Overbites, Flatware, and Chopsticks

Teeth“A Fork of One’s Own,” Jane Kramer, The New Yorker, 3/18/2013

Close your mouth and most likely you will find your upper incisors overlap your lower like the lid of a box.  This overbite is normal, if not too pronounced, and anything else is seen as abnormal.  But the overbite is a surprisingly recent development in our physiology.

A prominent physical anthropologist, Charles Loring Brace, observed that our overbite is only 250 years old.  Previously, our front teeth clashed edge-to-edge as in other primates, an occlusion Brace claims we inherited from the Neanderthals.  The modern overbite first began to appear in 18th century upper-class Western jaws and quickly spread to the middle class.  Pictures of our founding fathers–Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin–do seem to show a forward-thrusting lower jaw.  The modern change was accompanied by the development and spread of flatware to match our changing eating habitsFood softened by cooking and the growing use of utensils, according to the article, no longer required our incisors to meet.    The change to our overbite was too quick to be evolutionary and could only be an individual adjustment in the growth of jaw muscles and subsequent alignment of the teeth.  Read on.

At one time, you went to a friend’s house for dinner carrying your own dagger.  This not only protected you during the evening brawls, but when they passed the serving plate you stabbed a chunk of the meat with it, pulled the meat off the dagger with your hands, and bit off a piece at a time.

And that was just the women.  (What’s in your wallet?)

The first revolution was when hosts began to provide dinner-daggers for everyone.  Then, the story goes, at Cardinal Richelieu’s table a guest picked his teeth with the dagger, uncouth even then.  The Cardinal was so disgusted he ordered all of his dinner-daggers rounded off at their tips, but that left nothing to do the stabbing, and a fork had to be added.  The fork was simply a miniature version of the familiar farm tool and used in the same way.  The rounded knife and fork combination became a symbol of genteel civility, and soon everyone was using them, genteel or not.

Since the fork was handy to carry the food all the way to your mouth, the knife was free to cut the meat into smaller portions.  Tearing off tough meat with your incisors from early childhood was no longer the norm, and that was just the time when the overbite began to appear in the upper classes.   Without having to constantly thrust our lower jaw forward, the muscles could relax and the teeth align into an overbite.

The change occurred earlier in China.  Skeletons of high-status individuals from the Song dynasty (960–1279 AD) showed they had overbites, too.  Chopsticks had been common much earlier, probably from the development of Chinese cooking techniques to stretch the meat supply.  “The trick was to cut small quantities of meat into paper-thin slices, season them with condiments, preserves, and spices, add whatever vegetables you could grow or barter, and keep adding until you arrived at a dish so tasty you forgot how little meat was in it.”  Long before Europe, China had given up tearing at meat with their teeth simply because of its rarity.  Even today, a principle of Chinese cooking is that the cutting is done for you in the kitchen, and all you need to do is transfer your kung-pao to your mouth.  Chopsticks were ideal utensils to pick up these small pieces.   For soups, the Chinese porcelain spoon  was cheaper and cleaner than metal (Europeans did not have porcelain), and a handy little footrest could be built in as a bonus.


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
This entry was posted in China, History, Popular culture. Bookmark the permalink.

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