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January 6, 2020 57 mins

Chopsticks are such an intuitive and precise eating utensil, it’s easy to assume they’ve been with us. But as Robert Lamb and Joe McCormick explore, this neolithic invention didn’t really leave the kitchen for the dinner table in a major way till the fifth century CE. Prepare to explore the invention of chopsticks. (Originally published 12/17/18)

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:07):
Hey, Welcome to Invention. My name is Robert Lamb and
I'm Joe McCormick, and we're bringing you a classic episode
of Invention. This is our episode on Chopsticks. Is the
show old enough to have classics? I think so? Yeah.
Either way, we are patting this podcast out. We're making
it possible to put out, you know, some strong episodes
in the new year and not have to scramble. And

(00:28):
this is one that I really had a great time doing.
One of the key sources for this that will discuss
in the episode is a wonderful little book titled Chopsticks,
A Cultural and Culinary History by Q. Edward Wang. I
highly recommend checking that out if you were at all
interested in Chinese culture, Chinese history, or just Chinese cuisine
in general. So this is our classic episode on Chopsticks.

(00:51):
We hope you enjoy. Welcome to Invention, a production of
I Heart Radio. Hey, welcome to Invention. My name is
Robert Lamb and I'm Joe McCormick. Robert, do you hate
as much as I do? The stock scene from movies,

(01:12):
TV shows, commercials. It's everywhere of the standard clueless, clumsy
Caucasian American guy trying to use chopsticks and dropping food
all over the place sometimes while a little like Blue
de Blue cartoon music plays. I don't think I've really
witnessed it recently, so it's kind of it's kind of
fallen out of my mind a certain extent. I tend

(01:33):
to think of, you know, scenes from Blade Runner or
something where where the Harrison Ford character, uh definitely has
his chop skip sticks skills down. You know. It's not
that I don't believe that there are adults in America
who don't know how to use chopsticks. I'm sure there are.
I mean, people have different levels of experience, and it's
probably not easy the first time you do it. Oh yeah,
I'm sure they exist at the highest level of US government.

(01:56):
But I just don't think that this is particularly hilarious,
especially in like the twenty one century. I mean, this
was a scene we were seeing in in TV shows
in the nineteen eighties. It's on par with the scene
where somebody goes to a sushi restaurant and they're like raw, yeah. Yeah.

(02:17):
It seems like at this point you would be you
would be on board with with sushi or or you
would just not be in the sushi restaurant to begin with,
and you would certainly be at least, you know, halfway
competent with a pair of chopsticks. Even if you're not competent,
it's just a thing that you have to learn how
to do. It's like watching people learn how to ride
a bicycle. It's just not particularly funny. Why was this

(02:38):
once a source of much cultural hilarity in the United States?
I imagine it was also pretty hilarious from the other
perspective to you know, it's a bumbling Westerns trying to
to use this very precise method of of of manipulating food.
I have to admit that I love chopsticks and a
kind of embarrassing naive way. Like one of my favorite

(03:02):
things about about eating several different kinds of Asian food
is using chopsticks to eat them. I love like Chinese
noodles with chopsticks. I love eating sushi with chopsticks, though
sometimes I just eat sushi with my hands as as
you often do. Acceptable. Yeah, um, but I love using chopsticks.
I love it almost as much as I love the

(03:24):
food itself. But I have found very strangely that I
have a psychological block against using chopsticks on ethnic cuisines
with which they do not originally pair. So I love
using chopsticks, and I want any excuse to use them.
But I've tried to eat spaghetti with them with like
tornato basil sauce, and it does not work. It is

(03:46):
psychologically revolting. But this is all ridiculous when you start
getting into the deeper history of of any nation's cuisine.
I mean, where do you think those those noodles in
spaghetti and Italian spaghetti came from. That's a good point.
They came from the East. They came from the land
of chopsticks. And of course, one of the things we're
gonna get gonna get into in this episode is that
you know, there was a time before widespread chopstick usage,

(04:09):
uh in in Asia. There was a time before widespread
noodle and dumpling consumption in Asia. And it's all part
of the history of of of how we eat our
food and what we eat. Right, So today's episode is
going to be about chopstick technology, right. Uh So, everyone
I think is familiar with chopsticks. We don't have to

(04:30):
really explain these too much. But there's two of them.
There's two of them, there's sticks. There're sticks. Use your
manual dexterity to manipulate food with them. And you know,
they may be made out of wood, bamboo, or they
may be made out of metal or ceramic plastic in
some cases. But it's it's a pretty simple concept and

(04:51):
it it does allow an amazing amount of precision. I
remember at an early age, I was really impressed by chopsticks. Uh,
in part because know, we would go to little, little
Chinese restaurants in the in the States, and when my
family was living in Canada, one of my father's coworkers,
Um was a Chinese Canadian physician, and he would use chopsticks,

(05:13):
and he would let us use chopsticks. And there was
a story he told when he was a child. If
he was if he misbehaved, his mother would dump a
small bowl of uncooked rice out under the table, give
him a pair of chopsticks, and then he would have
to um move each grain of rice with the chopsticks
back into the bowl. That is amazing because that sounds

(05:35):
like a punishment straight out of a fairy tale, doesn't it.
That's like a fair that's like a Cinderella type punishment.
But chopsticks, they are exactly the tool you would want
to use to to carry out this task. I mean
they they're just so precise they even beat human fingers
in many instances. If not in precision, then at least
intact right because it allows you to. Because so much

(05:59):
of our are our our use of utensils, it's about
how do you eat the food effectively, but also in
a way that doesn't insult the people that you're eating with. Likewise,
if you're eating hot food, which has been popular in
human culture, um it it, it behooves you to be
able to handle that food without burning your fingers, and

(06:22):
chopsticks allow you to do that. You know, when it
comes to picking up individual grains of rice one at
a time, I found out that there actually is a
Guinness World Record category for speed in picking up and
eating individual grains of rice with chopsticks. That's a that's
a thing you can compete in. So you can go
the like number of hot dogs in a minute thing,
or you can go the number of grains of rice

(06:43):
in a minute thing. Um And apparently the current holder
of this world record is somebody named Silvio Saba in Milan, Italy,
who was able to pick up and eat twenty five
individual grains of rice with chopsticks in one minute in February, which,
actually that sounds kind of I feel like that record

