Confession: I cannot hold chopsticks properly. Somehow, I weave my middle finger between the two sticks, bestowing little control, and allowing me to navigate my food anywhere but into my mouth. Due to this deficiency, I no longer allow myself to go out to sushi bars, Chinese restaurants, hibachi places, or any such establishment where my ineptitude is displayed.
But this is a conundrum, as I dearly love sushi. So, on a quest to remedy my problem, I began to wonder who in the world created these sticks, and where the rest of flatware came from. Initially, I thought that chopsticks were probably the oldest utensils since they seem the most simplistic, but I was way off…by thousands of years.
Hands down, spoons take the cake as the oldest eating utensil, next to fingers, of course. Spoons can be dated back to the Paleolithic period, before the woolly rhinoceroses went extinct. In other words, they’ve been around for a while. It’s thought that the spoon most likely originated in southern Europe. The Greek and Latin words for “spoon” come from the word cochlea, meaning a spiral shaped snail shell, so you can then guess what the first spoons were made of. In ancient Egypt, spoons were made mainly of ivory, flint, slate, and different woods, while Greeks and Romans fashioned theirs out of bronze and silver. In Medieval times, spoons were made of cow horns, wood, brass and pewter. Of course, there were fancy ones too, made of silver and gold, but they were reserved for nobles and royalty.
Chopsticks, though still old, only date back to about 5,000 years ago, to China. It’s thought that the Chinese began to cut their food up into small bits so that it would cook quickly, allowing them to conserve their resources. Because the bites were so small, they no longer needed knives while they ate and twigs were at the ready to transport piping hot food to the mouth before it began to cool. These twigs spawned chopsticks. By 500 CE, such utensils spread to most of the Asian countries. The wealthiest had those made of jade, gold, coral, agate, and silver while most everyone else’s were fashioned chiefly from bamboo.
Of course knives are pretty old too – they’ve been used as weapons since forever – but they weren’t designed for table use until fairly recently. In the Middle Ages, hosts didn’t provide cutlery for their guests, so people carried their own knives strapped to their belts. As you can imagine, this made dinner slightly uncomfortable. They would use their sharp knives to spear the food, not cut it, simply eating directly off the knife. After forks were introduced, the knife’s tip dulled, the body became wider, and dinner parties were a little less intense.
The newest addition to place settings is the fork. The earliest known, date back to ancient Egypt, but they were used only for cooking and carving meats. By the 7th century, royalty in the Middle East began to use forks at the table, but the rest of the world wasn’t eager to adopt it. Italians were the first of Europe to integrate the fork into their dining routine, but it was slow going. By 1533, Italy had fully succumbed to the fork fad and, via the union of Catherine de Medici and Henry II, tong tableware was introduced to France. Again, the fork wasn’t readily accepted, but by the mid 1600s, they were considered fashionable throughout most of Europe.
So while this in no way helps me look any less like a buffoon when I eat with chopsticks, it does comfort me to know that I can use a spoon – the most ancient and sacred of dining instruments – like an ace. I’ll just order bowls of miso soup from now on and bore whoever will listen with the history of why chopsticks are only second best.
About the Author:
"Katie Straw" is the Gourmet Scribe at GourmetGiftBaskets.com, one of the top suppliers of gift baskets in the nation, and currently resides in Manchester, New Hampshire.