How did a culture end up with a tool for eating food that has to be learned as oposed to the relatively intuitive cutting, skewering, and scooping (knife, fork, spoon) tools of the west?
And while we’re at it…can you really trust a culture that uses one stick to pick up **two ** pails of water, but two sticks to pick up one grain of rice?
I don’t know how they got invented, but I believe it was the Fruge who informed me via his cooking show that chopsticks are a more sophisticated utensil than the knife and fork. I believe it was the Chinese who came up with the idea that food should be cut into bite-sized pieces before it was presented to guests for eating, and only a barbarian would serve food that the guest had to do the work of cutting up before eating.
And, really, they’re not that hard to use. I eat with them any time I eat Asian food, which I actually eat quite a bit of.
Chopsticks go back five thousand years in Chinese history. The theory goes that the Chinese would cook their food in very large vessels and used wooden twigs to remove the food from these pots. After a while, these twigs evolved into chopsticks.
Confucius is said to have encouraged the use of chopsticks since knives and forks conjured up violent images and were thus not suitable for the table.
Chopsticks are basically just pointed sticks, which was the first “eating utensil” (not counting fingers) used by humans, tracing back into caveman days. And chopsticks really haven’t changed for thousands of years (except in the materials they’re made of).
Knives & forks are much more sophisticated utensils. They have gone thru many more years of refinement, and all kinds of versions have been developed for specific foods. (In the Victorian era, this went to almost ridiculous extents – a ‘complete’ silverware setting for a rich household had 20-30 different types of forks, dozens of spoons, etc. But they thought it important to have a specific fork matching the type of food being served. Most of us get along fine with much fewer variations!)
See the book “The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to be as They are” by Henry Petroski, for much more detail than most people want to know about this subject.
If the knife and fork are actually “intuitive,” why is it that so many Americans insist on holding their fork in the left hand, cutting something with the knife in their right, putting the knife down, moving the fork from the left to the right, and then moving the cut bit of food to their mouths? This bit of hand-shuffle is practiced by a large number of people – look around a restaurant sometime if you don’t do it yourself – and can only be considered natural in the way that mindless repitition could only instill. Intuitive, bah.
Better yet, think about the last time you had to eat from a picnic plate that you had to balance in your lap. God help you if you didn’t have a table handy to steady your plate while you tried to cut your steak or chicken breast while performing a balancing act with your full plate resting on your knees.
I’m not saying chopsticks are natural, but the theory makes far better sense than that of everybody cutting their foods with knife and fork. Once one realizes that chopsticks are meant to be extensions of one’s thumb and forefinger, all will be made clear.
While forks were in use in parts of the world as early as the 1600s, they didn’t come into common meal-time usage in the United States until about 1850. Before that time, knives were used as we use forks, forks being thought of as sort of a fancy-shmancy affectation of the rich.
IIRC, it was incorrect to use a spoon for eating solid foods which were either speared on the tip of the knife, or sort of scooted onto the blade, and thence dumped into the mouth. If the old rhyme bears truth, peas could be particularly troublesome:
I eat my peas with honey,
I’ve done it all my life.
It makes the peas taste funny,
But it keeps 'em on my knife.
Some of the ultarations of the fork have been in the numbers of tines (early forks usually had two) and in the sharpness of the points (some of the early forks must have been brutal on the gums!) But they haven’t changed dramatically: cooking forks were often the same size as a modern dinner fork, and the overall shape and style are the same.
I wouldn’t necessarily call the fork a sophisticated utensil. It’s basically a mini-pitchfork, and is very simple to use. Whereas chopsticks are more delicate, and require a bit more skill to use gracefully.
I don’t do that. Knife always in my left hand! Those people that do the switching annoy me to death. They are either not very hungry, they like to play around with their food, or they are too clumsy to use a knife with their left hand.
You mean Americans. Or at least well mannered ones.
I dunno, I generally feel that chopsticks are far more graceful instruments whereas forks, while perhaps more intuitive, simply feel more primitive. I mean, you’re basically just stabbing your food. And I’m not sure if it’s true that forks have evolved much at all; one fork may have a different purpose than another, but are they really all that different from each other?
Incidentally, the Chinese use different chopsticks for different purposes as well. Longer chopsticks are used for stir-frying, shorter chopsticks for eating, different chopsticks to serve food, etc.
I have question :how many trees have to be cut to make chopsticks? ,I guess a lot.
Most of them, especially the disposable kind, are made of bamboo. No trees are harmed in the making of these utensils.
You just think Western silverware is intuitive because you learned how to use it when you were young. They don’t seem so straightforward to people who aren’t used to them. I know some older Japanese people who are very uncomfortable with Western silverware, and have a few friends my own age who’ve admitted that although they’ll cut a steak into pieces with a knife and fork they prefer to actually eat it using chopsticks.
At least some disposable chopsticks are made from woodscraps. So those trees were being cut down for other purposes anyway. The waste does trouble me a bit though. Even fairly nice restaurants often use disposable chopsticks. I don’t know why more don’t just invest in some higher quality chopsticks and then wash and reuse them. Imagine if every Western-style restaurant used plastic spoons and forks!
Confucius had clearly never seen Takeshi Kitano’s film Hana-bi.
In one scene where a Yukaza heavy is putting on the pressure in a restaurant, Kitano’s character stabs him in the eye with a pair of chopsticks.
I think I read a quote on this board (from a similar question) that if the Japanese decided one day to stop using chop sticks, they would save enough wood in a year to build 20,000 homes. Now, extend that to China…
And as with cultural relativism, I’d love to hear the complimentary statement of, “If American stopped using forks they’d save enough plastic to…”
That’s a very interesting observation. In my experience, chopsticks are far more graceful in only certain applications. When in an Asian restaurant, a person using a fork looks like an idiot, and is truly just stabbing at their food.
But that is in sharp contrast to the way my grandparents handle their knife and fork with precision, something not commonly seen these days as pointed out by Ravenman. I think you’ll find that graceful can be used to describe both chop sticks and knife/fork when used by a graceful person. My years eatting with other graduate students taught me that chopsticks and forks can look equally stupid when used wrong.
Here’s another question with interesting replies asked last month or so…
FWIW, Here is a link to an anthropology department that tracks the development of utensils. Another vote for the twig-and-small food theory.
But the “quick little fellows” line is not to be taken too seriously. The Chinese term for chopsticks sounds like, and is derived from, words with such a meaning, but it is not a literal translation.
I dunno about “intuitive”… if I see something smallish on a surface, the intuitive way of picking it up is to form a pincer with my thumb and one or more of my other fingers. Chopsticks are an extension of this. The other “intuitive” utensils are the spoon (if I want to pick up a liquid, or loose grain, I scoop it up in my cupped palm) and the knife, a refinement of the stone hand-axe, invented by hominids millions of years ago. Which BTW are ALL used in Asian dining. The fork, OTOH, is a more complicated instrument.
Oh, and any Westerner who has enjoyed having a baby get food all over herself, yourself, the room and the dog will tell you, the western utensils have to be “learned” just as much as the chopsticks.