• Blog
  • April 2nd, 2018

STICK IT TO ‘EM

By Joel M. Vance

I have to confess that the first time I picked up a pair chopsticks, it was every bit as daunting as if I were picking up a stick of dynamite with a sputtering fuse. The two wooden sticks were fused together so tightly that with my spindly arms straining, grunting like a rooting hog, I feared that this initial excursion into exotic culinary territory was doomed. The sticks snapped apart with a percussive crack that caused several diners to consider diving under their tables, sure that an mob hit was in progress.

The only assault was on my sushi rolls and for a while I looked like someone trying to pick up marbles with a pair of wet noodles. Since, I have become reasonably adept at the use of chopsticks, although if I still were in the dating game I wouldn’t dare take a date to an Asian restaurant, much less try to impress her with my savoir-faire. I have enough trouble with knife and fork without tempting fate by using a pair of flimsy sticks to fling food into my mouth. Chopsticks can be downright scary.

While it’s perfectly acceptable in an Asian restaurant to pick up your miso soup and slurp from it, if you tried the same thing at a White House dinner you’d probably languish in Fort Knox under armed guard for the rest of your natural life. In an Asian restaurant, the waitstaff would merely hide smirks and continue to serve you with scrupulous politeness— they are used to show off Yankees making fools of themselves. Oddly, our local Chinese restaurant does not even offer chopsticks as an option—perhaps they saw me coming.

Asian eating culture is often vastly different than that of us white bread Americans. It’s all very well for Andrew Zimmern to pluck parboiled sheep’s eyeballs from a bowl of some exotic dish with a pair of chopsticks because after all he’s Andrew Zimmern and expected to do things like that. But for the rest of us wielding a pair of chopsticks is every bit as exotic as watching cricket and understanding what’s going on.

I once read a hilarious essay in the Chicago Tribune about how to use chopsticks and used it for years as a perfect example of the best how-to article when I was teaching writing classes. The author, Charles Leroux, invented a klutz named Marvin who was hopeless with chopsticks but ultimately became an expert using a pair of ivory chopsticks like a pool shark equipped with a custom cue stick.

Marvin could’ve been me at the time a fork wielding Midwestern white guy with no more idea of how to use chopsticks than I had of how to twirl spaghetti onto a fork in the Italian style. I couldn’t even eat food off the back of the fork as the English do. The idea of plucking tiny morsels of food with a pair of oversized toothpicks seemed as impossible as using a forklift to pick up pebbles.

Leonardo da Vinci does not show us what eating implements the disciples and Jesus were using at the Last Supper. But it’s interesting if not blasphemous to speculate that some if not all were using chopsticks, for after all, chopsticks were invented long before the birth of Christ. The odds are against it for several reasons. First of all chopsticks historically were Asian in both origin and use. Secondly most Asians have no problem scooping noodles into their mouths with ease. Try picking up one grain of rice with chopsticks and you will spend all day scooting it around on the plate, but the Chinese have solved that problem by creating sticky rice which clumps in convenient bite -sized chunks, easy to capture with a pair of chopsticks. The Bible doesn’t say but probably Jesus didn’t have sticky rice.

Rice is the almost inevitable companion of all Asian dishes and there is a reason for that. Aside from being nutritionally beneficial, rice is there for a reason. It is said and probably true that to stave off the legendary “hungry an hour after” effect of eating Asian food you should pack in the rice. By itself, sticky rice is pretty bland fare, but spiced with invariably spicy Asian entrées it makes for an eminently satisfying meal.

I’m willing to bet that the reason behind Asian cuisine being legendarily spicy is that the incendiary aspect of most Asian dishes is to offset the blandness of the rice. I eat at a local Thai restaurant which offers a heat scale of one to five. I’ve never dared to go beyond two and I have a feeling that five would have me emulating Puff the Magic Dragon. I once was a queasy witness in college to what passes for high-class humor in a dormitory. A friend lit the gaseous nether region effusion of another fun lover and a bright blue flame appeared. Try the same thing in the wake, so to speak, of a number five Thai dish and the result likely would be a mini version of Mount Saint Helens.

