Every time I’m within 10 feet of a noodle, it’s the same. That creeping anxiety in anticipation of the inevitable; the resentful side-eye to the two slender wooden oppressors at my hand. Try us, they say, maybe this time you’ll finally get it right. My blood runs cold and my face flushes.
“Um, could I have a fork, please?”
If this were a saloon bar in the wild west, the piano player would stop abruptly and everyone would turn to face me. As it is, it’s a ramen restaurant in Kensington and apart from the Korean couple at the next table glancing over in curiosity that I choose to interpret as derision, nobody I’m with really cares whether I use chopsticks or not. They are used to me now.
I have tried. Many, many times. Before Google, I remember reading a guide in a magazine on how to hold chopsticks. Like a pen, apparently. I remember the diagram on the yellowing pages, with a tea stain just off to the right, which showed a cartoon finger deftly holding a set, with a small arrow to show the movement you could make. Every time, years later, as a grown adult, when I found chopsticks in my hand, I would remember that diagram. Everything about it in photographic detail: yellowing edges, tea stain, magazine, the arrow, the movement. Everything but how to hold them. I must hold my pen differently than the rest of the world. Like I ever even hold a pen these days anyway.
Around seven times out of ten, when confronted with them, I’ll pick them up anyway. I can manage to get gyoza to the plate without any major incident, although I am always self-conscious they will collapse when I pick them up and the other people I’m sharing them with will roll their eyes. Sushi, yes, just about OK, especially maki rolls. But bowls of noodles? Or broth? Oh, come on – we’ll be here all day.
It’s a failure, isn’t it? Like most things, it’s not just that I can’t do it which bothers me – it’s the reaction from others. Men on dates, especially. I would usually avoid any chopstick-related food on a date, but you don’t want to look like a basic, uncultured goon, so if they suggested it, I would go along. I had a speech about my use of a fork prepared – which wasn’t hard as they almost always said the same thing.
“It’s an insult to the food/chef/restaurant to eat it with a fork.” The food can’t talk, the chef can’t see, the restaurant cares only that I pay and don’t phone up tomorrow complaining of food poisoning. Next.
“It’s very typically Western to refuse to learn how to use them.” I didn’t refuse, I just can’t. It doesn’t work. Same as I can’t play a piano or suck myself off. I made a valiant effort with each but sadly it just didn’t work out. The food still tastes the same.
“You’re disrespecting the culture.” I am not at a formal banquet with the Vietnamese president, I’m on a date in Viet Hoa sharing a summer roll with what appears to be the official UK representative for the boring halitosis contest. Whether I plunge a fork or a chopstick into my food is irrelevant, and the whole point of eating is you enjoy your food and you’re having a nice time, not awkwardly spearing prawns and taking three hours to trap a noodle because it looks better.
But this is a “thing”, isn’t it? It’s part of the trend for fetishising food and the way we prepare and eat it. It’s part #foodporn and part desperate search for authenticity where previously, perhaps, you had none. It’s kind of ironic the increased pressure on food to be an experience, that you not only savour but promote as part of your lifestyle, tends to remove the very thing food is supposed to give you – pleasure. And the even more bizarre thing is that the pressure comes not from ourselves, usually, but others.
Consider steak bores. We’ve all met one. You’ll be in a restaurant, in a group, and once you have spent a good 20 minutes debating whether it is okay to order the same as someone else – it is it is it is, for GOD’S sake, just eat what you like – you will order the steak and, for some reason, this decision comes under scrutiny that somehow evades presidents, CEOs and newspaper magnates. Say you want your steak “well done” – or even “medium well”, which I notice is increasingly becoming the target of a steak bore’s ire – and you leave yourself open to another 20 minutes of huffing, puffing and, quite frankly, unwelcome opinion about the way you’re about to eat your food. I even feel duty bound to point out here I have my steak “medium”, to avoid the inevitable postbag from steak bores who will walk over hot coals – that their steak will barely touch because they are real men (always men sorry) who eat their steak rare – to tell me how wrong I am.
Once, on hearing a guy say he “couldn’t understand why someone would have their steak any other way than rare”, I decided to bite. It had been a long evening and I hadn’t particularly enjoyed his company that much. I asked him why. He said something about flavour and, I think, disprespecting a chef – so much fucking STANNING for these stripey-aproned kitchen gods, eh – and also there was some murmuring about tradition or whatever, but any now he was losing me because all he was doing was parroting received opinion on steaks when really I wanted to get to this guy’s essence. I wanted go beyond that increasingly unattractive pink mouth and bulging eyes and infiltrate his DNA to find out what he personally felt about it, and why this bothered him. He would never taste this person’s well-done steak. Those who order well-done steaks do not, as far as I am aware, carry a huge sign with them telling the world they do this, so any secondhand embarrassment a steak bore would feel would be restricted to the dinner table and, wonderfully, totally unavoidable should he decide to keep his big, slack mouth buttoned.
Someone liking their food cooked in a way that is preferable to them says little more other than they know what they like, perhaps they are not keen to try new things, but largely, it has absolutely no bearing on you whatsoever, unless you manage to hide what a grotesque snob you are and progress the relationship enough that they end up cooking for you sometime. And then you can simply tell them: “I like my steak bloody, thanks”, and if they baulk then you can actually rejoice! Because they too are basics who give more than the necessary zero fucks any of us should be giving about how other people eat.
Eventually, after perhaps seven or eight minutes of this discussion, the man saw the error of his ways – or at least, he said he did; he probably just wanted me to stop interrogating him – and conceded that, yes, someone eating a different way from him was fine, because it was better they had something they liked than sit in misery, chewing raw meat because they were bullied into thinking how they ate was wrong.
There’s no problem with encouraging people to try new things. We like to play teacher and it can be a genuine source of joy to introduced another to something you adore and see them feel the same. But it depends where the idea is coming from. It’s natural that we try to find common ground, as it’s an easy way to get people to like us, but if we like to eat noodles with a fork, or a cremated steak, or prefer poached eggs to fried, or ask for gluten-free pudding, and then do not tell us we are wrong or, perish the thought, uncultured for it. The world is not your Eliza Doolittle.
Most of the world’s problems come from intolerance of one kind or another. Start small – let me eat my noodles how I please. I’ll do the same for you one day. And with the world changing and becoming more horrific and wondrous at the same time, both at lightning speed, who knows when you’ll need me on your side?