I assumed Thai food was properly consumed with chopsticks until I visited the country and discovered brandishing chopsticks branded you as “tourist”, worse, “American tourist”, while the true cultural ethnographers ate with demure utensils provided by smiling, bowing waitstaff, dining on Thai like Thai. This was the case in Bangkok, Phuket, even Chang Mai, although further north, as you approach the Golden Triangle, chopsticks appear, draped with broad noodles, a Laotian influence, or perhaps ancient Burmese. A preconception of Thailand, smashed like the marble-sized, watermelon-skinned eggplants before they are unceremoniously tossed into a sizzling wok. .
One of my most treasured possessions is an intricately metalsmithed set of Thai serving forks, inherited from my beloved PawPaw — Louisiana bayou river rat, Merchant Marine, brewery explosion survivor, semi-professional pugilist — who shipped out to and disappeared in The Orient for months, or years, returning laden with elaborate gifts and great wads of cash dispersed to family and friends and “supporters” of his jaunts undertaken for reasons murky, mysterious, mythmaking.
Such metalwork was not to be found in Thailand in the first cautious weeks of the new century, not in the nightmarkets or at artisan fairs or the sleek shops surroundingthe swanky Bangkok hotels. Plastic was the new world order, molded plastic the color of teak. My grandfather’s Thai salad serving set — wrapped in a raw silk scarf scored from a roadside souvenir shack during my day trip to an “undiscovered” mountain town in the Mae Hong Son province, a “secret” town every neohippie traveler caught wind of, pilgrimaged to, a Thai version of Santa Cruz — sits in a well-marked box stuffed in a disorganized storage unit on the edge of the city, unremembered until I requested a “word” to kick off this project from Madam Editrix.
‘I’ll tell you my most hated word,” she said, leaning in as though sharing a secret, shuddering at the invocation, “utensil”. Unprepared for such a revelation, I sipped my wine as she recounted tales of taunting friends terrorizing her with a word she claims scrapes her skin raw.
It occurs to me I have only seen her consume finger food — gummi bears, chocolate truffles, reggiano chards, olives, profiteroles — nary a utensil necessary.
While I harbor no such fear of forks, “utensil” is a rather uninspiring word. The longer I contemplate, the odder it sounds. It looks weird on the page (screen): utensil. UTENSIL. Utensil. The dictionary definitions prosaic — “An implement, tool, or container for practical use (i.e. writing utensil)” — although I appreciate the reference to writing as these pieces are initially handwritten, and a good pen is a thing of beauty (I can wax on about circumference and ink flow until you want to crawl out of your skin or into a cocktail from sheer boredom). A good pen goes beyond the utilitarian, it is a transcendent thing, both solid and ethereal, independent from and extension of the hand that wields it.
Google search for “utensil” (double checking, as it looks misspelled even when typed correctly) surfaced sites hawking every imaginable form of place setting, at preposterous discounts from standard physical retail prices. I was distracted but not tempted, I have service for twenty-four — inherited from Great Aunt Myrtle — languishing in storage, awaiting my ascension to a realm where hosting seated dinners for twenty-four people is the norm.
Good Ol’ Wikipedia (“old” in digirati parlance) provided dictionary reinforcement as well as a couple of substantiated claims:
- Dragon Throne, also known as “Divine Utensil” — coined by the Eighth Daoguang Emperor — the rhetorical seat of power of the Empire of China, 221-1912.
- Royal Utensils, associated with the quintet of Royal Regalia, Thailand.
A delicious discovery. And what are the Utensils of the Thai Royal Regalia? The Betel Nut Set, the Water Urn, the Receptacle, and the Libation Vessel (I’m picturing a gargantuan wine goblet, declining to Google further, it is so grand in my imagination, no need to see a badly shot image of reality), always placed on either side of the king’s throne during royal ceremonies.
Mundane in the West, power symbols in the East. Manner and meaning, morphed in translation. There’s a metaphor to be explored…
Today’s word courtesy of Madam Editrix, who eschews all forms of social media and wishes to remain anonymous.
Do you have a word suggestion? E.mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
Spirits fueling this post provided by The Beagle east village, nyc
Caffeinated fuel from Croissanteria east village, nyc