Full Belly Files: An Ode to Tongs

Why Simplicity Prevails in My Kitchen

Credit: Matt Kettmann

This holiday season, we’re bringing you the best in our newsletters from 2021. Sign up for content like this and more here.

Out of all the myriad cooking devices in my kitchen, garage, and backyard that I’ve accumulated over the years — from nearly 15-year-old wedding gifts that covered the basics to more recent contraptions like the smoker, air fryer, spiralizer, pellet-fired pizza oven, sous vide wand, yakitori grill, and griddle for my gas barbecue — my go-to for almost every meal I cook is a cheap pair of medium-sized metal tongs, origin unknown. They’re light, easy to use, and work for boiling pasta, tending a raging-hot grill, tossing salads, handling extremely spicy peppers, scalding jars for canning, and everything in between. 

I’ve even asked for new pairs of tongs in recent years, presuming that the technology progressed. It certainly has, but the seemingly ubiquitous automatic locking mechanisms can be a pain to deal with — especially in high-heat, must-grab-that-now situations — and the lengthier ones remove a bit of control that’s required for the light touch needed on more delicate foods. 

Credit: Matt Kettmann

So I always find myself reaching for the cheapos, no matter what’s in front of me — finger hairs be damned. I did quickly learn that I rarely take photos of these beloved pinchers when snapping shots of finished foods. But I did find one from when I cast-ironed loquats into a morning dessert a few months ago and another from last week when I used my new griddle to make a cheesy pasilla pepper rajas alongside a turkey meat smashburger. 

Realizing I was not the first cook to discover the value of tongs, I decided to dive down the rabbit hole of this tool’s history, assuming there might be some archaeological evidence suggesting a clear Stone Age origin. There is not, although there is a passing reference to something like tongs being used by Egyptians to hold things over a fire around 1450 BCE.

There’s no connection to the tong organizations of Chinese history, and there’s not a lot more to go on etymologically either, other than the Old English word “tange” comes from the Proto-Germanic word “tango,” which literally means “that which bites.” That word relates to the Proto-Indo-European root  “denk,” which even ties to the old Sanskrit word for “biter.” The closest modern connection is French, in which “mordre” means “to bite” and the word for tongs is “mordache.” In short, the word is pretty old. 

The oldest direct tong reference comes from a collection of Jewish myths, proverbs, and teachings called the Pirkei Avot, known in English as Chapters of the Fathers. The story is that right before God rested on the Seventh Day in the Genesis tradition, he crafted a pair of tongs, along with such necessities as the staff of Moses, the rainbow, the mouth of the donkey, and so forth. That was because, otherwise, human blacksmiths wouldn’t be able to make tongs themselves, as they wouldn’t be able to pull them out of the fire. To make metal tongs, it seems, you need metal tongs. 

One translation, from this website, puts it this way: “Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight, and these are they: [1] the mouth of the earth, [2] the mouth of the well, [3] the mouth of the donkey, [4] the rainbow, [5] the manna, [6] the staff [of Moses], [7] the shamir, [8] the letters, [9] the writing, [10] and the tablets. And some say: also the demons, the grave of Moses, and the ram of Abraham, our father. And some say: and also tongs, made with tongs.”

Modern Jewish ponderings on this website use the issue of tongs to explore why these simple tools are so easy for humans to use but have historically been troubling for robots. It gets paradoxically philosophical pretty quickly, both on spiritual and technological fronts, but I like where they conclude.

Credit: Matt Kettmann

“The opposing forces of the tongs can model the divine,” they write. “The complexity of tongs and the projects they are trying to solve highlight the sophistication and genius of human agility. 

Only through understanding robotic tongs have humans truly been able to appreciate this complexity. A single tong, force, or viewpoint, without opposition, is ineffective. Opposing forces are essential for tongs to grasp hot objects and for humans to grasp complex ideas.” Simple to use yet essential to success, culinary or otherwise? I can appreciate that definition. 

Or to take another snippet straight from the Chapters of the Fathers: “The more flesh, the more worms. The more possessions, the more worry. The more wives, the more witchcraft. The more maidservants, the more uncouthness. The more servants, the more theft.” 

In other words, the more technology applied to a tool that works perfectly well? The more burned food and singed finger hairs. 


This edition of Full Belly Files was originally emailed to subscribers on October 8, 2021. To receive Matt Kettmann’s food newsletter in your inbox, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.


Taco Battle with Fresno? 

El Bajio | Credit: Caitlin Fitch

Last week, to coincide with National Taco Day on October 4, a lawn-care aggregation service called LawnStarter released a list called “2021’s Best California Cities for Tacos,” and Santa Barbara was named number one. 

These lists are primarily a way for internet-based companies to attract eyeballs by stoking some publicity and perhaps controversy, and there’s plenty of mystery as to how they come up with their results. In this case, LawnStarter wrote that they “crunched the numbers” by looking for “cities with wide access to taquerias, top Michelin honors, high consumer ratings, and taco festivals” and “even considered Google search volumes for ‘tacos’ to gauge local taco love.”

Credit: Santa Barbara Independent

No doubt, Santa Barbara is a great city for Mexican food. We’ve celebrated the cuisine annually in our Foodie Awards, published an award-winning special issue called “Taco Town” back in 2015, and just celebrated our first-ever, highly successful Burrito Week last month. Visit Santa Barbara, our regional tourism boosting agency, also just published a “Santa Barbara Taco Trail” on their website. 

But when compared to sprawling places like Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Diego, where the styles of tacos go super deep into regionality, unique ingredients, and bigger city creativity, can Santa Barbara really lay claim to being the best? The funny thing is that none of those big cities spoke up. 

So who did, you ask? Fresno, which ranked a dismal 53rd place. 

They quickly threw down the gauntlet with an Instagram post and press release, and they have challenged any Santa Barbara taco truck to come to Fresno to take part in the Taco Truck Throwdown on Saturday, October 23, hosted by the Fresno Grizzlies minor league baseball team. I reached out via Instagram, suggested a few of our local trucks, and they responded, “We will pay the city permits and for gas, lodging, and entry fees for two of these trucks. Would it be possible for you to talk to the owners?”

I don’t know the owners, nor do I have time to wrangle them up and get in the middle of such a situation, so our conversation stopped there. But Visit Santa Barbara’s Karna Hughes also threw the challenge out in her Instagram post.  

Hopefully someone steps up. We’ll be watching! 

From Our Table

Recent articles from my laptop to yours. 

Enoch Rojas sells more types of tortas than anyone in Santa Barbara at Los Tarascos. | Credit: Matt Kettmann
  • This week, I put back on my news reporter hat and dove into marine policy issues by reporting on whether or not the state might consider reopening the abalone fishery off of San Miguel Island. Personally, it still seems unlikely that this would happen given all the uncertainty around climate change and its effect on the ocean, but the state is saying that there might actually be a chance.  
  • I also headed down to East Haley Street to hang out with Enoch Rojas at Los Tarascos Bakery & Deli. He’s the torta king of Santa Barbara, selling 40-plus different flavors, but he’s also a master of pan dulce as well. 

Support the Santa Barbara Independent through a long-term or a single contribution.


Login

Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.