(07:04):
could be beaten. I'm just imagining it. And maybe so
maybe you're the man to take up the chopsticks and
give it a try. I mean, surely you can get
down to like a second and a half per per
rice grain, right. I don't know who are we to
out the Guinness Book of World Records, though, Joe. You know,
one thing is certain though, When I'm using chopsticks, I
often think about I mean just always impressing these are great,

(07:25):
and I do feel that temptation to want to use
them on other foods. And really about the only foods
that I when I think about it, that they don't
make sense for so much are foods that require a
great deal of cutting and carving. Uh. You know, so
I'm thinking, like, if you're eating a steak, uh, you
would need a knife. Now I guess you could. You
could use a knife and chopsticks, and that would that

(07:47):
would work. But for the most part, chopsticks are gonna
are gonna get you there with just about any food.
You know, when you mentioned pairing a knife with chopsticks.
There at least once was a product called work and
Knife chopsticks. Have you seen this. There's like a a
promo obnoxious comedy promo video that used to go around
the internet. Actually, it was a video where hilarity ensues

(08:11):
when some Caucasian gentleman is trying to eat something with chopsticks.
He just keeps dropping it all over himself and it's like, oh,
there was There's got to be a better way. And
the better way is that the other side of these
chopsticks are a fork and a knife. Oh so you
can flip them around. See at first I thought you
meant that you're using them like chopsticks, but then it

(08:31):
has a tiny fork and a tiny knife on the
end because it's just you flip them around. Okay, uh no, yes,
so it's stick party in front, fork and knife business
and back. And actually they would like they would sort
of hook together to make hinged chopsticks, which are not
exactly traditional chopsticks. Okay, well that's not the worst invention,
I suppose. Now, the promo video is really obnoxious, but

(08:51):
the invention is fine, though it looks like it's been
discontinued or at least from the original cellar as far
as I could tell. Chopsticks themselves, however, of course, are
still very much in production. They have not been discontinued.
There's no sign of chopsticks going away anytime soon. In fact,
I think I read about a problem with billions of
disposable chopsticks being used every year. Yeah, yea. If anything,

(09:13):
that the big take home is if you like using chopsticks,
if you find yourself regularly using chopsticks, invest in a
in a set of chopsticks, a mobile set that you
can carry around and use it home and cut down
on the on the disposable chopsticks. Now where did chopsticks
come from? Well, they came from China and uh and

(09:34):
as as we were talking about with our our researcher
for this program, Scott Benjamin, Uh, they popped up prior
to b C those some sources say they've been around
for nearly nine thousand years. But uh, this is this
is as cooking utensils, a way of moving ingredients around
in on hot walk for instance. But when it comes

(09:56):
to the use of chopsticks at the dinner table or
you know, as a means of bringing food to your mouth. Um,
sometimes you see it stated that we're really looking at
more four hundred c as A as A as A
as kind of a rough, very rough time stamp for
when it really began to become more popular and began

(10:18):
to spread culturally, the idea that these are utensils that
should be used to consume food as well. Now, as
we'll get into this, this is not like a very
this is not a super firm time stamp. It's not
like you will not find people eating with chopsticks before
that point. But this seems to be where the Levey
really breaks on the idea. People do like to come

(10:40):
up with origins stories for things, though, even when there
isn't a clear origin story. Well, that's often part of
the fun, right, is that there's not a there's not
an actual inventor, but there's a mythic character that had
some sort of role in the invention, some sort of
you know, cultural hero who stole fire from the gods, etcetera. Exactly.
So we were both looking at a book, Robert, I

(11:00):
think you actually read the whole book. Yeah, it's a
it's a short read, actually, something like two hundred and
something pages. It's a book by Q. Edward Wang that
is called Chopsticks, a Cultural and Culinary History, polished from
Cambridge University Press. And Wine points out that a common
Chinese legend tells the story of how chopsticks were first

(11:22):
invented by Da You, founder of the Shah dynasty which
ruled from twenty one hundred to sixteen hundred b c. E.
And I've poked around for a couple of versions of
this legend. Basically the story goes like this, Da You
was the figure credited with fighting the Great Flood of
Chinese history and mythology by the use of dredging in

(11:45):
the riverbeds and construction of irrigation canals to divert water flow. Now, Robert,
you've talked about the Chinese Great Flood legends on podcasts before. Yeah,
and You definitely comes up in in that episode. And
because he's a he's a true cultural here in Chinese
mythology and the um. If I am remembering correctly, the
the knowledge to to to overcome the flood was was

(12:10):
actually stolen or obtained from the gods, I think by
you his father uh and then you himself as the
one who really brings it to the people. I think
that's correct. But so you eventually succeeds in defeating the
Great flood, and this made him emperor and founder of
the Shah dynasty. But there are lots of stories and

(12:32):
legends about how much he sacrificed personally and how tirelessly
he worked on this project uh to to defeat the floodwaters.
And one of these legends is that day had at
one point had some meat sizzling in a walk, but
he was in such a hurry to fight the flood
that he couldn't sit there and wait for the meat
to cool down enough to handle and eat. So he

(12:54):
got a pair of twigs and he used them to
pick up the hot pieces of meat and hurry along
his meal so he could back to work. But clearly
this is just a legend, but still there it does illustrate,
like the basic clever idea that the novelty of using
just some twigs some sticks, but using them, using just
found objects, but using them in an inventive way, uh

(13:17):
that the changes the way you do things. And this
is this is likely exactly how chopsticks emerged in just
the darkness of prehistory. Is the use of found twigs um.
You know, maybe the twigs of the manipulated in some fashion,
but for the most part, just a couple of found
sticks that are used to manipulate food inside of a

(13:40):
cooking pot. Or also the use of fire sticks, which
would just be uh, chopsticks that are used for moving
burning wood or coal around. Now, one thing that I
think is interesting about chopsticks that is different from the
use of say a fork or a knife, or even
I mean sort of like a spoon, but also somewhat

(14:02):
different from a spoon, is that chopsticks in a way
function sort of like extensions of the fingers. You know,
they do a similar pinching action that you can do
with your thumb and index finger, um, but they you know,
they extend the fingers farther. They can handle hot stuff
without getting grease on the fingers, and all that, they
can reach into soup and pull out noodles, that they

