Don't knock it till you swip it
The most humiliating moment of my eating life came in Tokyo in 2009. My Japanese publisher had put me up in a swanky hotel—it had starred in a 1960s Bond film—and soon after arrival I popped into the elegant sushi bar in the lobby. A row of Japanese businessmen lined the bar, chatting softly. I sidled onto the one empty stool and nodded gamely to the chef. As a flurry of exotic delights came my way, I brandished my chopsticks and dispatched each piece in turn like Sean Connery eliminating SPECTRE agents. But as the meal went on, and jetlag settled in, I found my mediocre chopstick skills deserting me. The sticks kept crossing. I almost lost a tekka-maki. I stole a glance at the chef, but he just stared stone-faced into the middle distance.
And then, just as my body was beginning to realize that it had been awake for 38 straight hours, a bowl arrived with, good god, a thousand baby clams in their shells, each the size of my fingernail. I peeked at the businessmen around me. Somehow they were nailing individual clam meats without even looking, chatting away the whole time. I tried, and missed. I tried again, chasing clams around my bowl. Now the chef was staring very, very hard at something in the middle distance. I tried again and launched a clam across the bar like a tiddlywink. The businessmen stopped chatting. The chef nodded to the waiter, who placed a spoon beside my bowl and spread a big napkin in my lap. My humiliation was complete.
I was thinking about that moment recently when I discovered SwipStix, a new style of “eating tongs” designed by the Quebec artisan Tom Littledeer, whose maple scoops, spatulas, and paddles have been featured at Williams-Sonoma for years. SwipStix are plastic, but they have the same swoopy feel as Littledeer’s wooden tools. Unlike regular tongs, the closed end cradles the web of your hand while the tips curve up and fatten into two flattish pads with a grippy texture. They look a lot like the two padded tentacles on a squid, and you feel a bit like a squid while using them. If, like me, you’ve always wanted to be a squid, this is a big plus.
The first time I picked up a pair of swips (as everybody seems to call them) it was hard to keep a straight face. That went away in about five seconds as I began swipping. I effortlessly snagged everything I reached for and popped it into my mouth, as if the swips were extensions of my mind. Leaves, noodles, tiny shellfish, single grains of rice; there was no learning curve. It was like I’d suddenly become a chopstick master. The SwipStix website claims swips, like chopsticks, are a more mindful way of eating because you’re forced to slow down and consider each bite, but whoever wrote that copy clearly hasn’t seen me destroy a grain bowl with them.
Seized with the fire of the early adopter, I set bowls of breakfast ramen before my family and handed out the swips. “I feel like I’m on Star Trek,” my teenage son said. Fair enough. When you have several different colors of Swips going at once, it does feels like executive brunch in the Google cafeteria. But the pushback faded as soon as we dug in. Noodles don’t slip through the grippy pads. Nothing does. The pork belly was easy pickings. So were the mushrooms. Whatever size or shape the food you grab, the flexible arms bend to cradle it. And once inserted in your mouth, the tapered tips effortlessly glide out again. It’s weirdly satisfying, and it makes you want to eat everything with them.
Which I pretty much did for a week. The bottom edge of swips are narrow enough to cut soft things. Could I eat my fried eggs with them? Absolutely. Smoked salmon? Like a charm. Strips of bacon sans greasy fingers. Oatmeal? Well, yes, if you hold the bowl close to your mouth and shovel, Chinese-style, but let’s face it, the spoon is pretty awesome for certain tasks. Swips also don’t work for steak or any other food that requires dismemberment as you go—but do we really need to be hacking away at the table like Khal Drogo? Civilization, people, civilization.
Chopsticks have 3,000 years of history behind them. Even though they seem like the obvious target for swips, I think the fork is the utensil that’s vulnerable. Nobody loves the fork. At best, it’s awkward. There’s a lot of impaling and hand-switching. It strikes me as an immature technology, which it actually is. Forks are newbies. The ancient Romans never saw one. Neither did Leonardo da Vinci, Henry VIII, or Gutenberg. Forks were unknown in Europe until Catherine de’ Medici introduced them as the cool new Persian thing in 1533, but they didn’t really catch on for another two centuries. They’re still in their beta stage, and they might stay there, one more technology that seemed pretty good until something really good came along. If swips are Google, forks are Yahoo.
Yet somehow, so far, swips have not exactly taken the world by storm. Why not? Are they too plastic? Too refined? Too Canadian? I threw a brunch party to find out. All the foods were super swippable: fruit salad, tamago omelet bites, grilled peppers, mejadra, tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala, and bacon, of course. “You know how you’ve always wanted to be a squid?” I began as I doled out the swips, but I clearly had the wrong friends. Snide comments about certain medical procedures were made. The group was reluctant. Truculent, even.
Yet again, once everybody got down to business, the swips killed it. No tamago escaped. No tiddlywinks were launched. At the end of the meal, I asked who was ready to convert. Not a single hand. Why? I asked. What was the sticking point? They had no obvious answer, but it became apparent that they all secretly feared they were on Punk'd. Somebody, somewhere, was laughing at them and their swips. In other words, that old gremlin, humiliation, was holding them back.
Don’t let this be you. Try a pair of swips. Swip in public, and swip with confidence. It could change your life. You might suffer a little humiliation, but humiliation passes. Mine was just eight years ago, and it’s already starting to fade.