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Sunday, May 08, 2011

Whatever happened to the fish knife?

This morning we had tea from the remnants of the breakfast service my in-laws were given when they got married after the war. Apparently the cups are shaped like that to ensure that the tea cools quickly.

We have inherited all manner of cutlery and chinaware which was given to our parents (and even, in some cases their parents) upon their marriage. We have sets of fish knives, forks and slices, often encased in velvet lined cases as if they were dueling pistols. We have sugar tongs. We have silver-plated cake stands. We have what would now be called "solutions" to every serving problem that might have faced the domestic hostess in the days of Macmillan.

Looking at this arsenal of equipment you might be forgiven for thinking our parents were big entertainers. They weren't. Nor were most people in those days. Aunts in hats would be invited to tea from time to time but dinner parties were unknown and nobody ever came round to Sunday lunch (which was of course Sunday dinner). Who was all this stuff supposed to impress? I'd find it all a lot easier to understand in the world of "Come Dine With Me" than it was back then.

15 comments:

  1. My maternal grandparents both came from very poor metropolitan backgrounds. My grandfather joined Shell UK as a young man and when he retired, many decades later, from a senior position within the company, he was a wealthy man.

    After my grandmother died I cleared out her house and found all kinds of strange items of cutlery - tools for dealing with lobsters, silver sugar tongs fashioned to resemble bird's feet, and so on and so forth

    I remember showing my mother a sextet of miniature silver pineapples that were meant to hold place cards. She told me that they had been presented to my delighted Grandmother at a dinner hosted by Shell. I doubt that they were ever used for their intended purpose; to her they were a representation of her upward social mobility.

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  2. As I recall, the "best cutlery" (AKA "the silver service") you describe was intended to be kept in "the dresser", which was a vast, dark object that took up an entire wall of the "front room". In turn, the "front room" was a space that accounted for about 20% of the useable area of the property but was only in use for a total of four hours a year.

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  3. The first episodes of The Archers I listened to featured a plot revolving around Betty Tucker accidentally destroying the Aldridge's fish knives. Not a storyline they mention much during the anniversaries...

    We had a set in our house when I was a kid. They never saw the business end of a fish.

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  4. Dining today is like playing a round of golf with only a 3 iron and putter in your bag: to eat a traditional Sunday 'dinner' one only needs a fork (for the chicken tikka masala) and a bottle opener (to open the Cobra beer). And the TV remote, obviously.

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  5. What would a Wodehouse wedding be without gifts of fish knives, and kleptomaniacs stealing them?

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  6. My working-class (he a roofer, she a former mill piecener), Northern, grandparents also had The Sideboard, full of imitation-murano gilt glassware (to be used at Christmas for sipping sweet sherry, before they came across the road to us for Christmas Dinner), ceremonial plaques, and a set of shirt-studs from a Guinness promotion from their Toucan era. I think a lot of it was given as presents; 'for having' or 'for best', never actually to be used.

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  7. PS: this was in Morley, not that far from your hometown.

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  8. We've lost both sets of parents and have accumulated a loft full of vintage collections and clutter...

    On a similar riff, the cocktail cabinet had it's own hierarchy: beer mugs, champage flutes, shot miniatures painted with smiling pirates, sherry glasses badged with brand names, highballs with spots and stripes in primary pastels, cut glass decanters and tumblers.

    Gentrification and etiquette is at the root of it. The same reason Elvis never wore denim - it smacked of poverty

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  9. I'm pretty sure I did actually eat some fish with a fish knife when I was a kid. Maybe at a wedding or something, I doubt it would have been for some boil-in-the-bag cod.

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  10. They were talking about fish knives on Antiques Roadshow the other week, and someone asked the question I've always wanted to ask: why are they that odd shape?

    The show's expert replied that there was no practical reason - it was simply a way of distinguishing them from the regular knives.

    More evidence of the social snobbery you're talking about, I suppose, ie there's no point having a separate set of knives for fish unless everyone can see you've got them.

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  11. Not so. Fish cutlery needs to be distinguished from meat cutlery because fish smells can hang around on metal, even after washing. In my parents' cutlery set, fish forks had four tines (in contrast to the three on normal forks) for the same purpose.

    But didn’t Betjeman write a poem that suggested fish cutlery was decidedly non-U? Of course he did.

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  12. I quite like the idea of a fork and a piece of bread.

    http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O48546/fish-knife-fish/

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  13. I always thought the fish knives were thus shaped to tastefully dig out the bones as one ate. I suspect that a lot of domestic collecting of silverware was more to do with status than the practical need to use the stuff. But if it was never used, or stored in boxes, then it was only you who knew you had it - are we so insecure?

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  14. That's a nice strong cup of tea...just how I like it.

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  15. One does not accumulate fish knives, oyster spoons, or butter forks to impress relations or acquaintances. They are acquired to enhance the gustatory pleasures, conveniences, and conversation of the household thus equipped, whether or not staff is still available for their daily use.

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