(14:24):
can do all that kind of stuff. But they in
a way feel like a more natural extension of the pinching,
grasping action of the skeleton itself. They feel like more
like they emerge out of the schema of the human
body than say a knife, which you know, you don't
have a knife, and you don't have any sharp fingers,
you don't have a fork. Really, there's no stabbing sharp

(14:46):
tynes on your hand, and there's just nothing analogous to
a knife and a fork on your body. Yeah, I
mean this makes me realize that in grant granted, I
probably I definitely use fork and knife more than I
use chopsticks. And I am not, by any mean as
a you know, an expert practitioner with chopsticks, But I
do feel like I am far more likely to bumble

(15:07):
and drop a fork, knife, or spoon than I am
to bumble and drop my chopsticks. Like they're the chopsticks,
to your point, are just more an extension of your
body when you're using them. Now, obviously, if you're looking
for ancient artifacts ancient evidence of chopsticks, uh, just standard
twigs aren't going to stick around very well, right, So
you'd you'd be looking probably for chopsticks or indications that

(15:30):
chopsticks were made out of other materials. Right. So for instance, um,
you will find um like bronze chopsticks or what are
believed to be chopsticks in the tombs of the of
the ruins of Yin in Henan Province in Central China.
Because essentially what we're talking about here is a Neolithic invention.
Like you said, the twigs are not going to stick around.

(15:51):
There is evidence that suggests five thousand BC as a
as a possibility for early archaeological evidence of chopsticks. So
I've also read that some of these bones sticks from
this time and earlier may also be interpreted as hairpins
or or tools of another sort. Uh. But this is
often a problem with like Neolithic technology, is it's not

(16:14):
quite so clear what you're really looking at. It might
be clear that an artifact is not naturally occurring and
it was shaped in some way, but what was it
used for not always clear. Because this is ultimately one
of the confounding things about chopsticks is that it is
a relatively simple concept. Uh. You don't need anything beyond
Neolithic technology to pull it off. And yet you don't

(16:37):
see it emerging independently in other cultures. Uh. You know, ultimately,
you just don't see it taking off everywhere, but it
but it is a it's a cultural difference, and you
see similar cultural differences in tool use among Chimpanzees, for instance. Uh,
nothing so grand as as chopstick used, you will not
find chimpanzees inventing the chopsticks, but you will see similar

(17:00):
similar situation in things that are unessential behavior. You do
not have to invent the chopstick in order to eat
and survive and develop all the other technologies that uh
that a culture may develop. Uh. But but but it
is curious how we we see the chopsticks emerge in
China and spread out from China, but they don't independently

(17:21):
emerge elsewhere. Now, as far as evidence that twigs were
commonly used just you know, snapped off branches and twigs
were commonly used for chopsticks, Whang in his book sites
literary evidence from the ancient world that it was a
common practice by say the third or fourth century b
c e. To snap pieces off of the lower branches
of a tree and use them for chopsticks. And for example,

(17:43):
he cites a passage from jun Z who lived three
forty to forty five b c. Uh And and jen
Z says this in service of illustrating an unrelated point.
So he's just like sort of using an analogy here.
But he says, if you look up at a forest
from the foot of a hill. The bigger tree is
appear no taller than chopsticks, and yet no one hoping

(18:03):
to find chopsticks is likely to go picking among them.
It is simply that the height obscures their natural dimensions.
So he's not really talking about chopsticks in this passage,
but it just sort of makes passing reference to the
fact that you might go quote picking chopsticks. So it
becomes difficult to really like nail down when people started

(18:24):
using chopsticks in cooking. So we have in this an
ancient tool, an ancient utensil for the preparation of food.
The question then is how does it really leave the kitchen?
How does it go from being just something that you
use in the production of food to becoming the primary
means of consuming said food, Because, for instance, many of

(18:48):
us use a ladle in the kitchen. You know, one
of those you know, those deep seated uh spoons that
that are that are just reladling out soup. You probably
don't use one at the dinner table. You probably don't
use it to drink soup. I eat with a spider strainer. Um,
But that's that's another example. Yeah, you could technically do it,
but you probably don't. Um. Speaking of spoon's, spoons and soup, though,

(19:12):
Wayne gets into this and he points out that the
spoon was actually the most important eating implement for people
in ancient East and Southeast Asia. I can see that.
I mean, the spoon is going to be common to
pretty much every culture, right because it is essentially just
a retaining receptacle. I mean you can move pretty much
any kind of food. You could eat steak with the spoon, right, Yeah,

(19:34):
it's I Actually you've given the choice between a fork
and a spoon. I rarely picked the fork. I don't
eat a lot of food that requires a stabbing fork anymore.
Uh So I'm more than happy with the spoon. Just
give me the spoon. I don't even want to look
at the fork. The anything I can do with the fork,
you can probably do with the spoon, And then of
course I can do it even better with the chopsticks.
But um, but the spoon was the most important eating

(19:55):
an implement for for people in ancient East and Southeast Asia.
And this is backed up by both archaeological and textual accounts.
And there are many reasons, some of these that we've
just hit on here. Just the ultimate practical practicality of
the spoon. But but something else that Whining points out
is that from antiquity up to the tenth century, millet

(20:17):
was the dominant grain cereal in North China, Korea, and
parts of Japan. And this particular substances best cooked into
a thick gruel that that demands the attention of spoons
rather than any other form of utensil. So, yeah, try
to imagine eating like oatmeal with chopsticks. You could do it,
It's just not the best thing to use, right, And

(20:40):
you might say, well, what's the different how about rice?
How's rice difference? What rice clumps up? Rice is different?
I mean, if you are eating rice that you cannot
eat with chopsticks, you're probably eating the wrong rice. Well
that's not necessarily true. I mean, so like sometimes bosmati rice,
which is wonderful, doesn't clump together the same way like
a jasmine rice would. But yeah, I guess what I

(21:00):
had in mind when I was insulting rice was like
par boiled rice, which maintains very distinct individual grains and
is yeah right, and uh and boiling is key here
because this was the age of boiling uh stews and soups.
The this is what you ate chopsticks. They crept in
is merely a supporting utensil that you might use to

