Back in the Victorian era, you were absolutely not to take any food with your hands (which was a good thing given the standards for hygiene in those days!). But if you were to be a member of high society, you had to make sure you touched those foods with the proper utensil. Eating turtle doused in a delectable sauce – by all means you better pull out that terrapin fork! Look through the Tiffany’s catalog from the turn of the 19th century and you’ll find there’s a fork for just about every food. (Seriously. Pickles, sardines, turtles, strawberries, etc. each had their own fork.)
This one may look like a miniature version of Poseidon’s trident (it’s a mere 7″ long), but it wasn’t used for spearing fish. Instead, it was used for spearing individual slices of bread or rolls out of a bread basket. Bread was pretty much a staple at meals, so this was likely a bit more commonly owned and used than terrapin forks.
I have to admit that I wish this fork would make a comeback. I can easily think of more than one banquet I’ve been to where the bread basket has been passed around and someone has put their hand on more than one piece of bread before passing it on. (They obviously haven’t had one of my etiquette classes where I teach to “Take what you touch. Only touch what you take.”) It would be nice to have a small fork in the basket for them to use instead. Tongs by the rolls at a buffet seem to be more common, but I’ve yet to encounter them for a shared bread basket at the table.
While the use of a bread fork is no longer considered proper etiquette, the etiquette of eating a single slice of bread or a roll has not changed since “The Habits of Good Society: A Handbook” was writen in the late 1800s: “Bread is of course eaten with the fingers, and it would be absurd to carve it with your knife and fork. It must, on the contrary, always be broken when not buttered, and you should never put a slice of dry bread to your mouth to bite a piece off.”
I can’t find any information about when or why the use of the bread fork died off, but I’d sure like to resurrect it! Anyone want to join me?