For this week's edition of Tabletop Wrestling, Hanna Raskin and Dan Person tackle a question which Seattle eaters confront on a daily basis: Should you eat teriyaki with chopsticks or a fork?
Hanna Raskin's hanging on to her chopsticks
When I go out for Indian food, I don't wear a sari. And I rarely break out in French when my table's served a bottle of Bordeaux. There are rational limits to the adaptations we make when we're eating another culture's cuisine.
But chopsticks fall on the right side of the line which separates good manners from zany instant assimilation. There's nothing wrong with adjusting our at-table behavior if it deepens our appreciation of a meal. Language and costume are only tangentially related to curries and stews, but utensil choice belongs to a different category. When we use chopsticks at an Asian restaurant, or eat injera with our fingers at an Ethiopian joint, we're not only politely acknowledging our hosts' culinary traditions - we're experiencing dishes closer to the way their creators intended for them to be experienced.
So does that high-minded argument hold at a teriyaki to-go, where you're dealing with a Styrofoam box crammed with industrial-grade chicken and rice? Fast-food teriyaki is arguably as American as the plastic fork. Yet I think it's worth using chopsticks whenever they're offered, since the restaurateur who purchased them clearly thought they were appropriate for his food. Just because we gave up on subtlety and sophistication when we chose teriyaki for lunch doesn't mean we should give up on the fleeting chance to embrace extracultural norms and pay homage to our meal's originators.
Most importantly, chopsticks are a near-ideal eating tool. There's a rumor circulating on the Internet that the ancient Chinese used forks before switching to chopsticks: While it appears to be unsubstantiated in academic literature, the story's gained traction because it makes intuitive sense. At Underbelly in Houston, there are paper-wrapped chopsticks on every table, even though the menu includes roasted chicken, gyro meatballs and tenderloin carpaccio, along with dishes more commonly associated with chopsticks. As the restaurant well knows, chopsticks work: Assuming there isn't any heavy-duty cutting to be done, they're nimble, and shorten the distance between diner and food. Perhaps the question shouldn't be "Should you use chopsticks for teriyaki?" but "Why don't we use chopsticks for pulled pork and slaw?"
IK's World Trip
And Dan Person says you can pry his fork from his cold, dead hands.
When I think utensils, I think utilitarian.
If someone finds chopsticks to be better suited than a fork for picking up individual grains of fried rice and peas, more power to them.
But for those of us who find eating with chopsticks akin to playing golf with a garden shovel, it can be a judgmental world out there.
I have no evidence to back me up, but anyone who has had to ask for a fork when dining out knows how defiling it can feel; worse is the feeling after you try chopsticks, only to botch the job and fling a hunk of sticky rice onto the linoleum floor.
Which brings us to teriyaki. It's hard to think of any other cuisine that has so thoroughly embraced utilitarianism than teriyaki. The restaurants seek out strip malls and take decorating cues from Wendy's. The teriyaki places nearest my apartment, Teriyaki Madness, has a sign that truly looks like the work of an insane person.
Given all this, I think it's preposterous to try to hold on to any semblance of cultural immersion when ordering a No. 5. If you are truly better at eating with chopsticks, then more power to you. But for the other 99 percent, give up the act, and enjoy that speared chicken with a scoop of rice.