Life Cycle is a series that looks at the birth, life and death of everyday objects.
"Apply a firm but gentle pressure on the food, just enough to keep the food from falling from the chopsticks. Too much pressure is more likely to cause your chopsticks to cross at the narrow ends unless they're perfectly aligned and could launch your food across the table."
People have been impressing their dates with chopstick dexterity since the Shang Dynasty. But the throw-away version of chopsticks is a less romantic yet marvelous invention, allowing you to eat your Mooshu on the go and, according to Japanese lore, improve your mental faculties in the process. (No wonder brainy Asians love them.*) Of course, there's nothing clever about the way we dispose of them.
The Japanese use about 20 billion disposable pairs a year; the Taiwanese, 1 billion; and in China an estimated 45 billion sticks are used and discarded annually. In China alone, more than 25 million fully grown trees are chopped down to make utensils that people use and toss as casually as a broken fortune cookie. This is about as crazy as using virgin trees for toilet paper.
"Wood or bamboo chopsticks are the easiest to use because of the gripping texture at the tip. Plastic ones will be harder to use. Metal chopsticks, as favored by the Koreans, are the hardest of all. Master one, and move up to the next. The next time you go out, your hosts will be impressed!"
Soft, light aspen wood (from the willow family) is used for the disposable sticks. Because the sticks demand a finer grain, up to three-fourths of a tree may actually be left to rot.
We think the best way to impress your hosts is to BYOC. Perhaps a really lovely set of bamboo sticks? They weigh next to nothing and make any meal fun. Bamboo is a grass, not a tree, and is one of the fastest growing plants on the planet. (Some species grow up to 3 feet per day.) It grows easily without pesticides and has natural anti-microbial agents. Simran loves to slowly eat diced fruit with her bamboo chops.
"The difference between looking like an unlearned person and looking like a refined cultured person is shown when you hold chopsticks. Do not hold the chopsticks close to the end. The farther away your hands are from the food, the better. Do not stab food."
Don't stab your food, don't stab your forests. BYOC.
*Simran is a brainy Asian. She says this with love and respect.
This post was written by Simran Sethi and Sarah Smarsh. Thanks to the University of Kansas School of Journalism, Lacey Johnston and Merete Mueller for research assistance, and WikiMedia for the image.