(21:21):
like stir around the depths to grab a few things
out of the depths of your super stew. But for
the most part you're gonna have to depend on that spoon.
By the tenth century, weighing rights, wheat becomes the primary grain,
and so you get wheat noodles, you get wheat dumplings,
and then chopsticks becoming extremely important because these are these
make it far easier to manipulate those noodles or or

(21:43):
dumplings if you've ever tried to eat, especially noodles with
a spoon. But even a dumpling can become a complete
comedy of errors if you're because of dumpling contend to
be a little slippery and you're trying to like balance
it on the spoon. No, you're better off grabbing it
with the chopsticks. And then from the eleven and century onward,
he writes that rice, of course becomes increasingly popular. Uh

(22:05):
and since rice clumps, chopsticks can be used a great
effect with them. Oh yeah, And then and then in
terms of of boiling well. By the third century, he
writes that you by this point you had cooking oils
thanks to the millstone. That that allows you to you know,
to break down the various seeds and whatnot that you're
using to create that that frying oil. Uh So, yeah,

(22:26):
you don't have to boil all of your ingredients. You
can fry them. And this means more reliance on bite
size ingredients rather than you know, giant you know, bones
and meat that are dropped in with your vegetables for
the stew. Yeah. And though of course not all say
Chinese cooking is the stir fries were familiar with or whatever,
that is one common feature of many Chinese recipes is

(22:49):
um things, you know, not a big hunk of meat
on the plate, but things sliced into bite sized pieces.
And the other thing about bite sized pieces is that
they is that they cook faster, they require less fuel.
This becomes more and more important, many commentators touch upon
as as fuel becomes an issue. Right in Chinese civilization,

(23:10):
there were points where suddenly, like firewood is more expensive,
harder to come by. Yeah, so what are you gonna cook?
You're gonna cook a giant slab of meat? Or you're
gonna cook little slivers of meat that have been prepared
of course in the kitchen and then and and and
then then fried up, and you can manipulate them with
your chopsticks, uh, while they're cooking, and then of course
when it comes time to eat. It is also the

(23:31):
perfect implement to employ. Weighing also points out that in
pre modern times, chopsticks also cut down in the risk
of germs in communal eating. An interesting point. So yeah,
if people are, say, picking dumplings out of a shared dish,
you don't have to reach in there with your dirty hands.
You can pluck them out precisely with chopsticks. Now, it's
important to note in all of this that we again

(23:52):
we can't simply say that people created chopsticks in this
age or that they begin to actually eat with them
in another age. There's a lot of grad will change
going on here, and there are some notable ancient accounts,
uh accounts or legends or myths. So what have you
of eating with chopsticks? And that's where we have to
to discuss the lavish lifestyle of King Joe of the

(24:16):
Shuan dynasty. He would have lived ten seventy five through
ten forty six b C. Okay, take me there, take
me to this ancient binge. All right, So he established
somewhat of a reputation. He's best remembered ash what's the
term party animal? Yeah, definitely a party animal, A real
blue do, a real blue do. Yeah. He he loved

(24:37):
his his food, he loved the flesh, and uh and
and so we have to keep that in mind that like,
how much of this is accurate, how much of this
isn't as an actual ruler, who would, who had a
decadent lifestyle? And how much of this is of course
just attributed to somebody who fell out of the good
graces of history. But so, okay, if he's if he's
a party animal, does he party with chopsticks? He does.

(24:58):
He was said to have always eaten with an ornate
pair of ivory chopsticks. And he wouldn't it was it
was strongly stressed that he wouldn't eat out of just
earthenware bowls like the rest of the people. No, he
would only eat from bowls of jade and rhino horn. Oh,
rhino horn. Now we've talked before on a different show

(25:18):
on stuff to blow your mind about ancient beliefs concerning
the powers of the rhino horn, especially as it concerned
people who were concerned with being poisoned like royalty. Right yeah.
And then jade of course also has magical properties in
in Chinese traditions, so it makes sense that that he
would only eat from these because they would have been

(25:39):
reputed to have some sort of uh focus on few
food purification and poison prevention UH and ivory chopsticks would
later go on to become a symbol of deconant life
and corrupt politics. But it went far beyond that with
with King Joe, he said to have had his own
quote alcohol pool and meat forest. I stole the name

(26:01):
of my restaurant. I can't open it now. It does
remind me of some of these more decadent steak restaurants,
you know, where they bring around like skewers of meat.
Because this is described as essentially a lake of wine,
and you would boat around in it, you know, with
your concubines and your pals. And as you're boating around
drinking from the wine lake, you would also pluck cuts

(26:22):
of meat from the roasting pillars that are around you,
like a forest. This is like a Satanic Charlie in
the chocolate factory. It is this like unholy version of
the chocolate Rivers. He is also said to have delighted
in eating quote, the meat of long haired buffaloes and
unborn leopards. I have no comment on that. Well, it's

(26:42):
just it's a decadent diet to have, you know, only
the weirdest and the strangest. It's like uh, Monty Burns
on The Simpsons wanting to wear the pelts of various
exotic and endangered animals see my best Yes, yes, dude, dude,
chopstick etiquette time. We just gotta have that jump in
and invade whatever we were talking about, right, just it

(27:05):
will probably upset most people if you're eating unborn leopards.
But also a point of etiquette here, never point your
chopsticks at someone really yeah, like if you're you know,
brandishing them at the table, you know, keep them, keep
the direction down toward the food. That's generally advised. And
also never stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice,

(27:25):
as this is a portent of death. Yes, I've heard that.
This is because chopsticks set upright in a bowl of
rice can resemble sticks of incense or chopsticks that are
set upright in rice in funeral ceremonies. Oh, this makes sense.
This is but this is something that would be very
easy to miss for let's say a Western or traveling
in China, which is why you see it cited in

(27:46):
a lot of travel books. Do not do this. This
is an easy thing that you cannot do and save
yourself some grief. I always wonder about that kind of
stuff when you see etiquette cited in books for travelers.
It's like, is this a real rule or not? I
feel like when you read those things, you've got to
be reading some real common etiquette guidelines mixed in with

