The first forks were two-pronged; many people refused to eat with them, thinking them a tool of the devil. But Catherine de Medici changed all that when she brought the utensil to France for her marriage to France's King Henry II in 1533. The fork helped forge the etiquette she required of those who supped at her table. Manufactured in many shapes and sizes, modern flatware can help emphasize your table's theme.
Traditionally called silverware after the sterling silver used for formal dinners, flatware is made from a variety of metals. The metal typically reflects the formal or informality of the dining table; common or everyday cutlery contains pewter or stainless steel. For formal meals, silver-plated, electroplated gold or sterling silver are usually the table utensils of choice. When you choose stainless steel flatware, check for 18/8 or 18/10 versions, as stainless steel made with some percentage of chrome, also known as 420 steel, may dull, rust or pit with age.
Some metal textures look better than others with the table decor and the type of table on which the flatware is arranged. For example, a crosshatched Florentine texture gives utensils a grained, fabric look, so use it or hammered metal on pine or bleached oak tables. But reflective surfaces, such as polished mahogany, lacquer, plastic or glass, complement flatware with shiny, polished surfaces.
Quality kitchen cutlery has substantial weight, feels good in the hands and has a comfortable, weighted balance. Handles must be wide enough to fit in the hand easily, while not slipping through dishwasher baskets during cleaning. Well-made forks have well-proportioned, balanced tines that are rounded, tapered and polished. Too-small spoons that don't offer a good bite and knives with small thin blades represent signs of poorly designed utensils. Quality flatware does not easily bend.
Two sizes of cutlery are in general use, based on length. Traditionally known as "continental" or "European-sized" flatware, these larger utensils are longer than the American utensils also known as "plate-size" flatware, the most common flatware used. Older sets may also have luncheon-sized cutlery, smaller than plate-size. European cutlery is generally reserved for formal dinner parties and gatherings, as the dinner knives and forks are about a half-inch longer than their shorter American cousins.
Proper table etiquette calls for curved utensil lines for dishes and glasses designed with rounded themes. Flatware with straight lines create symmetry with dinnerware and stemware of angled proportions. If you have ornate flatware, don't use ornate dishes and stemware; instead, let the simplicity of the flatware emphasize the beauty in the dinnerware.