A lesson in flatware

Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, August 10, 2016

I love to eat, and there’s no better time for eating than summer.

The other day Mary and I were eating dinner, enjoying a caprese salad with some really delicious tomatoes. I was happily eating my salad, cutting the tomato and savoring every bite when all of a sudden my fork slipped and a large piece of tomato – complete with mozzarella cheese, fresh basil, and a generous amount of balsamic glaze – flipped off the side of the plate, landing on my trousers at the exact spot where my napkin was not, sliding down my pants leg until it tumbled headlong to the carpet below. Oops.

It was a mess. Later as I scrubbed my pants and the carpet trying to remove the balsamic stain, I thought to myself, “You dummy, why didn’t you cut the tomato with a knife? Or just eat the whole thing in one bite?” It was a messy experience, and it has given me an unusual opportunity to reflect on flatware.

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I thought to myself, forks aren’t really very good at cutting. I mean, have you ever been on a picnic and tried to eat a chicken breast with a plastic fork? Forks are really good at grasping food and taking it off the plate. You just kind of stab it, and stick it in your mouth. And with a fork you can even reach across the table and successfully retrieve a piece of food off someone else’s plate.

Knives are excellent for cutting things. With a knife you can take a big piece of meat and slice it until it’s just the right size to eat. But knives aren’t much good for eating. And they’re also a little scary. Once a knife makes a cut, there’s no going back. And if the cut is your finger instead of the meat, that’s not good.

But spoons, they are different. Spoons are round, and smooth, and kind of friendly. They can scoop up lots of stuff and even pass it around. It’s no accident that babies learn to eat first with a spoon. Spoons are adaptable. Spoons can handle hot soup and ice cream. They can serve potatoes from a big bowl, or make a pot of oatmeal. They stir coffee, and taste sauces. With a spoon you can eat things as different as steak, spaghetti or Jell-O. Spoons are great for sharing. If necessary, a spoon can even do some cutting. Spoons help us share, serve, and savor like no other piece of flatware.

No wonder my grandmother’s silver set had 12 knives, 12 dinner forks, 12 salad forks, 12 soupspoons, four serving spoons, and 24 teaspoons. That’s 40 spoons out of 76 pieces. Clearly, there’s a place for every piece of flatware, but spoons are the unsung heroes.

While I was cleaning up the mess, I couldn’t help listening to the news. I thought to myself, “We need more spoons in our world today. Too many people seem to insist on cutting up the world just the way they want it, like knives, or grabbing too many pieces of meat out of the pot with their forks. We need more spoons.”

Then I thought, “There’s at least a little bit of a knife, and fork, and spoon in me, and probably everyone.” Each piece of flatware is important and has its place. But in our angry, volatile, politically charged, contentious environment we need more people like spoons, and fewer who act like forks and knives.

But what about people who eat with their hands? Where do they fit in? In Jesus’ day people didn’t even use flatware. They used their hands, dipping food out of a common plate using pieces of bread.

Even today the Arabs say, “What does a man want of a spoon for sharing when God has given him so many fingers?” I tried to imagine eating my caprese salad with my fingers. Or serving the Thanksgiving turkey with my hands. Maybe not.

Yet in the Bible, people ate with their hands, and many of the over 300 stories about food in the Bible are about sharing food. Just think of the story of the Lord’s Supper (Mark 14), or the Wedding Feast at Cana (John 2), or the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Matthew 14). Then there’s Abraham’s feeding three strangers in Genesis 18, and Ruth eating with Boaz and the reapers (Ruth 2), and the heavenly banquet in Isaiah 25. Somehow they managed to share food even with their fingers.

To be sure there are many ways to approach eating a meal, sharing food, and living life. I’m not sure I would have been any better off eating my caprese salad with a spoon. But the whole experience has sure given me a lot to think about.

Eating a meal, sharing food, and living life are about sharing, serving, and savoring, whether we do it with a spoon, or maybe even our fingers. And summer is a great time to do that.