Hey, homo sapiens! Let us embark upon an expedition of the mind. A mindspedition!
To begin, angle your head kinda downward a little bit, and then, rotate it slightly to the left and then the right. What will you find? Dangling tubelike from the upper corners of your thorax? "Arms," most likely. Most likely you have "arms." (Apologies if you do not have "arms." If you do not have "arms," though, you will also not be using a fork and knife to eat pizza, so we're on the same side here, even if not by choice.) Now, working slowly so as not to become lost or confused, extend one of your "arms" and trace your eyes along its length, toward its distal end. Whoa! Whatever is that weird flappy thing hanging off your "arm"? Is it a squid? Ohmigod is that a squid. No, it is not a squid. It is not even a crab! It is not from the sea at all (leaving aside the long-view evolutionary sense in which all life came from the sea). No! It is a "hand." And: Look! It has "arms" of its own. Five of them (give or take). We call its "arms" "fingers." Wiggle them! Wiggle them yourself! Adorable. Little hand-arms. They do not have hands of their own, though. Sad for them.
Despite its lack of finger-hands, the primate's hand is a marvel. In all the taxa of the world's organisms, there may not be found one single appendage a tenth as marvelous, as articulate and graceful and sophisticated, as profoundly impactful to the evolution of its owners, as the hand. Cloven hoof? Bah. Flagellum? Eat shit. Dorsal fin? Get fucked. Can you peel a banana with a dorsal fin? No. You cannot. You cannot even zip up your pants with a dorsal fin. This is why sharks do not wear skinny jeans, and also because skinny jeans make you look like a dipshit.
The primate's ability to grasp objects and manipulate them with our neat-o hands is linked inextricably to our ability to think about those things, and to imagine uses for them. Now, if you would, please use your neat-o, evolutionarily miraculous hand to pick up a "fork." Newly elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was recently captured on video using one of these "forks" to eat a pizza; this has made the "fork" a topic of some conversation lately. As a political matter, it's the usual silly kabuki—fun and knowing and trivial, for the most part, but on a basic level informed by the pundit-class ethic that governance is nothing more than brand management ("So much for his touch with the common man!" and so on). As a human matter, though, this is a discussion worth having.
Examine the "fork." As you hold it in your astonishing hand, think about it with your giant human brain. What of this "fork"? What does it look like? Why, it looks like a teeny little arm, with a teeny little hand on it. A carny's hand! Except metal or maybe plastic. It does not have five fingers probably, and none of its fingers possess the glorious rotary opposability of your thumb. Its fingers have no joints; its wrist does not bend, unless you push down way too hard, and then it breaks. A fork, in fact, because of these shortcomings, could never grasp and lift a yet-smaller fork.
In all, the fork is a fairly poor little hand. It is a hand made by humans, and not by evolution, which, really, is a lot better at making things than people are. The hand is linked to the development of human intellect; our robot descendants, being made by us, will have forks for hands, and will find the manipulation of pants zippers an insurmountable challenge, forever, probably.
Still, the fork, that sad little idiot-hand, has its utility to us, and so needn't spend its days in hopeless exile, not grasping things, not examining them, not rotating them around and contemplating their potential uses. This utility, paradoxically, is related to two of the fork's shortcomings: It cannot sense pain, and it is slow to transmit heat along itself. Thus, you can stab a fork into hot things, like, for example, a hunk of pot roast, and you can lift those hot things to your face, without the fork recoiling reflexively and punching you in the eye, the way your hand would if you plunged it into a hot pot roast and if it had a mind of its own. The fork remains commendably firm and steady, even when its fingers are searingly hot, because the fork is dumb. Good for the fork.
The fork has another, more archaic purpose: As a means for disgusting slovenly pigs—that is to say, for our ancestors, who viewed bathing with suspicion, whose knowledge of microbiology began and ended at the notion that indigestion resulted from demonic possession, and whose hygienic practices reflected this and also did not exist—to transport food from a communal serving dish to their mouths without encrusting that food in a thick patina of the poop they'd only just deposited into their own goddamn hands.
Compared to the knife and spoon, the fork was a relative late-comer to popular usage as an eating utensil (as opposed to a cooking and serving implement) in the Western world—completing its migration from the Near East to Italy as a pasta-twirling specialist in the 11th century. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the fork only began to catch on throughout Europe a few centuries later, during the same rough period that saw the popularization of easily-washed linen clothing lead to a stark decline in the practice of bathing. This is to say that the fork, like linen clothing, came into common usage as a facilitator of filth—why wash your hands when you can use a fork instead?—rather than neatness. Microbiological awareness, and hygienic practices, as you well know, have improved since then; presumably we have advanced somewhat, in our dedication to washing, since the time when people concerned themselves with how to eat food without simultaneously eating the feces on their hands. Yes? Yes? Please say yes.
Still, the fork persists in usage—less, nowadays, to protect things from our foul hands than to protect our clean hands from hot and messy things. Indeed, the fork is quite, well, handy for that latter purpose. All in all, though, it's probably a safe assumption that you perform more tasks with your hands than with a fork, unless you are, I dunno, a carny or something. You don't hold a pen with a fork. You don't type out text messages on your smartphone with a fork. You don't grasp the steering wheel of a car with a pair of salad forks. And: You fucking do not eat a fucking slice of fucking pizza with a fucking fork.
