I wrote the following a few years ago, someone remembered it, and requested that I reprint it here. So here it is. Plenty of hyperbole, yes, but what the hell. Does anyone else vastly prefer chopsticks for salads?
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I’ve pretty much stopped eating with forks; it’s almost exclusively chopsticks these days. I’ll still use a spoon occasionally, when it’s called for, but, for the most part, I try to avoid eating with utensils made of metal.
Why this aversion to metal? It may be because I already have so much metal in my mouth. By the time I was about 10 my sweet tooth had turned into several metal-amalgam teeth; I had imagined, on my way back from the dentist, that “only one cavity!” was a mark of achievement. I may thus be especially sensitive, but there is something scary about a heavy metal forkful of food slightly missing its mark and landing squarely on one of my metal-dominated molars, and sending the dreaded ping of metal-to-metal pain in a quadrant of my mouth, in hideous and direct contrast with the delight of the morsel I am simultaneously attempting to chew. I have nightmares about chomping down on a small piece of foil, innocently clinging to a piece of food.
Moreover, there’s something crass about the shoveling motion for which the fork is designed. It is imprecise, even fumbling, to an alarming degree. We often need a blocker just to make it work: a pile of mashed potatoes, a piece of bread, a thumb. And then there’s the “stabbing” function of a fork, which lends even more associations of unpleasantness, if not downright violence. Plopping the fork on the plate between bites can also be a delicate operation — more metallic clanging — and is discernibly and unpleasantly audible in any restaurant the moment you decide to tune in to it.
Not so with wood or bamboo, on any of the above charges.
The most obvious and most pleasing characteristic of the chopstick is its material composition: wood or bamboo. Not plastic; I can ‘t think of a single reason ever to use a plastic chopstick, when vastly superior wooden and bamboo sticks are both inexpensive and widely available. There is something about the feel of wood inside the mouth. Most of us probably remember the rough and warm texture of the twigs we tasted as children. It is a most pleasant memory for me.
The Japanese-style wooden or bamboo sticks are tapered, almost to a point. The square-bottom sticks represent a serious design flaw. Tapered sticks afford great precision; one can easily, quietly, quickly, and elegantly select the precise morsel of any pile or formation of almost any food, an especially useful feature when eating salads. The more varied the size and texture of the salad components, the more useful sticks become. Pastas, too, especially shells or penne — no stabbing, falling, or shoveling. Gravity and the sheer awkwardness of the shovel motion of a fork conspire constantly to derail a what-you-thought-was-a-well-timed-and-well-placed forkful of desperately desired food, and embarrassing you in the process. The gentlest of squeezes of the sticks effortlessly brings the morsel into your mouth; it slides in the exact mouth location you desire. The pleasure is heightened yet again by the feel of the smooth, warm grain passing both into and out of your lips. And,when finished, down they go, noiselessly, into their little rests (I like using wine corks as stick rests) or on the edge of a plate.
And then there’s the issue of actual taste. Metal often contrasts, most unpleasantly, with acidic foods, which I happen to love. I emphatically do NOT want to taste metal of any sort in my food. This is why no one drinks wine from metallic glasses: it destroys nuance. Metal dominates, takes over, destroys subtlety. Cut bamboo and wood, on the other hand, are totally neutral if the utensils are old, or lend a barely discernible grassy subtlety if they are freshly cut.
Nor are knives normally set out at my table. I do not wish to cut or saw anything when I am sitting down to eat. All cutting, slicing, and carving takes place in the kitchen; I don’t want to pick up a big piece of meat with chopsticks and begin gnawing away at it — I cut it into bite-size piece before serving it. In fact, I don’t want to mess with or manipulate the food in ANY way. I just want to eat it, not mess with it. Knowing beforehand that the meal will be eaten exclusively with chopsticks can change the meal’s whole dynamic.
I like to set a big ceramic utensil jar on the dining table, stuffed full with an enticing variety of sticks (the one above is actually a munition shell picked up at a flea market in Germany). Guests choose their own pairs. This also obviates the need to “set the table,” a task no one in their right mind looks forward to.
Chopsticks can be intimidating to someone not well-versed in them, but we can rapidly dispel that fear in well under five minutes with an easily learned technique. With one chopstick, imagine that you are writing with a long thin pen. With the second, place it parallel to the other so that it rests between the webbed area of the thumb and the inward side of your ring finger. The bottom one never moves; you only work the top one. Be relaxed and gentle. Practice on grapes, then on raisins, then on a tossed salad, picking out precisely what you want.
I have no desire nor illusions toward changing the way people get food into their mouths, so this is not meant as any kind of evangelical screed. Bang around all the metal you want. But next time you’re in Costplus, or Pier One, or any imported goods store (why doesn’t some enterprising domestic company come out with a line of really cool, well-designed chopsticks?), just take a ten-second peek at what they’ve got, and let the aesthete in you imagine. Better yet, take a trip to Japan and come back with a lifetime supply!