The Secret History of Steak Knives
Sharp knives disappeared from the dining room table, only to return, centuries later, in steak knife form. Kings, cardinals, and factories are involved.
By Ernie Smith
Sep 28, 2017
Obviously, knives, with their sharp blades for cutting through things, have been around forever—they’re a key ingredient of any horror film, slasher flick, or murder mystery that’s ever been created.
But here’s a question that I don’t think a lot of people have pondered, mainly because they aren’t expected to, like I am: Why do steaks get their own dedicated knives, and why do we shove them into giant blocks of wood for storage? And what about butter knives? What’s up with them?
It turns out that it’s a story with a lot of edges—some sharp, some dull.
Before there was the steak knife, there was the table knife, or the butter knife. As blade designs go, it’s pretty weak-sauce, and intentionally so.
The reason for this goes back nearly 400 years, and involves an annoyed French clergyman. Cardinal Armand Jean du Plessis, the Duke of Richelieu and Fronsac—or Cardinal Richelieu for short—became annoyed by table manners of those eating with pointed knives, which were used as a way of picking teeth.
He had his knife edges rounded, the legend goes, in an effort to discourage bad behavior by his guests.
This broke tradition around knife use. See, knife blades were long the primary way that people ate food—unlike napkins, which weren’t always a given, they were always a key element of the meal. Often, medieval cultures would eat meals using a single knife—their own, which they brought with them to dinner—and their hands. The introduction of the fork into European culture changed the way we interacted with knives, just as it did with napkins.
Cardinal Richelieu was a powerful, influential man, and his knife-dulling approach gained enough currency that in 1669, 27 years after he died, King Louis XIV issued a decree making pointed knives illegal in France, whether inside the home or out in public. Suddenly, a lot of sharp knives got pretty dull.
Read the whole thing.