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Eating Utensils Used in the Elizabethan Era

Gail Cohen

Picture this: Shakespeare sits down to dinner, reaches into his pocket, takes out his own cutlery and digs into his Welsh rabbit or boar. But, the man is a legend, you say -- what’s up with carrying utensils? Truth is, folks living during the Elizabethan era often brought their own cutlery to meals because nobody could be sure there would be cutlery on the table. Bet you’d arrive at table with utensils firmly in hand if it was the only way you could chow down, too.

Utensils for Elizabethan Menu

Even Shakespeare would have brought his own cutlery to the dinner table.

The Elizabethan era might be dubbed the meat-eating era; there were as many ways to prepare meats as there were appetites for fish, fowl and red meats: frying, roasting, baking, smoking, boiling and smoking. Open flame cooking was so popular, family dogs were trained to run on circular treadmills to keep spits rotating.

Image was everything in upper class circles. According to Philip Stubbs, an Elizabethan writer, “If the table not be covered from the one end to the other with delicate meats of sundry sorts, and to every dish a sauce appropriate to its kind, it is thought unworthy of the name of a dinner.”

Forsooth, Forks Were Rare

Forks weren’t invented and used until the late 14th century in Europe. British traveler Thomas Coryate brought forks to the U.K. from Italy in 1608, but the ever-practical Brits declared them “effeminate and unnecessary.” You would have been hard-pressed to find forks on tables during the Elizabethan era because English society had yet to adopt these utensils, leaving the transfer of lamb, beef, mutton, pork, bacon, veal, rabbit, hare, peacock, swan, goose, blackbirds and pigeon to mouths strictly up to knives.

Ode to the Spoon

Already established as valuable catchall utensils by the 14th century, by Elizabethan times, spoons reflected a person's station in life. This utensil, made of wood or horn during the Middle Ages, was ultimately replaced by pewter, brass, tin, iron and other metals and used by the masses while silver was the preferred metal for beautifully-designed spoons used by royalty and upper classes during the Elizabethan era.

Perchance, The Finest Cut

Knives evolved from projectile points sharpened by cavemen and had already become the single most important eating tool on the planet by the time the Elizabethan era dawned. Everyone carried a knife as a matter of habit – men in sheaths attached to their belts and upper class women within cutlery bags. Despite the narrow design and sharp points, everyone learned from an early age how to spear meat and get it to the mouth without doing too much physical damage in the process.

Behind the Scenes

Forks, knives and spoons followed their own evolutionary course during the Elizabethan era but essential cooking utensils were creative adaptations of metallurgy and woodworking cutlery used to prepare and serve meals over time. Versions of meat forks, carving knives, ladles and meat scissors that you might not recognize today helped cooks prepare dishes and get them to the table. Mortars and pestles were essential for grinding nuts and spices as Elizabethan recipes relied heavily on the latter to flavor savory meats.