Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Etiquette, Forks and Chopsticks

The Latin “de gustibus” translates to “in matters of taste” – For those who dine primarily with chopsticks or with forks, it does boil down to a matter of taste and personal preference, regardless of the history involved, ease or difficulty of use, or one’s country of origin. For another point of view, we have reprinted a 1990 New York Times’ article.

De Gustibus; Older Than Forks, Safer Than Knives

THIS is a plea for chopsticks. Chopsticks for pasta. Chopsticks for string beans. Chopsticks for french fries. Chopsticks for grilled chanterelles. Indeed, chopsticks for just about anything, except perhaps a thick hunk of meat. I have one friend who even uses them to eat ice cream.

I don't mean to be demanding. I know running a restaurant or arranging a dinner party is tough enough without having to worry about additional utensils. But I have long thought most food just tastes better when eaten with chopsticks, and I think diners should have the choice. Let's face it: there is nothing sacrosanct about an eating utensil. It was not until the 18th century, after all, that most people in the United States even used a fork.

According to “From Hand to Mouth,” a history of the use of cutlery by James Cross Giblin (Thomas Y. Crowell, 1987), the wealthy began using forks in this country in the mid-1700’s. Until that time, people got by with a spoon and a sharp-pointed knife. (Potatoes, like other food, were routinely stabbed and gulped off the blade.) Indeed, the fork met with resistance for centuries.

In “Food in History” (Crown, 1989) Reay Tannahill says that although small forks were first used in the 10th century by the Byzantines (the ancient Egyptians used large forks to display sacrificial offerings), it was not until 1533 that Catherine de' Medici introduced them to France, where they were for the most part ignored.

More than 100 years later, Louis XIV still ate chicken stew with his fingers and forbade the Duke of Burgundy and his brothers to use forks in his presence. The British did not start using forks until the 17th century. As late as 1897, Miss Tannahill writes, sailors in the British Navy were forbidden to use them “because they were regarded as being prejudicial to discipline and manliness.”

In contrast, chopsticks have gracefully provided sustenance since as long ago as 1200 B.C. Nina Simonds, whose book “China's Food,” a travelogue of food in China, is to be published later this year by Harper & Row, says that chopsticks (kuaizi in Mandarin, which is derived from the Chinese word for ‘quick’) have been in common use since the Early Han Dynasty, 206 B.C. to A.D. 8.

Simply put, Mr. Giblin writes, they appear to have provided a polite alternative to knives, which Confucius said reminded the diner of the violent act of slaughter. “The honorable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen,” Confucius wrote. “And he allows no knives on his table.” I agree to a certain extent, although men do have their place in the kitchen these days. Chopsticks are serene instruments that permit diners to lift food to their lips rather than spearing it. They are elegant in both their simplicity and their singularity of purpose. But so far as I am concerned, their chief appeal is not their absence of violence. It is the opportunity they provide for gustatory involvement. 

In many ways, chopsticks are the culinary equivalent of the stick shift. They enhance the act of eating and make it more participatory, tactile, not to mention fun. They give a certain ceremony to consumption and force the calorie-conscious diner to focus on the ritual of gustation, and therefore on the amount of food being shoveled into the mouth at any time. This increased awareness, in turn, enhances the attention paid to whatever is being eaten and encourages the diner to focus more on flavor.

But the advantages of chopsticks don't stop there. Chopsticks instantly promote a sense of community and conviviality at the table. Chopstick eaters are far less reluctant to lift up their individual plates and taste around. Even French foods like cassoulet, choucroute and ratatouille lend themselves, in part, to chopsticks. (Clearly a knife and fork are helpful for large chunks of duck.) But so do Indian beef curry, thick Tex-Mex chili and Greek souvlaki.

I know a lot of Westerners who do not use chopsticks. They either have little interest in them or have never learned how. Some have been exposed only to Japanese chopsticks, which are tapered, come to a point at the tip and are more difficult to maneuver than Chinese chopsticks. Like sensible shoes, Chinese chopsticks - square at the head and thick at the base - are clunkier, perhaps, but far more functional. They are perfect for eating shish kebab, asparagus spears, shrimp, linguine with clam sauce or Chicken McNuggets.

Of course, anyone can learn to use chopsticks. Chopstick users outnumber fork eaters throughout the world by at least 2 to 1, some scholars of eating habits say. They simply require a desire to learn. But be forewarned: teaching someone to use chopsticks is a little bit like teaching someone to drive a car. It is best not to be related, and better yet not to be teaching someone who is hungry. “Why can't I just use a fork?” is obviously the kind of question best left unanswered.

Norge W. Jerome, director of the office of nutrition for the Agency for International Development in Washington and a professor of nutritional anthropology at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, is pessimistic about the future of chopsticks in the United States. Knives and forks, she says, have a certain “snob appeal” and are too deeply embedded in the national sense of propriety. But I think it is time to re-evaluate this parochialism. Not that everyone should be forced to eat with chopsticks. Let fork eaters have their forks. But why should chopstick lovers always be made to feel like outcasts? Why do they always have to feel left out? Why can't they feel that they belong?

No question about it. Having to bring your own chopsticks to dinner, and to be instantly made a spectacle, is a form of discrimination - not the most heinous kind, but still a shame. At a time when East and West are being merged more than ever before, isn't it time to reaffirm our sense of tolerance, to re-evaluate our table-setting habits and to give chopstick lovers a chance? – By Dena Kleinman, NY Times, 1990 

Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J Graber, is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia

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