It’s hard to believe for us Westerners who work up a sweat at the local P.F. Chang’s while trying to use chopsticks, but the spindly utensils were actually invented as a result of fuel conservation and Eastern philosophy.

Around 5000 years ago, the ancestors of chopsticks were probably simple sticks used to retrieve food from the fire. Fast forward to the Zhou Dynasty (ca. 1046-256 BCE) and large areas of forest were being cleared, so fuel, such as firewood, was in short supply.  The local cuisine evolved in reaction to the wood shortage; baking and boiling would take too long, so food was cut into small pieces and quickly stir-fried.

Most dishes of that era involved some type of sauce, so using one's fingers was impractical, not to mention pretty disgusting.  Chopsticks were the perfect solution – one could grab bits of meat, vegetables and rice with a pincer-type action, and dip it daintily in the sauce.  Used properly, the morsels of food were grasped by the mouth without having actual contact with the chopsticks, making them sanitary enough for all the Emily Posts in the audience. Another excellent piece of good timing for chopsticks related to the teachings of Confucius. Confucius felt it inappropriate to have a knife on the table, and the quick cooking method of stir fry require the components to be cut up before they reach the pan, knife at table not needed.

Oh, for the nitpickers in the balcony who ask “if wood was so scarce, why did they waste it making chopsticks?”, we hasten to add that at that time, chopsticks were traditionally made of bamboo, ivory, bronze, or bone.