From Chopsticks to Sporks: A Brief History of Eating Utensils
Normally, when something is inserted repeatedly into a bodily orifice, the origins of the object are kind of important. As something you stick in your mouth possibly hundreds of times per day, though, eating utensils often go unconsidered. Like underwear or oxygen, you only really notice them when they aren't there.
I thought about this while eating beef ramen with my hands in desperation as my dishwasher churned, brimming with every utensil I own/have stolen from work. In this moment of reflection, I realized two things: 1) I really have to start planning ahead, and 2) I have no idea where our utensils come from, or why we use the ones we do.
Forks. Spoons. Chopsticks. Where do they come from? Who invented them? And perhaps more importantly, what the eff is up with sporks? I considered these questions while I picked noodles out of the bowl with my fingers, and immediately after I finished, I set out to find answers.
After I washed my hands, of course.
'Ancient Chinese Secret,' eh?The roots of chopsticks are ancient and date as far back as the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC). Originally bronze, and designed as a cooking utensil, they were ideal for stirring fires and plucking noodles out of boiling water -- much preferable to doing that stuff by hand, for obvious reasons. The oldest chopsticks ever found were unearthed in the storied ruins of Yin, and dated back to 1200 BC, roughly.
From cooking tools, to eating toolsThe first instance of chopsticks as eating tools came during the Han Dynasty -- around 400AD, when China experienced a population boom that drained resources across the continent, including food and cooking fuel. This meant eating smaller portions of everything was a harsh necessity. These tinier servings of food proved ideal for the precise, deliberate grasp of the chopstick, especially since knives were rendered obsolete by the bite-sized servings.
Confucius says, “Use chopsticks, thanks."The influential Chinese philosopher also played a role in chopsticks' rise to prominence, decrying the use of knives as violent, and something that should never happen at the dinner table. Also, as a devout vegetarian, the jagged edge of knives reminded the sage of the slaughterhouse, another commonly avoided dinner topic.
The chopstick, as we know itAs chopsticks spread in popularity throughout Asia, different cultures adopted the tool to fit their own predilections. In China, the sticks are commonly a little longer and thicker (hehe) than most other varieties, coming in a blunt, rounded edges (perhaps due to Confucius’ influence?). In Japan, the sticks are shorter, and tapered to a sharp, pointed end. Korean chop sticks are medium in length, and usually made of metal -- as opposed to the prototypical bamboo/wood sticks used by Japan and China.
Ancient Egyptians really respected their spoonsAside from knives (which are essentially, just sharp things) spoons are believed to be the first utensils used by humans, which makes sense. They mimic the shape of a cupped hand, and are the logical answer to “I love scooping this food up, but hate using the hand that I wipe my ass with to do it.”
The exact origins of the spoon are murky, though archaeologists do have fossils that assert Neanderthal cultures may have fashioned crude, spoon-like instruments out of sea-shells and animal bones. The first remnant of spoons as we know them were found in the ruins of Ancient Egypt, and harken back to 1000 BC. These were ornate, made out of ivory or slate, and believed to be used primarily for ritualistic purposes. Typical Ancient Egypt, am I right? Since then, the spoon has played a major role in nearly every food culture in the world, in one way or another.