave the UK. Nothing. She just doesn’t want to deal with Brexit and Scotland leaving the UK at the same time. Learn to multitask, PM, or hand your job over to someone who can.

Scotland want independence because we are sick and tired of having to follow everything England does. The entirety of Scotland voting one way could be overruled by the entirety of London. Just London, one city. We have less say than one English city. We’re sick of this bullshit. Did you know that England’s nuclear weapons program, Trident, is located in Scotland? That’s right, just in case someone decides to bomb us to get rid of our weapons, they put them in Scotland so they’d bomb us instead of England. Tough shit on you if we get our independence, looks like you’ll be having to deal with your own nuclear weapons from now on. Get that shit away from us.

I am angry because my country doesn’t have a say in its own future, I am angry because the English government that rules over us doesn’t give a crap about us, I am angry because we are treated as worthless ‘lesser Englishmen’, when our culture and people are entirely different to England’s. I am angry because I’m tired of the English government shitting all over my country. Fuck you, we want Independence, and delaying it won’t stop it from happening.

You have blue hair. Someone else with blue hair commits a terrible atrocity. People are hurt and injured. You mourn with the people who have experienced a loss and you feel their pain and anger. Suddenly, people look at you differently. They assume that as you have blue hair you must be the same as the monster who hurt those people. People shout abuse at you, over and over again. Groups of people with blue hair all show their respect for the deceased, they help those in need, and are kind. However, the media continues to label you, people say you need to go back to where you came from, but you do not condone those who committed or support the attack. One is not all.

In light of the Manchester attack, I think it’s important we don’t fuel anything with hate. As a country we continue, we get up day after day and we carry on. Because that is what we do. We unite, against terrorism. Unity means all: Everyone. All religions, all nationalities, all ethnicity’s. They are part of our country and we unite with them too. It sounds stupid to compare something like religion with hair colour. But it isn’t. Yes, Islamic state is an extension of Islam. However, Islamic state is not Islam. It’s so important not to fight hate with hate. I can tell you over and over, but I don’t need to. You only need to see British Muslims uniting and providing support to see that. 

What happened on Tuesday 22nd May 2017 was a hate fuelled attack on innocent people, but the only way we can say fuck you to terrorism is to show that hate will not be tolerated.