Listen. A depressingly widespread notion holds that the use of utensils to eat hand-friendly foods is a sign of refinement and sophistication—a sign of grownupedness. This is stupid. A fork is a dumber, clumsier, more imprecise, less evolved tool than a hand. Look at how inarticulate it is! It cannot even give you the finger for eating pizza with it. Willfully discharging it to the performance of a task to which it is less well suited than the hand, solely for the satisfaction of some prudish notion of propriety, is not refined adult behavior. It is prissy puritanical behavior. It is born out of the same ass-backward fear of the glorious human body that gave us the MPAA. When you eat pizza with a fork, you are giving a (metaphorical) thumbs-up to Billy Elliot's R rating. That's bullshit.
Your hands are not shameful things. They are marvelous things! After your cerebral cortex, they are probably the coolest things you have, narrowly edging out your genitals, which cannot unzip pants. (Note: Your cerebral cortex also cannot unzip pants. It can, however, tell your hands to unzip pants. So can your genitals. The point here is that no pants get unzipped without cooperation from a hand or two.) You take good care of your hands: You wash them and trim their nails and maybe even moisturize them, although probably not. They are perfectly respectable eating tools, especially for the eating of intentionally hand-friendly foods like pizza, and you should feel good about that. You should eat pizza with them, both because pizza is good to eat, and because this will give you an opportunity to appreciate the paradoxical simplicity and grand evolutionary sophistication of using your hands to eat things.
For all the wrong reasons, De Blasio's use of a fork (and knife) to eat a pizza like some kind of an asswipe has turned into a very minor controversy. Some observers have found this behavior unbecoming a public figure who is held to embody a kind of unpretentious virtue, especially compared with his predecessor, billionaire technocrat comic-book villain Michael Bloomberg. A man of the people, these observers argue, ought to eat his pizza like people do—with their hands—and not like weenies and robots and the sorts of creeps who conspicuously find excuses to shoehorn the word milieu into everyday conversation do.
This is an echo of the fork's earliest days as a weapon in a culture war. In 1605, when forks were not yet in common use, an allegorical novel about the court of Henry III, L'Isle des Hermaphrodites, sneeringly described a meal served to the king and his courtiers. While eating, the anonymous author wrote, "they never touched the meats with their hands but with forks," allowing "their mouthfuls to drop back into their plates and anywhere on the way to their mouths." To the satirist, the fork was a useless frippery favored by indulgent elites. (So much for the king's touch with the common man, eh?) Today's pundits, while indulging in the fallacy that politics is nothing more than a dumbshow performed in front of TV cameras, argue likewise. They interpret De Blasio's knife-and-fork pizza eating as, at best, a minor character flaw—and, at worst, an indication that his progressivism is a ruse entirely, intended to obscure his sinister machinations on behalf of evil space aliens. Of course, this misses the real issue. He isn't a phony progressive because he eats pizza with a fork and knife. It's so much worse than that: He's an inferior human.
Then there are his defenders. These people suggest that human beings—the absolute apex of evolution, possessing powers of critical reasoning and self-determination multiple orders of magnitude greater than even the most charming dolphin that ever sexually assaulted a SeaWorld employee—ought to docilely submit to the use of knife and fork simply because some restaurateur thought to put them on a table, and are wrong.
That is one great vision of human actualization, right there. Shut down your higher intellect and free will altogether, folks, because a fork and knife situated on a folded napkin evidently function as an override switch. Bob Fuckface, proprietor of Trattoria Il Fuckface, possesses the Cutlery of Power—genuflect before his Silverware of Might, ye mortals! Ye dumb cows! You may not use your marvelous hands to transport the pizza to your face, and your splendid teeth to render the pizza into bite-sized portions, because Bob Fuckface the Restaurateur has decided that you must use clumsy inarticulate tools to accomplish this very same thing with less efficiency, and you have entirely forfeited your human agency and free will to this person simply because he both A) makes pizza, and B) has placed some cutlery on some tables.
No. No! This is not the birthright of humankind, this submission, this docile acquiescence to weenie propriety, this hatred and fear of our miraculous selves. Seize the pizza with your marvelous, supple hands, and lift it to your mouth, and remove a bite with your wondrous incisors, and chew it with your glorious molars, and swallow it with your beautiful articulate tongue and throat. Exalt in your humanity! Live!
Or, hey. Cut it up with a fork and knife like a goddamn asswipe. While you do that, while you saw away at your pizza for no goddamn reason other than your unthinking fealty to rules of propriety and decorum bequeathed to you by the same tight-assed forebears who invented the chastity belt and burned women at the stake, the rest of us—the ecstatic, the enlightened, the human—will be over here, making dismissive wanking motions with our marvelous, marvelous hands.
Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at firstname.lastname@example.org, or publicly and succinctly on Twitter @albertburneko.
Image by Sam Woolley