(28:08):
things that people just made up. Well, I guess it
depends on the faux pa they're warning you against, because
some of them are more widespread and more central to
a given culture. Like I instantly think of various taboos
concerning shoes and Thailand. Uh uh, you know, if you're
seated so that your your shoes are pointed against somebody,

(28:28):
or or certainly any kind of situation where your your
shoes are placed saying a bin at an airport with
other belongings. But we need to save that for our episode.
In the invention of shoes. At this point, we should
probably take a break, and when we come back, we're
gonna discuss even more about the invention of chopsticks and

(28:48):
just the the spread, the spread of this cultural idea
that this is how one should eat one's food. All right,
we're back. Robert divulged to me the wisdom of the
Great Confucius as it concerns utense el etiquette. Yes, Uh,
this is this is interesting because this is where we

(29:10):
find the connection between the great Chinese teacher, politician, and
philosopher Confucius uh and shopsticks. UH. Interestingly enough, I was
just watching Uh. I just finally began to watch Michael
Woods The Story of China, which is a fabulous documentary.
He's done a couple of these before, one on India,
one on England, uh, and some other documentary features as well.

(29:32):
But this is, like I want to say, it's like
an eight part documentary look at the history of China
and Chinese culture, and it's it's it's really really good.
You can find it on I think Amazon Prime currently
and it's also on PBS in America. UM. But the
first episode does a wonderful job of breaking it down
just how political core Confucian teachings really were governing the

(29:58):
about how you know you've governed them moral character of
a people via the ruler. So the ruler and in
his morals, they're the wind to the people's field of grass,
dictating the nature of the people. Oh, you know, I
feel like our our modern Western sensibilities kind of well, actually,
they're pushing me both ways on that, because on one hand,

(30:19):
there's this sort of there's this very American tradition that says,
you know, oh, we don't let leaders define us. We
say what the leaders should be. But then on the
other hand, I think I've read that there is some
pretty recent research in political science finding that very often
people's opinions about about subjects that are controversial and politics

(30:41):
are mostly shaped by what their leaders believe. There are
a few issues that people have firm opinions on, most things,
they just believe what the people they have designated their
leaders in their cultural in group elites say. Yeah, I
think this lines up rather well with Confucian idea. Is
now Confucius lived five fifty one through four seventy nine BC,

(31:06):
a time during which we see the emergence of so
many new ideas concerning human culture and the human condition.
He's known outside of China as Confucius because this is
the latinization of Khong Fuzi a k A Master Kong Uh.
And then we can we can hardly summarize his teachings
here on the show. But but he believed that through

(31:26):
study Uh, morality in virtue could win out over violence
and tyranny. Ruling by example is better than ruling by
law and punishment alone. His teachings, however, would only come
to to widely influence Chinese rule and culture after his death.
But his teachings did spread, and it seems so too
did his ideas on eating utensils. He championed blunt chopsticks

(31:50):
over the use of knives, and is quoted as having
believed that quote, the honorable and upright man keeps well
away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen, and he
allows no knives at his table. Now it's unknown to
what extent this impacted the actual use of meat in
Chinese cuisine, but perhaps do in part as well to

(32:11):
Buddhist influence, one sees meat used more for flavor flavoring,
you know, the broth flavoring vegetables by around the first century.
This is really interesting because the thoughts of Confucius here
actually remind me of something I read years ago about
chopsticks that has been lodged in my brain ever since.

(32:32):
And I think it might be part of my love
relationship with chopsticks. While I'm always looking for an excuse
to use them, they feel morally good to me. Like
something about using chopsticks isn't just esthetically pleasing, it feels virtuous.
I know that that sounds quite silly, but I think

(32:53):
one origin of this association in my mind is that
when I was in college, I read a book called
Pire of Signs by the French critic and semiotician roll
On Barth. It was first published in nineteen seventy and
then in English translation by Richard Howard in the early
nineteen eighties, and it's kind of a semiotic travelogue of Japan.

(33:15):
And I honestly, I don't think i'd actually vouch for Barth,
this very good observer of other cultures in general, even
for his time, and I think you could argue that
there are traces of kind of Orientalism and his thoughts
about Asia. Apparently he was somewhat dismissive of the value
of studying Chinese culture. But I read this book many

(33:36):
years ago, and Barth's thoughts about chopsticks always stuck with
me as kind of more interesting and more thoughtful than
than a lot of the rest. It's kind of more
more interesting and perhaps more valid than a lot of
the rest. So here's some of what he says about chopsticks,
and this is abridged selections from his book Empire of Signs. Quote.

(33:59):
The instrument never pierces, cuts or slits, never wounds, but
only selects, turns, shifts. For the chopsticks, in order to divide,
must separate part peck instead of cutting and piercing in
the manner of our implements. They never violate the food stuff,
either they gradually unravel it in the case of vegetables,

(34:23):
or else prod it into separate pieces in the case
of fish eels, thereby rediscovering the natural fissures of the substance.
He also writes, by chopsticks, food becomes no longer a
prey to which one does violence meet, flesh over which
one does battle, but a substance harmoniously transferred. And then

(34:45):
he says Finally, of people who use chopsticks to eat
maternal they tirelessly perform the gesture which creates the mouthful,
leaving to our alimentary manners armed with pikes and knives
that of predation. Well, that's beautiful. I like that comparison.
It somehow rings true to me. I mean, it may
be an over generalization of the differences between the two

(35:07):
eating cultures. Uh, you know, Europeans fork and knife culture
on one hand and and Japanese chopstick culture on the
other hand, But I really feel like there's something something
to what he's saying about the fact that when eating
with chopsticks, one does not make artificial cuts in the
meat or in the food in general as it is

(35:28):
presented to you. It's you know, it might have been
cut already in the preparation, but any separations of the
food stuff's happen along natural lines of separation. So I
can think about like, if you have a you know,
a stir fried little head of baby bok choy on
your plate and you're eating with chopsticks, the leaves come
away whole as you peel them off, or or yeah,

(35:52):
the fish flakes along the natural lines of its muscles.
I have to say, with Bob Choy, I'm more inclined
to try and grab the whole thing with chopsticks and
shove it into my mouth, which is I think an
important point to make here. We talk a lot about
the precision of the chopsticks and maybe the brutal aspects
of fort knife and spoon um, but I we do

