Cardella: Chopsticks

By Tom Cardella

Ancient China is responsible for many wonderful contributions to our civilization. Among them are paper, silk, the compass (without one I can’t find my way above Broad and Snyder), the mechanical clock (which I’m only aware of twice a year when I forget to change the time), the toothbrush (an instrument we’ve managed to make as expensive as a meal at a French restaurant), fireworks (without which there would not have been a reason to attend a Phillies game in the last four years), toilet paper (although for some strange reason, many of my readers write me that they prefer to use my columns instead), ice cream (without which Ben and Jerry would just be two hippies trying to figure out which tie-dyed T-shirt to wear), and exploding cannonballs (which you could argue our culture could’ve done without).

The above paragraph is designed to ensure you that what follows is not a rant from someone who is anti-Chinese. I am not advocating that we build a wall between China and ourselves. Oh wait, the Chinese have already done that. I am not in agreement with our President who believes that China is almost single-handedly responsible for our economic problems. I tend to blame Goldman Sachs (note — The fact that New Jersey elected a governor who worked at Goldman-Sachs just shows that even a candidate with THAT background looked better to voters than anyone with links to Chris Christie). I am also aware that dollar stores would not exist if it were not for stuff manufactured in China. Okay, I’m glad we got all that out of the way because here’s what I am really against: chopsticks!

Chopsticks were invented in China anywhere from 5,000 to 9,000 years ago. I realize that covers a wide area, but history is what it is — a way for David McCollough to earn a living.

The name “chopsticks” Is thought to be derived from “chop chop.” Which means quick. However, if you saw me trying to use chopsticks, “quick” would be the last word that would come to mind. Some historians believe that “chopsticks” derives from “chow chow,” which means “food.” Why is it necessary to repeat “chop” or “chow?” I am not going to make the obvious guess for fear of offending those who stutter.

Note: in 1877, Euphemia Allen decided to call his musical composition “Chopsticks” and confused everyone.

The use of chopsticks spread from China across Asia. In Japan for example, sitting with your chopsticks crossed means “death.” This is obviously something to consider the next time you’re pondering whether to order the California roll or the higher-end sushi.

I am obsessed with the thought that the only reason chopsticks were really invented was to embarrass me at Asian restaurants. I realize the timeline is wrong, but I can’t shake that thought.

At one time, using chopsticks might have been the best way to get food to your mouth. But then the fork came along. By the way, the fork was invented around 4 A.D. in Byzantine, part of the Roman Empire. The fork didn’t really come into common usage until the 17th century when kings got tired of trying to rip apart the Ossobuco with their bare hands. Some kings had a problem with attacking their meat in that fashion because they felt they would look uncivilized in Hollywood movies three centuries later. Others simply became annoyed when the flying juice increased the cost of dry cleaning. In any event, along came the fork and mankind progressed until November 8, 2016, the day Donald Trump was elected.

I am well aware that many historians believe that Eastern civilization is superior to that of the West. After watching Ichiro hit in the majors I’m tempted to agree. However, there is one exception where I believe the East showed a lack of imagination. The fork is vastly superior to chopsticks.

I am not asking Asia to give up chopsticks or even admit that the West got one thing right. And if Asian restaurants here in America want to give me chop sticks with my pork fried rice, I will not argue the point. But I also want a fork with my meal without having to ask for one. Let’s face it, there is a form of snobbery that goes on among Americans eating in Asian restaurants. There are perfectly nice people who insist on showing that THEY know how to use chopsticks while you sit there waiting for a fork. These folks can be members of your immediate family or your closest friends, but they won’t hesitate to flaunt their utensil superiority. My retort is that if forks were good enough for the Byzantines, they are good enough for me. At one time, I would give a half-hearted effort to try and use the chopsticks only to have the snow peas wind up on my lap.

My using a fork instead of chopsticks should not be construed as some form of American provincialism. It is time to use that fork proudly. Unapologetically. For too long, those of us who are chopsticks-disadvantaged have lived in fear of scorn. Some of us might have stayed away from Asian restaurants (I still countenance caution when it comes to “fusion” restaurants because I think they suffer from an identity crisis).

If Confucius were around today, he would undoubtedly say “Put a fork in it!”