Steak knives are no longer on the cutting edge of the cutlery scene

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The W. Bushes and their Texan friends may eat a lot of beef, but nationally, we're moving in another direction. These days, we're eating pasta dishes, tofu burgers, rice and beans, hearty soups, big green salads, and whole-grain breads.

Sales of steak knives are plummeting on wedding-registry lists. Even the crunchiest vegetable can be cut with a fork.

My family's steak knives haven't been out of their (wedding-gift) box for years.

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The only times we use knives anymore are when we prepare our food. Like samurai swordsmen let loose in the kitchen, we cut, chop, dice, slice, mince, cleave, split, shred, trim and section fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Faster than you can say "new wave cooking," peppers and tomatoes turn into salsa, fresh fruit becomes compote, and basil is pesto.

In ancient times, knives were made from sharpened pieces of flint, bone, or antlers. After a big slab of meat was roasted over an open fire, diners hacked it apart with their knives and ate it with their fingers.

You brought your own knife when you went out for dinner in the Middle Ages. The upper class carried cutlery in pouches tied around their waists, and sat at tables with their backs against the wall. Knives were handy for cutting up food as well as defending yourself against would-be assassins.

In 1530, the Dutch scholar Erasmus advised: If you must remove dirt from your food, don't scrape it off with your fingernails - use your knife.

Table knives were rounded at the tips in 17th-century France, when Louis XIV's fussy aide, Cardinal Richelieu, got fed up watching sloppy dinner guests use their knives to pare their nails and pick their teeth. Rounded tips appealed to the king for another reason - they decreased the risk of his being stabbed while he was eating.

Later, silversmiths and ivory carvers decorated the handles with biblical figures, cherubs, and mythological characters. During Lent, the handles were black onyx; at Easter time, they were ivory white. "Grace knives" in Italy had handles with musical notations citing songs to be sung before and after a meal.

It's time to update that classic image of a hungry man sitting down with a napkin around his neck and a knife and fork in each hand. Instead of banging the table with two utensils and asking, "What's for dinner?" Now he's holding ... just a fork.

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