(36:12):
need to remind everyone that you can still eat like
an utter slab while using chopsticks. It's well within uh
within range for for for for human behavior. Oh yeah,
I would often say, even when you observe Chinese people eating,
they often will say, um, bring the bowl up to

(36:32):
near their face as they eat with chopsticks, And there's
kind of like this beautiful shoveling action that that I think.
I think it might be a sort of trade. I
don't know what's actually etiquette and what's not. I mean,
I feel like Western tradition would say, you don't hold
the bowl up near your face. Well, this gets into two.
Sometimes you hear it put forth it it's okay to slurp.
Like slurping the soup in um in in certain Eastern

(36:55):
traditions is a compliment to the chef that sort of thing.
I actually did have the experience once of getting noodles
at a at a Chinese noodle shop in this was
in Honolulu, I think, so it was predominantly Chinese clientele,
and I was trying to eat consume the noodles, uh,
you know, carefully and uh. And there was actually an

(37:16):
older woman there, a Chinese woman who turned to me
and basically let me know, it's okay to slurp, It's
okay to bring the bowl up to your face, like
this is this is all right, that's beautiful. Yeah. But anyway,
but back to Confucius and to bar In both cases,
there seems to be there's this idea that the method
we use to get food from the plate into our

(37:37):
mouths does have some kind of psychological conditioning effect. And
I can't cite research to say that this is definitely true,
but it certainly feels true. It at least it seems
to make plausible sense. And I feel it myself when
I'm eating. I feel a different kind of effect on
my mind when I eat with chopsticks versus when I

(38:00):
cut with a fork and knife. On some level, anytime
I'm using a fork and knife to eat, I am
picturing like a scene from a medieval motion picture of
motion pictures set in medieval times, not one made during
the Middle Ages, obviously, but you know, some scene of
some brutal lord carving up his food while hounds a
feast on the bones beneath the table. Um Like, I'm

(38:22):
somehow employing that scene in my mind, but both negatively
but also positive positively, because there's something kind of awesome
about that scenario too. And then when I eat with
chopsticks there is something bird like, Like I'm on some
level I'm imagining that I am being fed by a
bird puppet. Well, for me, fork and knife feels more

(38:43):
um mechanical, artificial and architectural, and chopsticks feel more organic
and uh related to the forms of the natural world. Again,
they are more like the extensions of your skeleton. Yeah.
But it also, as we were saying, coincides with differences
in in common preparation methods, and say, many European traditions

(39:07):
of cooking versus East Asian traditions of cooking were very often,
though not always very often in say Chinese cooking, ingredients
are sliced or cut up in advance. Yeah, and then
this we come back to that idea that scarce resources
and growing population in China demanded that smaller portions of
food be cooked fast over less fuel. Um. Thus chopsticks

(39:28):
are an ideal way to consume the finished dish as well. Um. Though.
One of the points that Weighing makes in his book
is that you know, technically, you know, certainly there are
a number of key advantages to cooking food. We've touched
on that and stuff to blow your mind before. Um.
It is the externalization of digestion in many respects. But
at the same time, do you have to eat it hot?

(39:51):
Can you know? Can't you just wait until it's room
temperature again and then you can eat it with your fingers? Uh?
We often insist on eating it hot. We not prefer
warmer hot food. UM. I think there's some research on
why we prefer hot food, right, is there? Well, that
sounds like something we should say for a future episode
on the invention of the hot bar. But in terms

(40:17):
of like eating with your fingers though, uh. He Weighing
summarizes in his book again at Chopsticks, a Cultural and
Culinary History, uh, that we see the shift from fingers
to utensils between five hundred and a thousand b C.
And then we see spoons and chopsticks used as an
an established set of eating tools in China between three
hundred and six hundred C. So this this is the

(40:39):
point where it becomes clear that if you're going to eat,
you're probably gonna need that spoon because there are going
to continue to be soups and broths and whatnot. But
on the but on the other side of the plate,
you're going to want those chopsticks because that is going
to be how you're gonna consume all of these finer pieces.
Chopsticks and spoon. They are the Buddy Cop movie of
my mouth. All Right, we're gonna take one more break.

(41:00):
When we come back, we're going to discuss the legacy
of chopsticks. Alright, we're back, okay, Robert. We mentioned a
little bit about random bits of chopsticks etiquette before. One
thing we should point out is that there are definitely
some regional variations on chopstick etiquette. You know, the rules

(41:20):
aren't the same everywhere you go. But some common examples
that I've found reading about chopstick etiquette around the world
would be. One big one is you don't stab a
food with the tip tip of chopsticks apply. That is
just that's not cool. Yeah, that's one you have to
you have to really break down for a child of
when I was, when my own son was learning how

(41:41):
to use chopsticks. I mean, that's you. You want to
use them like the adults are using them, but it's
difficult at first, and the first thing that comes to
their mind is, well, I can just use this to
stab my dumplings instead, and you have to say, no,
do not stab the dumplings with that stick. It's like
licking a knife. He's just you know, it just looks.
It looks brutal and weird. Yeah, except when Dracula does it,

(42:02):
you know, when Gary Oldman licks the razor blade. Gary
Oldman can make anything look cool. But hey, here's another one.
I read this in several places, and I wonder how
common this rule of etiquette actually is. But what I
have read in several places is something about Chinese chopstick etiquette.
And it chilled me because I know I've violated this.

