Tuesday, July 25, 2017  

Pieces of Culinary History


Entertaining guests can mean many things to many people. From a formal dinner party to a casual get-together, we all want to put our best efforts into making sure our guests feel welcomed and appreciated. This generally means that we clean our homes, make favored treats, and pull out servingware that we reserve for special occasions.
Over the years, serving and entertaining has taken on many forms, and the importance of having the right serving pieces for specific dishes is no longer required by society or expected from arriving guests. Form and function have become the foundations of modern entertaining pieces, and relaxed environments have become the norm for almost every occasion. Serving dinner, even when entertaining guests, has become easier and much less formal.
With every era that has passed many of their modern-day marvels have become distant vintage memories, and many of the entertaining utensils that were once considered “must-haves” in every home are no longer recognized by most people. Decades of research, learning, and engineering (combined with a lot of trial and error) have led to technological advances and ergonomic triumphs that have come to define the American kitchen. Ease and function have overcome beauty and excess in our overly busy lives.
However, one cannot help but look at the pieces that were once required by society and long for the days when entertaining was an art more than a rushed moment. By the late 19th century there were nearly 200 different utensils being used for various courses and foods.
Walk through your local antique or vintage store, and you will most likely see pieces that seem odd or medieval. From the ornate to the simple, most of us would struggle to see the function of what we might discover. Although they may seem strange, these pieces once had a job to do in almost every home, and remembering them is remembering a piece of ourselves.
Some serving pieces were simple in nature but convenient to have at the table. The baked potato fork was used for the convenience of being able to spear a baked potato and pass the hot food to the intended guest without having to touch the hot plate or potato. The cheese scoop was used to dig out individual servings of semi-hard cheeses and is sometimes referred to as a Stilton cheese scoop. It was used in a time when cheese was not served in slices for crackers but rather in a block.
Before tea was served in convenient little paper pockets, it was sold in bulk or “loose leaf.” In order to infuse the hot water with your specific choice of loose leaf tea, a tea straining spoon was created to hold the tea leaves and strain it for you after the water was infused. Once the peak of flavor was reached, the spoon could be removed easily without leaving tea leaves floating in the water.
In the same way, butter picks were placed at all settings in order to have one butter plate with many guests. Butter picks were popular when butter was more commonly served in pats and enabled your guest to conveniently spear a pat of butter.
Tomato servers were specific to both red and green tomatoes. The red tomato server was pierced to allow the juice of the tomato to drain through. The green tomato server was solid because they are not as juicy. Piccalilli was a tomato based relish, and it was served with a piccalilli fork that had a pierced bowl to allow the juice to drain before putting the relish on your plate.
A food pusher was popular during the Victorian era when it was considered very rude for anyone, even children, to touch food with their hands. Therefore, children were given food pushers to help them properly get food onto their forks without using their fingers. Food pushers were not used by adults as it was assumed that an adult could properly use a fork without assistance.
A bonbon scoop or bonbon spoon was used for the same reason as the food pusher. Eating chocolates can get a little tricky if a little chocolate melts on the warmth of your fingers. The bonbon scoop (or spoon) was created to easily scoop the chocolates without having to be concerned about germs. Lemon forks and sugar cube tongs were also used to keep hands and fingers away from food that would be passed or shared. And likewise, the flat, short and wide tines of the bacon server made it easy to serve individual slices of bacon.
One particular invention was out of necessity for serving perfect slices of cake. Created by a baker in Ohio, the cake breaker (sometimes called a cake comb) was invented by Cale J. Schneider to slice angel food cake without smashing the cake while slicing. It has a perfect depth to evenly slice a nine inch, round cake from the center, keeping it even all the way around. Schneider also invented Kob Knobs, the original corn cob holders that we still use today.
While some serving pieces were used for obvious convenience, some were used because society demanded more from those that wished to be part of the highest of society. The individual solid fish fork and fish knife set was once considered very pretentious. It was introduced when a different piece was expected for each course throughout the dining experience. The knife has a scalloped blade with a pointy end that helped to pick small bones from the fillet while the flat side, along with the thinner, smaller fork, helped to remove the flesh from the skin. A larger fish serving knife was later designed to match the flatware at the table settings.
Marrow scoops were introduced shortly after the fork in the late 17th century. Forks made it easier for the elite to eat without using their hands, but not being able to use your hands made it difficult to get to the tasty marrow from marrow bones without making a mess. At one time, large bones were cut into sections, cooked and then served on a plate alongside thinly sliced bread or toast. The marrow scoop allowed for scooping the coveted center jelly without getting messy or touching the food.
Toast serving forks were popular in a time when toast was a snack rather than a breakfast food. Slices of bread would be served along with various jellies, cheeses or spreads. The tray would include several toast forks and guests would gather around the fireplace and toast their bread by the fire, using the forks much like we use sticks to roast marshmallows today.
Ice cream did not always come in convenient tubs like it does today. Initially it was a summertime treat that was made in churns that created a soft serve semi-frozen cream. However, when ice cream was first introduced commercially it was purchased in frozen blocks that were very hard. The ice cream slicer was much easier to use than a scoop, and the ice cream was served in slices. Therefore, ice cream forks were much easier to use than spoons.
Some pieces were designed for ease of use when foods are more difficult to serve. Oysters are commonly served on a half shell. Oyster servers are designed to easily scoop and serve the odd shaped entre. Likewise, asparagus is long, round, and difficult to serve with a regular serving spoon. An asparagus server made it easier to grasp the vegetable and safely place on a plate without the risk of it rolling off and onto the table or floor.
Saratoga chip server was popular when potato chips were first introduced. The story of potato chips is said to have come from a small restaurant in Saratoga Springs, NY. A customer complained about his fries being too limp and soggy so he sent them back. In retaliation, the chef sliced them thin and fried them to the point of extreme crispiness. His revenge backfired when the new chips became a huge success and became known as Saratoga chips.
The next time you are looking through serving pieces of times gone by, take a moment to try and figure out the function of some of these strange serving pieces. Although the servingware may no longer be commonly used, the ingenuity it took to create a piece that solved a serving problem is something to be admired and remembered.

Note: The House and Home Magazine would like to thank Goodman’s Interiors of Gloucester and Williamsburg for help with photos for this article. Goodman’s offers an extensive selection of period antiques, vintage, mid-century modern, and contemporary home furnishings, with showrooms featuring lighting, sterling silver, china, crystal and linens. We sincerely appreciate additional photo assistance from Replacements, Ltd. of McLeansville, NC. Replacements, Ltd. is a leading supplier of vintage and current dinnerware, crystal, silver & collectibles.