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Life Lessons

The Fork And Spoon Method To A Better Life

Wooden and iron spoons lie on the table at the folk museum, Kovpakivka village, Mahdalynivka district, Dnipropetrovsk Region, central Ukraine.
Mykola Miakshykov/Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images

A user asks what I’ve idly wondered all my life: Why do Filipinos use spoon and fork during meals instead of knife and fork or chopsticks? 

I found this gem on Quora, a website that functions like Reddit made by suburban moms and truck drivers. Such highly specific, seemingly genuine, slightly exoticized queries follow almost every subset of every demographic of every country. They beg historical and/or sociological answers (one Quora user’s answer was, unsurprisingly, “colonialism”) and often occasion searching, would-be-lyrical ones, usually my least favorite type of answer to anything. The truth is anodyne anyway: Across cultures, across dining customs, a given person's reason for following that custom is usually as simple as "That’s how my [insert relative here] did it." Which is to say, these dilemmas of understanding tradition don’t always bear out as distressed feelings of cultural isolation or, conversely, maudlin romanticizations of hearth and home. 

I grew up deeply enmeshed in my mom’s side of the family, which means I felt more Filipino than black when I was around them. In earlier points in my self-conception, I claimed that this dual identity caused me a lot of misanthropic turmoil, the way it’s typically expected of biracial kids. Melancholic, tortured personal essays about such experiences are ubiquitous (even if just as many writers seem to champion the death of the personal essay). These days, I think I was lying to make myself seem more sympathetic. (To whom? Good question.) It’s a strange emotional register to adopt for the benefit of others when it isn’t true for you or your relatives. It reliably gets you attention if nothing else. 

With my family, part of what was so warm and inviting wasn’t any sense of separateness between us and the white world, so to speak, but a feeling that my uncles and aunts and cousins could take everything American worth talking about and make it cooler. Haircuts, toys, cars, video games, movies, music. There wasn’t any purity of origin when it came to what we enjoyed or shared. Tastes were allowed to exist incongruously together, the weirder the better. Sometimes, amusing cultural overlaps between my mom’s side and my dad’s would heighten this incongruity. For instance, I fondly recall car rides with several of my Filipino uncles, each enamored with certain paragons of black music, and how they’d “introduce” me to artists that my dad had already been championing at home for years. 

If there’s anything to be gleaned from an overgeneralized, highly superficial account of a biracial upbringing, it's that vacillating between traditions and histories—code-switching, if you must—gives you an appreciation for how intentionally feeble our understandings of one another can be, how often people back away from disturbing their underdeveloped notions of what a person is about or where they come from. It’s easy to cop to tokenism or fetishization, and there are clear instances of that. But what I mean is the desire for a kind of ethnic or racial shorthand that borders on the clairvoyant: This is why they do that. Which brings us back to the Quora question. 

Both sides of my family are guilty of this pigeonholing (and, in less redeemable moments, outright bigotry). While I have no reason to believe the aforementioned Quora question isn’t asked in good faith, there’s a bit of that taxonomical impulse lurking underneath as well. Maybe someone is genuinely curious when they ask these things or they want to ennoble the idiosyncrasies of their own identity in contrast to someone else or they believe the royal “we” of the human race is actually really simple when you get down to it. Maybe they’re virulent racists. All things are possible! The point is, eventually someone is going to ask you why you eat the way you do. 

For me, I think I was in fifth or sixth grade when the question came. It had to have been: around the time the Catholic school I attended began including a watery, undercooked chicken teriyaki with clumpy rice to the lunch menu. Prior to this, eating in public at a restaurant where the fork and spoon method was most useful (I’ll get to the method itself in a second) wasn’t cause for outside comment. I could hide behind a mother who made the method seem entirely natural and a father who cut up his pasta into little slivers before eating it. 

The method is very simple: You take the spoon in your dominant hand and the fork, tines toward you, in the other. The spoon is now a shovel, the fork merely a device for pushing food into the shovel. This is an efficient, frankly quite cool-looking way of eating dishes that come with rice, quinoa, and most grains, or really any situation where you want to corral a lot of different things on your plate into one bite without desperately shotgunning a utensil into your mouth for fear of the contents falling. I’ve seen more dextrous people swap the fork for a pair of chopsticks. For tender-cooked foods, of which there are many in Filipino cuisine, a knife is not necessary because the edge of your fork or spoon will work just fine and, really, you probably only need the spoon. (I use a spoon for everything: eggs, popcorn, peanuts, the salty dust at the bottom of a bag of chips.) 

At any rate, a friend at the time asked why I was eating the bad chicken teriyaki with a flimsy plastic spoon and fork. I knew how other people used their utensils and figured the difference came down to preference. I said I liked eating stuff with rice that way, that it was easier. My friend replied with something noncommittal, like “OK, whatever,” and proceeded to imitate me for a few days. Years later, watching “The Pledge Drive” episode of Seinfeld, where Mr. Pitt’s at-first-ridiculous habit of eating a Snickers bar with a fork and knife becomes a New York City phenomenon, I wondered what it would have been like had something similar occurred in our dinky suburban private school. All those freckled boys and girls smelling of burnt hair and chemical straightener eating the way my grandparents did. A hollow fantasy, but it made me laugh. The truth is, that wouldn’t have happened because eating the Filipino way isn’t that weird of a thing to do. My friend asked me because, he told me years later, he hoped I would have an exotic answer. Mostly, I’m glad I didn’t give him one and instead supplied the correct reason: It’s just better. 

There’s a constellation of these small tendencies, reflections of specificities of upbringing and familial legacy that catch people’s eyes and, sometimes, exacerbate otherness. My experiences in this realm were mostly harmless. The really racist stuff wasn’t a result of differences in styles of eating, as they never are. Recently, I had been thinking about all of this more intently than usual because of two kinds of erasure: the one actively happening in Gaza now and, on a much, much lower level, whatever the hell is going on with these food supplements such as Soylent and Huel. 

The former should be obvious, even if the connection I’m drawing may seem trite. Part of any genocidal project is destroying historical and cultural traditions of a community, which can often appear most visibly around food. Palestinians are fighting to salvage not just physical places or inherited customs, but the small, idiosyncratic habits and proclivities specific to any family.

The latter, the growth of the Supplement Lifestyle, is merely stupid. One summary could be: Man busy no chew grow strong. The never-ending grindset produces ever-more convenient ways to streamline one’s day in the name of efficiency. One need not prepare a meal; one need not masticate. We would all be better off with less and that includes utensils, plates, social gatherings. 

Recently, after my grandfather died, a large portion of my family got together for the first time in years. Multiple generations of us, including spouses and significant others, cramped for space, clutching paper plates of food, eating the same way. I’m loath to press too firmly on the button that screeches “Get together with your loved ones,” especially when there’s baggage to consider. I’m loath to cop to identity as something one should put too much stock in. But sharing a certain proclivity, a certain way of doing things that’s open for others to consider, being able to locate some sort of confidence in the very idea of being alive from it—that notion is becoming more powerful to me. I happen to have a Filipino tie to it. I always wonder how that plays out for others.

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