(42:23):
I have done it. You know how, Sometimes you're eating
a good bowl of some kind of stir fried delight,
maybe it's some kind of noodle, dish or some fried
rice or just some kind of stir frying. You might
be searching around in your dish for that one delicious thing,
that big piece of black fungus, or that one last
shrimp or something like that. Apparently, digging around with chopsticks

(42:46):
in search of something can be seen as bad manners
and is something referred to as quote grave digging or
digging your grave. Huh. Well, on one hand, this seems
like it's it's a it's a rule against over you
to Liz in the freedom of the utensil. But on
the other hand, it also makes sense if you're thinking
about a more communal um eating scenario where you're sharing

(43:09):
one big bowl or of one hot pot, etcetera. Uh
it it's cheating for you to go digging around and
getting all the choice pizza pieces of protein out before
anyone else can have a shot at them exactly. And
also I don't know if this is the reason, but
I have to wonder if part of it is that
it could be considered insulting to the host or the cook,
right implying that the dish only has a limited amount

(43:32):
of the good stuff and there's not enough of it,
and you want to dig around to find all of that. Again,
it's the very thing you want a child not to do.
Don't just don't just eat the shrimp, eat the vegetables too,
for the child's own good, but also so as not
to insult the host. Right, because if you're just digging
out the shrimp, the the implication is, why didn't you
just give me a bowl full of shrimp? Well that

(43:55):
makes sense. That makes sense as well, but also another
piece of headiquette that we can take take with us,
because sometimes it is hard to resist again for that choice, uh,
that choice delicious shrimp in there in the noodles. Well,
I find myself maybe maybe this is bad manners in general,
but I find myself when using chopsticks, especially just trying

(44:15):
to compose perfect little mouthfuls of things like I want
to get everything lined up together, like a little bit
of a little bit of the carbohydrate element, a little
bit of the vegetable, a little bit of the meat
or whatever, and have that all just arranged just right
before I shovel. Oh yeah, And then if you're like me,
you run the risk of of its slipping because you're

(44:35):
you're trying to treat This is my possible interpretation here
is that sometimes we try and treat treat the chopsticks
as a fork, because with the fork, yeah, you can
just go stab stab, stab, stab, and you get your
little you know, taste sensation and of four different elements
lined up one by buffet, right, But with chopsticks, sometimes
when I try and do that, uh, there's it can

(44:56):
be an act of folly because ultimately maybe I should
be doing it piece by piece in a more chopsticks
friendly manner. You know, one thing I've noticed when I
watched I watch a decent amount of cooking videos with
you know, actual chefs in the Asian traditions, like Japanese chefs,
Chinese chefs, and a lot of times I see them

(45:17):
using chopsticks still in cooking. We mentioned that they originally
played a big role in cooking, but I see this
still happening. They're like chopsticks used in a walk, chopsticks
used for say, tempera frying. Yeah. And then you will
also see with with modern um, you know, gourmet chefs.
Anyone who's ever watched you know, some sort of a
Netflix cooking show hasn't has seen these gourmet chefs using

(45:41):
tweezers but in some cases chopsticks uh to carefully align
the food on the plate and make sure everything is
position just right. Um like, that's essentially the same principle.
I mean, what are tweezers but less proper chopsticks. Have
you ever seen our coworker Dylan Fagan eating Cheetos out

(46:01):
of a bag with chopsticks? No, I haven't noticed this.
Gene yes doesn't get any Cheeto dust on his fingers.
He'll have the little bag there and he's going at
it with chopsticks, and it's so cute, And I think
it's it's it's culturally appropriate because because because cheetos are
a snack with no nation, they're they're completely honorless. So

(46:22):
it's okay to use chopsticks. If anything you have, you
run the risk offending chopsticks. Now, a big part of
chopstick culture in the world today is that we've got
tons of disposable chopsticks chopsticks. Disposable chopsticks are being used
all the time, and I am I am a big
fan of reusable chopsticks, but I also admit I frequently
used the disposable ones and feel bad about how many

(46:44):
I've probably sent the landfill in my lifetime. Yeah, some
of the uh, the research that was provided for us
from Scott Benjamin. On this, he points out that disposable sets,
typically bamboo, weren't really created until the eighteen hundreds and
uh and and this was largely a Japanese creation and today, uh,
disposable chopsticks are a bit of a problem. In Japan alone,

(47:07):
around twenty four billion pair are used each year, about
two hundred pairs per person each year. That's a lot
of waste. Yeah, but then again, uh, less Western listeners
be too judgmental on this fact. I just remind everyone
to think about your disposable straw usage, think about your
disposable for knife, spoon and sport usage. Um. I think

(47:30):
these are all part of the same problem. Oh, absolutely
no reason to single out Japan here now. Um. Speaking
of Japan, it's also pointed out that chopsticks were historically
longer for men and shorter for women eight inches for men,
seven inches for women, and that the actual size of
chopsticks varies now and it seems that there's no standard

(47:52):
length for any one country. Another pro chopsticks fact, the
blunt shape of chopsticks also makes them uh, easier on
lack covered ornate cookware. Again, you're not going to be
stabbing and slicing with fork and knife on it. You're
going to be more politely poking at them with the
pieces of wood or in some cases of course, pieces
of metal. Now, speaking of the materials used in chopsticks

(48:16):
in Korea, metal shopsticks have have become the standard, but
you also find various other uh substances, both currently and
in the past, bamboo, plastic, wood, bone, stainless steel, us
as well as for the wealthy titanium gold silver against porcelain, jade,
ivory gold chopsticks. Yeah. Uh. And it's also was once

(48:42):
believed that chopsticks made of silver would corrode and turn
black if the food was poison So this sounds like
it's along the lines of the rhino horn and jade. However,
of course this is not true. Silver silver will not
react to arsenic or cyanide, but it will react to garlic, onions,
rotten eggs. Uh. These are all things that produce hydrogen sulfide,

(49:04):
which does turn silver black. Now a few other little
tidbits about chopstick use. Um Whang points out in his
book that you had the chopstick diet. Japanese English Arthur
Kamiko Barber argued in her two thousand nine book The
Chopsticks Diet that using chopsticks is healthier because it forces
you to slow down and savor and think about your food.

(49:27):
I don't know if it's actually healthier, but it does
certainly force me to slow down and save her food more. Yeah.
Again it's presented a wighing presented it as uh something
to think about, not necessarily fact. Uh. He also points
out uh in fact, he points out several times this
idea of the chopsticks cultural sphere. Uh. This was a

(49:49):
term coined by Japanese writer Ishiki Hashiro and uh. He
argued that chopsticks require enhanced brain coordination and that this
imp who's not only dexterity but also brain development, especially
in children. Now and Wang's points out that scientists have
reduced quote positive results on both fronts, but that also

(50:12):
lifetime chopsticks use might result in higher risk for osteoarthritis
in hand joints among the elderly. More work is required
in both areas though, and perhaps this is something that
we could follow up with Unstuffed tobil your mind in
the future. Yes, I definitely be interested in that, especially
given what we talked about earlier that at least firsthand
experience really makes me feel like chopsticks are doing something

(50:34):
to my brain. So it feels like something different is
happening to my mind when I use them, as opposed
to fork and knife. Now, chopsticks also show up in
another interesting place, uh in a now semi famous paper
that is about the dangers of not understanding your sample
correctly if you're a scientist and you're doing something like

(50:54):
genetics testing. And it's a principle known as population stratification
or population ad mixture that was discussed in a two
thousand paper by Hamer and Serota called Beware the Chopsticks
gene in the Nature publication Molecular Psychiatry. Now, the authors
of this paper tell a story to illustrate how scientists
can possibly be misled in genetics research if they're not careful.

