In early 2013, a middle school student in a suburban Chicago cafeteria sat down to a typical lunch and, like most of her 640 peers, grabbed the only utensil available: a plastic spork – a combination of spoon and fork.
But that might change. A group at the school created a short film, "Sporktagion" in which a "sporkitis" plague spreads as everyone throws things away instead of recycling them. The result, they hope, will be lunches munched with the help of reusable metal flatware [source: Fox].
Perhaps they don't realize the spork doesn't have to be formed by heat-molded polymers. They can be made of any number of materials, from wood and steel to glass and titanium. There are even specialty sporks for office workers, campers, prisoners, left-handed diners and toddlers. These may have adaptive handles (in the case of southpaws and children) or short, dull tines (in the case of prisoners to prevent their use as a weapon) [source: Wilson].
The business end of a spork is similar to a spoon, but with a mountain range of truncated tines on the bowl end. This multipurpose utensil is designed to eat soup and spear solid food -- all without requiring a tableware switcheroo from spoon to fork. They're beloved by schools, fast-food chains, prisons and other institutions serving food because there's no need to buy more than one type of utensil. Plus, plastic sporks are inexpensive. It's possible to buy 1,000 for less than $10 [source: Webstaurant].
Before you write off the spork as a utensil only for the huddled masses, consider the advanced spork design, suitable for home or high-end use. These sporks are made of more expensive materials (silver-plated spork, anyone?) and feature a sharp edge so they can act as a knife, too.
A Brief History of the Spork
Sporks are a fairly recent invention. Spoons have been around since prehistoric times while two-tined forks were used for cooking in ancient Greece and Rome. During the Middle Ages, wealthy families started eating with forks [source: Bramen]. Combining the two implements took another few centuries. In Victorian times, you could get an ice cream fork that looked very similar to a spork [source: Wilson].
In 1874, a U.S. patent was awarded to Samuel W. Francis for a utensil with a handle and a spoon-like end outfitted with a knife-edge and fork tines. While it's unclear whether Francis manufactured the product on a mass scale, other patents followed that tweaked the design -- deeper bowls, shorter tines, plastic construction.
It wasn't until a U.S. patent was issued in 1970 to the Van Brode Milling Co. that the term "spork" was officially tied to the design. Perhaps it was the catchy name or simply good entrepreneurial fortune, but shortly thereafter Kentucky Fried Chicken became the first to offer plastic sporks with its meals [source: Made How].
Although the reason is unclear, a few years later the Van Brode Milling Co. abandoned the patent, which was picked up by U.K.-based Plastico Limited [source: Fallon]. The spork became a global sensation. Today, you're likely to find one accompanying your fast-food meal in a little package with a paper napkin and some condiments.
And, if you happen to find yourself spork-less yet needing a fix, give the iSpork app a try. This app allows iPhone users to swipe a virtual spork to simulate dining. You can even choose from a variety of meal options [source: iTunes].
Author's Note: Who invented the spork?
Whether you're a fan of the spork or not, you've probably encountered one -- even if it was as part of an Internet meme. Sporks are beloved for their cultural irony. Case in point? Bend the two middle tines down and (voila!) Batman.
I was surprised to discover sporks aren't a purely American icon. In Australia, the "splade" is a popular spork equivalent. This spoon/blade utensil reached the peak of its popularity in the 1950s and '60s as, of all things, a wedding gift.
- Bramen, Lisa. "A History of Western Eating Utensils." Smithsonian. July 31, 2009. (March 5, 2013). http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/food/2009/07/a-history-of-western-eating-utensils-from-the-scandalous-fork-to-the-incredible-spork/
- Fallon, Sean. "The Captivating History of the Spork." Gizmodo. Aug. 28, 2009. (Feb. 23, 2013) http://gizmodo.com/5347994/the-captivating-history-of-the-spork
- Fox, Paige Fumo. "Berwyn Middle School Students Aim to End Use of 'Sporks.'" Chicago Tribune. Feb. 12, 2013. (Feb. 23, 2013) http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-02-12/news/ct-tl-berwyn-school-event-2-20130212_1_utensils-river-forest-forest-park
- KeyVisuals. "iSpork." (Feb. 23, 2013) http://iphone.keyvisuals.com/apps/ispork/
- Made How. "Spork." (Feb. 23, 2013) http://www.madehow.com/Volume-7/Spork.html#b
- Wilson, Bee. "The Spork's Weird History." Salon. Oct. 6, 2012. (Feb. 23, 2013) http://www.salon.com/2012/10/06/consider_the_spork/