Once more, it was eating out with the Hub that led to a conversation that I had to tell you about. Usually, it was when we went out to our favorite diner, but this time, we had decided to go to our favorite Indian restaurant. As always, it was a thoughtful comment by the Hub—this time, as he was examining his fork as he was about to tuck into his dahl—wondering why it is that some cultures use forks and spoons, while others (notably, in Asia) use chopsticks.
I was an anthropology major, so I could hazard a guess about some of this—but only some, because I was a linguistical anthropology major (language was my forte, not sociocultural norms), and the most I would easily be able to hazard a guess about would be the terms used in utensils. But that wasn’t the question, was it? Anyway, I felt a need to do a little research.
The way these things go, I still don’t have a definite answer about why one was adopted over the other, considering both the chopsticks and the fork are of prehistoric origins, although the entire topic was an intriguing one. And I can’t help but think that it may be like the chicken and the egg: did one set of cultures adopt the chopsticks because the foodstuffs available there were easier to manipulate with one over the other? In that case, if it’s true that Marco Polo brought pasta back to Italy from his adventures in China, why didn’t the Italians promptly adopt chopsticks, because the hashi (as the Japanese call chopsticks) work so much better on noodles? For that matter, did Marco Polo really do that? I gotta check that out, too. Back in a bit. (Well, I’m back. Apparently the tale about Marco bringing back pasta from China originated from the trade periodical The Macaroni Journal, which, come to think of it, I remember hearing about from watching the TV show Good Eats. Is that true? This may take a while longer, and I’ve got a deadline.)
Anyway, chopsticks were being used in China as early as about 3,200 years ago. But the earliest chopsticks weren’t for individual use, for eating, according to Wikipedia. They were most likely used for cooking, and eventually, of course, chopsticks became the main choice of utensil in East Asia (with subtle differences among different cultures for their proper use), although forks are in plenty evidence these days. (As an aside, I present a series of workshops online and at conferences with my copresenter Jacquie Rogers called “Myths and Legends Along the Silk Road,” looking at how various mythological figures appear and change between Western and Eastern cultures. One thing that I found interesting is that vampire myths don’t appear a whole lot in the Far East, with the exception of the legend of the hopping vampire in China. I posit a theory here: most of the vampires there have been killed off, having been stabbed into oblivion by wooden chopsticks! Anyway.)
And speaking of the fork — which we were before I teetered off into another topic — it apparently had some history on its own, with evidence that it was around as early as Mesopotamia, ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire. The Byzantine Empire is about when the fork for you and me came about, finally becoming in common use starting from the 18th century. Of course, it didn’t come into broad use without some complaints (“Fancy high-tech!” probably being somebody’s sniffed comment), of course, including some church folk who apparently pointed out that fingers were mankind’s proper utensil and the fork was an affront to the Deity (and even though the fork is referred to in the Bible, and not in a negative way).
Back to the original topic — which came first, the fork or the chopstick? After looking at the references I could find off-hand (without enrolling in graduate school somewhere to study the topic for several years before defending a thesis for what possible use I cannot imagine), I have to conclude that they probably came about in the same period, maybe in the same area, maybe distant from each other — hard to say. The fork would have been more useful for stabbing and handling larger hunks of food, while the chopsticks would have been better for stabbing vampires (just kidding!) and tackling smaller items. Like so many other things in mankind’s development, things change and even (dare I say it?) evolve, depending on how it’s most useful to the situation at hand.
What all this means, of course, is that we can take advantage of all of our choices. So what’s this mean for you? It means you’re free to use whatever utensil you want. And if that involves using your fingers to eat soup, well, wait until it cools off a little, because otherwise it’s going to be not only messy but painful.
Eilis Flynn likes Indian food, which is why we got into this topic in the first place. She can be found to argue with at Facebook, Twitter, or at her website at www.eilisflynn.com.