Please pass the spork

Evolution, we're told, produced the platypus and the bumblebee, which, against all probability, have thrived. So, why shouldn't evolution's Western playground, America - land of ingenuity, Frisbees, skateboards, and slinkies, home of the Wizard of Menlo Park - be allowed an occasional aberration like the spork?

Or maybe it's called a foon.

Even if you think you don't know what a spork is, you've probably had one in your hand. It's that plastic thing that looks like a spoon with a fork growing out of its operating end. Usually found just south of the ketchup packets at your neighborhood fast food emporium.

The spork is one of our finest examples of overdone ingenuity. It ought to be enshrined at the Patent Office with all those other fascinating gadgets that look like Rube Goldberg's idea of how to peel an apple or pit an olive.

Surely, you say, this little plastic hybrid deserves praise for saving resources. One tool to do the work of two. Multiply that by 41/2 billion earthlings and you've saved tons of plastic - and the oil it's made from.

But there's a catch. This tool doesn't do the work of two. The savings are Pyrrhic. Just picture the bottom of a Styrofoam cup with the last three spoonfuls of a custard pudding - the best spoonfuls - irretrievably sitting on the bottom. The pudding has been scored with crisscross runes showing where the spork or foon made useless passes at the succulent dregs. The cup is scarred with puncture marks where equally useless attempts at spearing the custard ran amok.

Then, a second flashback: cold, slippery string beans in a toothsome three-bean summer salad, lying battered and serrated on the bottom of a wax paper cup. The beans give the impression of something mauled by a shark that couldn't quite hold on. And that's a pretty accurate metaphor for the fork side of the spork's duties. As a spoon, its tines preclude your getting to the bottom of any thing gelid, viscous, or liquid. As a fork, its spooniness keeps the tines too short to stab a thick piece of meat or a slippery pea or bean.

But let us not blame American ingenuity too hastily. The historic trend that led to the spork may be global rather than local in nature.

What scholar, tracking down the spork and foon conspiracy, wouldn't come sooner or later to one of the dark moments in the history of Soviet five-year plans. That was the year that a Russian factory exceeded its quota in stainless steel ware for the restaurants of Moscow (and possibly Minsk, Pinsk, Omsk, and Tomsk). The only trouble was that the factory produced only knives. No spoons or forks. And in many a restaurant customers had to eat peas with knives (hide your eyes, Emily Post), and stir tea with knives, and cut meat with two knives.

One can easily imagine the gleam in the eye of that chastened factory manager when he first hears about the spork - the latest triumph of American low-tech. Several million sporks in his next five-year plan, he thinks, and nothing could possibly go wrong for him.

And what about China, where eating utensils have been consumer-tested for millennia. It would seem that no inventor could do much of anything to ruin the chopstick. No tines. No flanges. No bowl. No blade. Just two absolutely standardized and equal sticks to do all one's eating with.

Well, listen to what my neighbor Pliny reported after his Great Wall of China Tour last year:

''The man in the street has it easy,'' he said, managing to sound like an Old China Hand. ''He usually has rough wooden chopsticks. And his food has a pretty good grain to it. Not too slippery.

''But for us touristas, they really put on their party stuff. Fancy plastic chopsticks. Slippery as a buttered eel. And then, to see what we were made of, they served us jellyfish tentacles and sea slugs. And noodles as fine and slick as Farrah Whatsername's hair in a shampoo commercial.

''We like to starved, clackin' those slick sticks and watching the tentacles and noodles slip back onto the plate. Gimme one of those sporks anytime. I might even try and sell me a couple billion over there next trip. But for China we definitely oughta call 'em foons. Sounds more Cantonese.''

That's the most ominous idea since Kentucky Fried bought a quarter of a million short chopsticks for introducing its chicken to Japan. They're reportedly still in a warehouse in Yokohama. The Japanese wanted to eat Southern fried chicken the American way: finger lickin' style.

Anyone who exports sporks is likely to give American culture the worst name it's had since ''Dallas'' went on TV around the world.

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