Whenever we eat out, we don’t think twice about sitting down, surrounded by people wielding knives…..This is a huge demonstration of trust in the general decency and benevolence of strangers….at least it would be, except the knives you find on a dining table, with the possible exception of steak knives, are remarkable only for their complete impracticality and uselessness in terms of cutting anything.
In earlier times, when every knife was a potentially deadly weapon, societies developed a variety of safety measures…..In the east, knives stayed sharp and stayed firmly in the kitchen, in the hands of experts. Food was brought to the table already cut into bite-sized pieces and chopsticks and spoons were the only acceptable dining table utensils for civilized people…..only a barbarian would eat with a knife…..
In the west, we carried on having our own personal knives which we used to cut pieces from large chunks of meat or bread, but we minimised the dangers from other diners by creating a whole etiquette about hospitality and the sacred safety of guests.
This difference between the east and the west – between the use of knives and the avoidance of knives in public dining – has had a major impact on our facial physiology. 99% of us have an overbite – an upper jaw that overlaps the lower jaw – and we consider this to be ‘normal’ and attractive. Actually it is a very recent adaptation to eating bite-sized pieces of food and the faces of people who developed chopsticks changed earlier than those of the knife-wielders.
As recently as 300 years ago, it was still common in the west to pick up and bite into a large piece of meat or bread and use your knife to cut off the excess, which was then returned to the common platter. Using our jaws to hold the food meant our teeth met edge to edge and because we did it from the moment we teethed, our front teeth (incisors) were kept from growing longer and stayed the same size as their neighbouring teeth. Our smile would look odd by today’s standard, with all our teeth on show.
In the east, where people’s food was already bite-sized before it came to the table and so could be put directly into the mouth, the over-bite appeared hundreds of years earlier than in the west. Westerners only developed an over-bite once they started using a fork to hold their food steady while they cut pieces off, rather than using their mouths…..this was also the point when they developed knives specifically for dining – knives with blunt, rounded edges that clearly differentiated them from weapons.