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Kitchen Histories: Love Spoons

Jan 15, 2015

by Sarah Lohman handmade and vintage goods

Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman combs Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.

Are you the big spoon or the little spoon?

When I doze in the early morning, I’m nested between my husband and our cat, whom we call the tiny teaspoon. I think of our silverware neatly nestled in the kitchen drawer, spoon bowls stacked in place, just like us. But “to spoon” originally meant to flirt or to court. The term may have come from an interesting tradition that appeared in 17th-century Wales, when young men would give elaborately carved kitchen spoons to their sweethearts. It was a romantic gift that would have been put to regular use, which I think is pretty clever.

The spoon is the most ancient eating tool. We scooped our food with shells, then carved bits of bone, long before knives and forks came onto the scene. Modern spoons developed in England, morphing in style until the 1660s when the spoon changed from a fig-shaped eating tool to the bowl shape we’re familiar with today.

The first love spoon also appeared in the 1660s, in Wales. It’s not known exactly why the tradition began, but it’s easy to imagine how. Young men would carve the utensils during the winter downtime, when farm work was less demanding, and give them as gifts to the women they hoped to marry. Carved from sycamore, boxwood, or the wood of fruit trees, the images on these spoons were laden with symbolism. Typically, a spoon intended for your love had a handle that ended in carved heart; a diamond represented a wish for good fortune; and a wheel an intent to guide the recipient through life.

As the tradition spread across Europe, the spoons were presented at important ceremonies, and the carvings became more intricate: a set of spoons for a wedding day was linked by a wooden chain, and a spoon carved with a cage-like square handle with free-moving balls in the center represented how many children the couple wished to have. These spoons were carved from solid pieces of wood, the chain links and spheres set free from the timber by skilled artisans.

The affinity for love spoons remained the strongest in Wales, where massive and elaborate examples of the spoons displayed in museums feature intertwined double handles and bowls. This pattern symbolizes the “union of heart and soul,” according to a 1905 article, which also noted that spoon-carving was almost extinct. But the tradition survives: passionate amateur and professional carvers in Wales and the rest of the UK have kept the art form alive — even going as far as presenting a love spoon to Queen Elizabeth. Love spoons are still occasionally used at Welsh weddings, and some couples even distribute miniature spoons as wedding favors.

The art form has also jumped the ocean, with American wood carvers like Dave’s Carving coaxing new spoons into existence. His pieces are enormous, complicated patterns of twisting, fluid lines, while Wonderful Sun makes simple, elegant versions of classic designs. Either style would make a unique and beautiful way to express your devotion.

The warm sentiment of gifting a love spoon doesn’t have to be limited to Welsh-inspired wood styles, though. A hand-cast pewter sugar spoon from Glover and Smith will sit in a sugar bowl, ready to scoop sweetness for your loved one for years to come. The handle ends in a heart, just like a love spoon; or you can choose an oak leaf, a bee, or any other design that might suit your beloved. Or perhaps a Cupid’s-arrow coffee scoop from Beehive Kitchenware is more fitting, to help your darling awaken in the morning. And anything from Kitchen Carvings would make a handsome gift — the wood of their spoons is so rich it glows.

The idea of giving a well-made spoon this Valentine’s day charms me. Flowers fade and chocolate is devoured, but a spoon will stay in my kitchen day after day. And when it’s in my hand, while I cook and eat, it will be a constant reminder of the one I love.

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