When was the last time you stopped to appreciate the simple elegance of a spoon or reflected on the vital role it has played in the evolution of the human dining experience? If your answer is anything other than never, please stop trying to impress me. Though spoons (at least, in Western civilizations) are central to most meals we eat, we seldom—if ever—break from slurping to ponder their existence.
Thankfully, there are some people who do appreciate and respect spoons for their service to humans throughout modern history. Mary Beaudry, professor of archeology and chairman of the Boston University Archeology Department, worked to spread spoon appreciation at the BU Metropolitan College-sponsored There’s a Spoon for That: The Lives and Times of the Ubiquitous Utensil lecture on Monday night.
Held in accordance with BUMC’s Pépin lecture series (next month’s is—you guessed it—forks!), this free gathering boasted approximately forty middle-aged attendees and a small number of students. Professor Beaudry presented, accompanied by a few BUMC instructors who (as if they suspected spoon knowledge wasn’t enough to keep the crowd) prepared a delicious hors d’oeuvres spread complete with butternut squash bisque and Chardonnay.
In the professor’s thirty-minute PowerPoint slideshow and subsequent Q&A session, almost any feasible question about spoons that a person could have was answered in great detail. Spoons are the oldest man-made eating utensils; the earliest discoveries date back to the Paleolithic period, so there were many years of spoon-use to cover. I thought it was interesting to see how the shape and materials used to craft them developed into what we know and depend upon today. Naturally, the characteristics of spoons from different eras reflect the technology and aesthetic sense of people at the time of their creation. We saw this, for instance, in rudimentary shell spoons used by the earliest Homo sapiens, utilitarian-looking spoons of the Roman empire (who were incidentally the users of the first metal spoons) and artfully engraved silver spoons of the Victorian era.
Professor Beaudry also talked about the cultural and symbolic role that spoons have played in Western history. In medieval times, for instance, there was a tradition of giving newborn babies spoons as presents to carry with them throughout their lives (and eventually be buried with). In the mid 19th century it was fashionable for women to carry personalized utensils, including spoons, as a sort of purse-accessory. Beaudry’s point was that spoons carry a greater significance to many western cultures than their surface use implies. And, when they’ve turned up in religious ceremonies, fairy tales, proverbs, superstitions and souvenir shops across the western hemisphere, this greater significance is hard to deny.
As informative as the presentation was, I am still left with one nagging question: Why spoons? What is it about this simple dining utensil that seems to have nearly inspired a material subculture of its own? Perhaps it’s not something particular about the spoon at all, but that every seemingly trivial instrument that we interact with has an interesting and complex history worthy of a similar lecture. For now, however, let’s honor the spoon and tip our bowls to its countless thankless accomplishments.
For more information on lectures offered through the Boston University Metropolitan College, please visit their website at http://www.bu.edu/foodandwine/seminars/pepin-lecture-series/. Reservations can be made by calling (617) 353-9852. All lectures are free and open to the public unless noted otherwise.