I’ve never been to China, so why do I use chopsticks?

In my previous post You Are What You Eat I suggested the following reasons why British people use chopsticks in place of a knife and fork:

  • Oriental meal – etiquette, the proper way.
  • Authentic – despite the challenge.
  • Demonstrates cultural awareness.
  • Social pressures- being seen to be doing the right thing.

I have spoken to a lot of people about this act recently; I wanted to get a grasp on what using chopsticks meant to a breadth of people. I asked a diverse bunch, some cosmopolitain city dwellers and some traditional types. It is no surprise that the traditional types rationalised the use of chopsticks as simply showing off,  pretentious even; however, interestingly so did a few of my more cosmopolitan chums – people who I’ve seen use chopsticks. Theirs wasn’t such a blunt offering of pretentiousness, but more discreetly suggested as showing that you know about other cultures, or demonstrating more cultural awareness than one actually possesses.

So for some the simple reasoning that as a non native culinary tool, chopsticks are rationalised as being more difficult to use and therefore the drive to use them is more than simply getting food from plate to mouth.

It seems that the drive to use chopsticks instead of a knife and fork is driven more by social standing than it is about getting food to your mouth. Therefore the chopstick is a tool loaded with potential cultural gold. Being able to use chopsticks says so much more than simply demonstrating your ability to transfer food.

Many-chopsticks

From top to bottom: Taiwanese melamine chopsticks, Chinese porcelain chopsticks, Tibetan bamboo chopsticks, Vietnamese palmwood chopsticks, Korean stainless flat chopsticks with matching spoon, Japanese couple’s set (two pairs), Japanese child’s chopsticks, and disposable “waribashi” (in wrapper)

Interestingly, most of the people I asked have never visited China or any other Asian culture. Likewise, I have never been to Asia so there has been no real need to have ever learned how to use chopsticks; and yet I have.

Learning to operate a tool which is much more difficult than ones native culinary tools carries with it some kudos and if you’ve learnt how to use chopsticks then you must have had a lot of experience with oriental food. These are all the subliminal messages carried by ones proficiency when using chopsticks.

Artistically, I am interested by this notion of different lengths of chopstick. In Britain more kudos and value would be given to being able to master the bigger, longer tool. What if the length of the chopstick demonstrated ones cultural understanding? The bigger the better? 

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The Issue with Chopsticks

I came across this issue with chopsticks as part of my Man Only Dines research.

The use of disposable chopsticks has long been a preferred method of eating in China for convenience and sanitation; particularly since the SARS outbreak in 2003. Normally the use of wood instead of plastic would be advocated, however it is estimated that China produces 80billion chopsticks a year. Thats equal to 20 million 20 year old trees, placing considerable impact on the natural environment.

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Since 2006, China has imposed a 5% tax  as a deterrent to using disposable chopsticks, however it is Taiwan that is taking up the BYO chopstick mantle; as demonstrated in the following images.

In an article called  Think Before You Use: The problem with disposable chopsticks, Emily Kuo states that:

We need more creative ways to encourage people to switch from disposable chopsticks to reusable ones.

She lists a range of plastic, screw together options (similar to those shown above), but none come close to using a familiar, natural  material when compared to plastic. The natural answer feels to make the chopsticks out of ceramics, an unusual but pre-existing process.

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Ceramics can be decorative, easy to clean and has permanence. The ceramic chopstick could be the answer to China’s problem.

 

 

 

Rick Stein on food and culture

The best part about this food project is that watching a cookery show (in bed on a lazy Sunday) counts as research.

The perfect show came up this morning. Not two minutes into Rick Stein’s Taste of Shanghi, Rick comes up with an astute theory about the inextricable links between culture and food.

Food is about culture; and if you lose your cuisine you lose your culture.

From the 1960’s for over twenty years Communism in China erased regional customs (and food with it)  in favour of a United culture. Rationing limited the amount and range of ingredients available, and so traditional dishes were forfeited for a prescribed diet, manageable on meagre rations.

A resurgence of local custom and cooking has been increasing over the past twenty years since the removal of rationing; and a pride and confidence in local dishes has been restored.

From pig intestine noodles (a hanger on from days of strict rationing) to simple steamed fish/chicken with ginger, spring onion and chilli; each dish has a story to share – whether it’s regional, local or simply a family favourite.

This hour long episode (thankfully) confirmed everything I feel food does for us, aside from simply providing nourishment.

Man Only Dines #1

Mrs Beeton once said that all creatures eat but ‘man only dines’. In a bit to explore the ability to transition between different social tribes by understanding cultural expectations I have produced a video piece.

