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Carving Meat | A Quick Trip Through A Long History

If you are remotely interested in foodie magazines and blogs, you can’t escape the how-to tutorials on carving meat at the moment.  In the US, next week sees the celebration of Thanksgiving, requiring the disassembling of behemoth turkeys.  In December, all around the world, other end-of-the-year festivities require their own meat carving skills.

carving meat

Whose job is it to carve the meat?  French Third Empire Ebony and Silver Carving Set.

Popular twentieth century etiquette placed this responsibility on the man of the house, but has it always been so? Have you ever wondered how our modern rituals surrounding carving meat came about?

Carving meat goes back 3.4 million years

According to evidence found by scientists working in Ethiopia, it seems that as long as 3.4 million years ago our ancestors were deliberately using stone implements to cut meat.  It is unclear if they used unshaped rocks or had fashioned actual tools to do so.  The oldest stone tools that scientists have catalogued date back about 2.6 million years…but who knows how complete our picture of tool-making is.

What is indisputable is that for millions of years we have been using pieces of stone for carving meat.

A slight digression about the sharpness of stone

Do memories random images of wrestling a large piece of cooked beast while trying to carve it using modern carbon or stainless steel implements make you wonder, how difficult it would have been with stone?

It gave me a moment’s pause…so I looked it up.  Did you know that obsidian blades can be sharper than surgical steel?  Having recently cut myself on a carbon steel knife deeply enough to have needed 6 stitches in my index finger, I wince in sympathy.

A long silence on social customs

Obviously, we knew nothing about the social significance of carving meat until quite recently in human history.  I can’t help but wonder if carving was the successful hunter’s responsibility/reward?  Or was it a job for others to do?

Jumping forward a couple of million years, we do know that the fork as a cooking and serving utensil was known in Ancient Egypt as well as parts of Ancient China.  Development of the fork would have made the job of carving much easier.

But again, who did the actual carving?  My admittedly scanty knowledge of Ancient Egyptian social customs does not conjure up images of early Pharaohs asking if you’d prefer rare or well-done.  I’d be willing to bet carving was typically a servant’s job.  Similarly, what I know of Roman customs doesn’t make me think that the upper strata of society were the DIY type.  One shudders to think of some of the particularly insane late-Roman Emperors letting loose with a carving knife and fork.

The first specifically written word

In Medieval Europe, the spotlight firmly shines on squires in a knight’s household. Being a squire was an obligatory period of training prior to winning one’s spurs and being knighted.  In addition to learning the martial arts, squires also were instructed in social customs and skills.  One of the specific things a squire learned was how to do was carve meat and attend to the banquet table.

During the Tudor era, Wynkyn de Worde published The Boke of Kervynge.  Initially appearing in 1508, it is the first book written in English devoted to detailed instructions on carving and preparing meat.  The rules of carving meat back in Wynkyn de Worde’s day make us look like slackers!

De Worde lists over 40 specific commands relating to carving.  Each animal has its own specific vocabulary: thigh that pigeon, splat that pike, and disfigure that peacock are amongst my favorites.

Emily Post gives up

Sadly, the why’s and when’s of how carving meat went from being a servant’s task to one for the man of the house are not clear.  In the 19th century, references can be found about the style of serving known as a la Russe relegating carving to the servants. Does this imply at other times the carving was done by the Mr.?

In her early works, Emily Post wrote carving ‘was once considered an art necessary to every gentleman’, suggesting a strong prevailing fashion for the Mr. to do the honors.  But even she writes about carving being done in the kitchen by the cook in 49 out of 50 households.  So perhaps it was always more of a perception than reality?

Regardless, in 1928 the section on carving meat was dropped from her famous etiquette book.

Tools of the trade

To my mind, the decades since then have been dominated by the tools of the trade, rather than the question of who wields them.  I specifically refer to the introduction of the electric knife, for which the first patent dates to 1929.

While an electric knife certainly makes the task physically easier, surely many a poor cook has wept silent tears while their lovely roast has been shredded by one.  Electric knives always seem to leave a rough — even jagged — surface on the meat.  The carving board is often littered with little pieces of shredded meat.  In contrast, a sharp carving knife makes smooth, visually appealing slices.

carving meat

Make sure you have a good fork. This is crucial to your carving success.

Successfully carving meat

However you choose to carve the roast at your feast, there are four keys to success:

  1. Make sure your knife is sharp.  Even if you use an electric knife!  They don’t stay sharp forever either.
  2. Use a carving fork.  Whether you use a manual or electric knife, a fork for holding the meat still is non-negotiable.
  3. Watch one of those meat carving tutorials so you know what to do.
  4. Bring your gorgeous roast out of the kitchen intact on a platter.  Let all those assembled at the table ohh and ahh.  Then go back into the kitchen, and while they sort out serving all the other dishes, wrestle carve the meat in private.

PS

Who carves the meat in your house?