Negotiating Reality
by Nina Housman - Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

A lesson in using chopsticks

I love chopsticks. Not the tune a lot of us learned to play on the piano when we were very young, but the eating instruments.  Not the plastic kind with ridges seen in budget Chinese restaurants that have red characters imprinted on them at one end, not the ornately carved ivory ones found in souvenir shops and at the backs of cavernous Chinese grocery stores and not even the high-style modernist ones found in hip stores selling food accessories for the high-end minimalist consumer. No, I love the plain, wooden, rectangular chopsticks that come in a snug paper wrapper that I learned to use about the same time I learned to bang out “chopsticks” on the piano.

Some wrappers have Chinese symbols or Japanese ones and colorful designs, and some don’t.  When you slide them out of the wrapper and pull them apart, you’re ready to go.

I use them for stirring vegetables on the stove (but not scrambled eggs), to eat cottage cheese and to stir fried meat and vegetables and bits of chicken both shredded and chunked, rice, frozen entrees and almost anything that does not need cutting or spooning to be consumed.  I use them to poke food to see if it’s ready,  and I use them to eat pasta.

And I don’t know why.  How do you explain love?

I know it’s not because I learned to use them when I was little, when Sunday lunch was spent with my grandmother at Chinese restaurants.  We went to old style “Cantonese” restaurants before people became sophisticated about Chinese food and discovered Szechuan and Hunan and all kinds of other stuff and learned to order what they saw people of Asian descent ordering.

My grandmother always ordered “shrimp with lobster sauce” which is probably as close to what people eat in China as pizza is. My parents and I ordered all sorts of things. The chopsticks were one of the high points of the meal, but I left them alone the rest of the week.

I started to using them a lot in my 20s, when I first started cooking regularly, and some of it was Asian. But that’s not why I love using them for everything I can.  It has something more to do with the taste of wooden chopsticks and their feel in my hand and against my teeth.  And it has something to do with their rectangular shape and unpretentious nature.  No one ever chose wooden chopsticks for a wedding registry. No one cares about how heavy they are, or if they’re sterling silver.  I just use them and throw them out and get new ones. I know I should care more about wasting trees by using them, but I love them anyway.  And when I see them, I want to smile.