Chopstick etiquette varies from country to country but it is widely accepted that one does not spear morsels of food with a single chopstick like a torero sticking a fighting bull with a banderillo. Likewise you don’t lay down your chopsticks so they point at a dinner companion while you slurp down a mouth full of Sapporo Beer— that’s like laying a loaded revolver beside your plate pointed at your companion. Instead you lay your chopsticks in a rest, an accessory item. If you don’t have a rest you can fold up the paper envelope in which the chopsticks came and make one. And the sticks should point out and never be planted in the mound of rice like someone sticking a spade in the ground.

I don’t pretend to be an expert at eating with chopsticks. There always is a moment of fumbling with the two wooden sticks before I get them situated in my hand, ready for combat. And every now and then I have to adjust my grip, like a baseball player choking up to bunt.

I am overly fond of a local Japanese restaurant that features sushi rolls to which I am as addicted as a meth head is with his fix. Sushi rolls are ideally constructed to facilitate being picked up by chopsticks. Even a beginner usually can grasp a sushi roll with the sticks and convey it to his or her mouth. Dipping it in a sauce is a bit more daunting, but not impossible— and I usually do dip, either into a sort of thousand Island concoction, or soy sauce spiced with wasabi.

You have to be careful using wasabi, an atomic substance which assaults your sinuses as if you had stuffed a hand grenade up your nostrils. Wasabi is related to horseradish and mustard, but to those condiments it is like a lady cracker compared to a stick of dynamite. It supposedly hammers the bacteria that causes food poisoning and I can visualize some poor microbe screaming in agony as it succumbs to a wasabi attack.

Most people—me included— confuse sushi and sashimi. According to Japanese custom sashimi, raw fish sliced thinly, is eaten with the hands, while sushi, fish rolled with rice, is eaten with chopsticks. And a sushi chef will dab the roll with wasabi in preparation. In case you’re wondering what the orange sweet vegetable next to the wasabi is, it’s pickled ginger, used to cleanse the palate between bites of sushi. There is a daunting list of ritual connected with how to eat sashimi and sushi, including how to show your appreciation to the sushi chef if you are eating in front of him. For example, never rub the sticks together— it is considered terribly impolite and you’re not trying to start a campfire.

The essential question of course, in case you don’t want to look as if you’re practicing for a knife fight, is how to hold chopsticks. Pick one up as if you were picking up a pencil between your thumb and index finger. The other stick should fall naturally beneath the first one manipulated by your ring and middle fingers (the middle is the one that you use to salute Donald Trump when his image appears on your television set). The little finger is a spare in case you have some sort of industrial accident and lose your ring finger. You can reach down with the two sticks and squeeze a morsel of food between them with a sort of pinching motion.

It’s considered bad form to dip into a communal bowl of food with your sticks. Instead, there should be serving chopsticks available to transfer food from the main bowl to your plate or bowl. Soup? The Chinese long ago caved in to necessity and use spoons for marvelous miso soup (I could drink that stuff all day long). There is no social disgrace in picking up the bowl and drinking from it. When it comes to noodles, or other slippery food, it is accepted to bring the bowl close your face and use the chopsticks as a sort of shovel to scoop with.

Chopsticks even have made their way into popular culture with a song, if you can call it that, by a rap group and with lyrics that are obscene and repulsive. At the other end of the spectrum, chopsticks are the subject of a Sesame Street session, illustrating in music how tiny tots can solve the mystery of those funny wooden sticks. “Two little sticks and they’re made out of wood/and they help you to pick up your lunch/and if you practice then you’ll get good/and you’ll find that you can pick up a bunch to munch”

Every budding concert pianist, of course, starts his or her musical career by learning to play “Chopsticks”. The original name of the piece was “the Celebrated Chop Waltz”. It dates to 1877 and was written by Euphemia Allen. The piece has been used many times in movies, including one of my favorite films “The Seven Year Itch” where Tom Ewell played a duet with Marilyn Monroe and tried fruitlessly to kiss her. His romantic haplessness was the parallel personification of someone in the initial throes of learning to eat with chopsticks. That movie spawned the famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe’s skirt being blown up around her hips, a cinematic moment certainly more memorable than Tom Ewell’s fumbling attempt to play chopsticks on the piano.

Meanwhile, chopsticks will continue to flourish in countries where they have flourished for centuries, and will appear sporadically in the Western world— but don’t expect when you pull into your local McDonald’s and order a burger and fries to have the pimply faced, minimum wage waiter ask “Y’all want chopsticks with that?”

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