(51:18):
And the story goes like this, So Robert, once upon
a time there was an ethno geneticist who was looking
for a subject to study, and he decided he would
like to figure out why certain people eat with chopsticks
and others don't. So he rounded up a few hundred
university students and he gave them questionnaires to find out
how often they used chopsticks, and then he took cheek

(51:41):
swabs to get DNA samples from each of them. So
his lab ran DNA analysis and cross reference the responses
to the questionnaire with the d N A and found
a huge correlation between one particular genetic marker right in
the middle of a region previously linked to other behavioral traits,
and the you of chopsticks. And so then this experiment

(52:02):
was replicated. It was performed at several other universities and
they all got the same result. So the original ethnogeneticist
he celebrates. He decides it's time to call up the
media and tell them I've found the chopsticks gene. It
is a gene that makes people prone to eat with chopsticks.
And this, again is correlation. And as we frequently point out,

(52:23):
is that one of the golden rules of science is
that correlation is not necessarily causation. Right, anything that is
causation should be correlated. But there are lots of things
that are correlated that don't have a causal relationship with
each other. And this could very well be one of
those examples because in this story, unfortunately the geneticist discovers
only several years later that this particular gene is actually

(52:46):
a histo compatibility antigen gene that has nothing to do
with dining utensils. But it just happens to be in
a real that's more common in people with recent Asian
ancestry than with other ethnic groups. So the point is
to illustrate that you could find a gene associated with
a trait. The level of statistical correlation can be highly significant,

(53:08):
and the test can be replicated many times, and it's
still possible that your results are biologically meaningless. This gene
has nothing to do with how you use your hands
or what kind of utensils you favor. It happens to
be more common in a population who uses chopsticks more
often for cultural reasons. It's a complete accident of culture,
and it highlights a general problem with studying populations. If

(53:31):
you don't understand and consider the population you're studying, it's
possible to draw spurious correlations. Using similar naive logic, you
could probably find a French accent gene or a support
for Russia's World Cup team gene. You know this. This
does remind me um of an early experience taking my

(53:52):
my son to a Chinese restaurant. My wife and I
were there with him and uh, and he did not
know how to use chopsticks at the time. He's now
he's six years old and uses them extremely well. But
when we first took him took into this Chinese restaurant, uh. Uh.
The the the owner of the restaurant came around. He
was saying hi and uh and of course he noted

(54:12):
that that my son is is ethnically Han Chinese, and
he he said, he pointed out to he said, don't
let him use the cheating chopsticks, you know once where
you take and or HNDE. He says, don't let him
use those. Let him just figure it out because he
has it in his d n A. Well, that's kind
of a sweet story, but yeah, it operates on exactly

(54:33):
the same principle, assuming that things that are actually just
accidents of culture and history are somehow in the body,
that there's something in the body that makes you that way, right,
when really it is just a it is a it
is cultural information. It's a cultural it's cultural knowledge that
has passed on and uh and in the case of
learning how to use chopsticks, I will say that his

(54:55):
his advice was, I think act completely sound. Uh. My
son used to learn to use chopsticks. Uh, not by
cheating and using some sort of rubber band h and
a piece of paper rolled up. He used them by
watching adults use them, imitating what they were doing, using them,
you know, poorly for a while, and then using them

(55:15):
with competence as an adult. I'm pretty good with chopsticks,
but I did start using them at a slightly later age.
I wonder if I had started using them at an
earlier age, when I still had that neuroplasticity window open,
you know, if I had started using them as early
as I used a fork, if if they feel more
like an extension of my hand, just kind of this

(55:36):
perfectly intuitive part of my body. Well, we could easily
come back to a lot of this. There's a lot
of food left on the table, if you will, um,
because indeed, like, how if you start earlier with chopsticks,
are you in fact more skilled with them? And then
there's the question of you know, why isn't chopsticks usage
part of one's DNA, Like how long does something have

(55:57):
to be around in human culture before it is part
of our human genetic legacy. And then to what extent
does does cultural knowledge uh make genetic information less important? Oh? Well,
you can certainly make that argument. I mean a big
thing about what culture is is that culture is a

(56:20):
great substitute for instinct You know, you don't need quite
so many inborn instincts that are hardwired into the brain.
If you have children who are born as learning machines
and adults who can teach them what to do. Yeah,
a lesson is learned by the individual in months, whereas
it would be learned by the species across what a

(56:40):
million years? Yeah, and I like that about us. I
like that it's fun being a human because you can
grow up learning to use fork and knife, or you
can grow up learning to use chopsticks. You know, the
brain works either way. If we were some kind of
lizard that just had like a hardwired fork and knife
nervous system and chopsticks would never make sense to us.
That would be a tragedy. It would it would it

(57:01):
would be it would be a world without all these
fabulous inventions, including chopsticks. All right, So there you have it. Uh.
An introduction to the history of chopsticks, to the use
of chop sticks, and then the way it changes the
way we interact with our food, think about food, et cetera.
If you would like to check out more episodes of
this podcast, head on over to Inventions dot show, dot UK,

(57:24):
dot du and and you will find all the episodes
of Invention that we have unleashed thus far. Big thanks
to our audio producer, Bruce Dickinson. Invention is production of
I Heart Radio. For more podcasts from my heart Radio
because the iHeart Radio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you
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Stuff You Should Know

Stuff You Should Know

If you've ever wanted to know about champagne, satanism, the Stonewall Uprising, chaos theory, LSD, El Nino, true crime and Rosa Parks, then look no further. Josh and Chuck have you covered.

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