Using the chopstick as a marker for a pre-existing social transition, the video documents the (clumsily and sometimes repulsive) eating of a Big Mac – two bookends for my diet; from uncultured teenager to culturally aware adult.

This video is the start of an experiential learning process and is not demonstrative of a final polished piece.

MOD screen shots

 

Extrinsic Fear of the Table

Eating together was a huge part of my family’s social interaction. However, there were rules…which were particularly  enforced by my fear-inducing Granddad.

Whenever I think back over big family social occasions when I was young all I can remember is crying at some point during a meal. I was a fussy eater and clearly worried by a lack of nutrition, my parents began to encourage me to eat different vegetables. This would always bring about a physical rejection of said item, which inevitably led to strong words, disappointment and a distraught me.

My Granddad’s strict table etiquette was suffered by all. A more relaxed dining approach was clearly in play during the 1990’s…my parents talked to their children during dinner. But my Granddad didn’t accept this notion willingly. On many occasion – lunch and dinner on a Sunday – one of us grandchildren would have done the wrong thing. My Grandfather had such a presence that a simple look could make us crumble…and usually did.

And so began my fear of the table. By the time I was twelve all I would eat during a Sunday roast was potato and chicken. I had entered a spiral of anxiety lacking self confidence to try different foods. I realise now that it was making different friends (from different backgrounds) between the ages of seventeen to twenty-one that really altered my attitude to trying different food. A change in culture, experiencing different places replaced fear with excitement. And now I have a literal hunger to try different dishes.

You Are What You Eat

This famous phrase forms the bases for my new line of inquiry. We live in a world obsessed by what we eat – whether you’re addicted to junk food, whether you overshare great restaurants and recipes on Instagram or are just simply confused about which products suit your ethics. Food is a big part of our contemporary society in the UK.

Today I ate:

  • Porridge with blueberries, sultanas and nuts.
  • 2 slices of toast with peanut butter.
  • Mackerel and broccoli stir-fry with rice.
  • 9 chicken McNuggets
  • 1 McDonald’s Hamburger
  • 1 Big Mac
  • 1 small fries.

The last four helpings were all in the name of art, I promise (more to follow shortly). I can still feel the last bite of the Big Mac trapped somewhere. But what I have just offered up is an opportunity to judge me, and we all do it. We define ourselves by where we eat and what we eat.

At my birthday meal last week everyone at the table was using chopsticks proficiently. Being proficient is one thing, but chopsticks are still more difficult to operate…so why use them in place of a knife and fork? I use chopsticks at every oriental meal, I even used them for the mackerel stir-fry I ate earlier…at home. Yet still I was surprised that ten people elected to use chopsticks over a knife and fork.

 

Reasons for using chopsticks:

  • Oriental meal – etiquette, the proper way.
  • Authentic – despite the challenge.
  • Demonstrates cultural awareness.
  • Social pressures- being seen to be doing the right thing.

 

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Now, living in a multicultural city is clearly the most obvious reason why every guest at the meal had learned to use this authentic method of eating. Exposure to different foods etc is common in the city. I will normally dine out at least one night a week. One night in a month will easily be pan Asian…and I will use chopsticks.

However, what interests me is that I didn’t need to learn this skill. A knife and fork is nearly always offered alongside chopsticks. I only ever used a knife and fork back home on the Isle of Wight and likely it it is still the same for many people today. In most rural areas around the UK it could even be considered pretentious to use chopsticks.

The chopstick is quickly becoming an object that speaks of my cultural journey over the past fourteen years. It highlights the differences between my rural upbringing and my present city life, through the food I eat and the tools I use.

‘Our Food, Your Questions’ – Confronting McDonald’s

Acutely aware of their falling popularity and rapidly losing customers, McDonald’s have produced a range of videos in which they attempt to put to bed some of the horror stories surrounding their food production.

The videos are rife with propaganda, but I do believe McDonald’s is being honest. So it turns out they do use real chickens and yes they do use real eggs; cleverly missing out the big questions about chicken welfare, or how much land and carbon emissions are used to graze and transport cattle for its global restaurants.

In my favorite video about chicken nuggets, the ‘reporter’ cleverly compares an image -which trended as being the chicken mince chicken McNuggets were made from- (pink goo below left) with the actual chicken mince (below right).

If given the option of having to eat one of these there is no competition. At least the chicken mince (above right) looks like meat. However, the reality is this product is hardly more appetizing (see below).

The provenance of our food is becoming as equally important as the quality of the cut, and McDonald’s has yet been unsuccessful at answering those questions.

Find a link to the ‘Our Food, Your Questions’ playlist here.