Feed someone with a long-handled spoon” is a figurative expression in American English that means exercising caution while dealing with someone liable to hurt you. The picture this expression paints is a vivid one. Imagine yourself dealing with someone so nasty, so vicious, that you have to use a spoon with a handle long enough to stay out of biting range to feed them.

The origins of this expression are quite old. It appears to be a variation of an Old English proverb is first documented in the 1300s in Chaucer’s Canterbury’s Tales: He needs a long spoon who sups with the Devil.[1] This proverb is later alluded to by no less than Shakespeare! Shakespeare references it both in his Comedy of Errors [2] and The Tempest.[3]

How precisely this proverb evolved into the contemporary expression “feed someone with a long-handled spoon” is unclear. Because its use is primarily among African Americans in the southern United States, it seems likely that the current form of this expression came into being in the Antebellum South.

The “Parable of Spoons” is not one of the parables of Jesus that we find in the Bible. Rather, it is well-known Jewish teaching attributed to the Lithuanian Rabbi Haim of Romshishok. Rabbi Haim was a travelling preacher who reportedly used this parable to begin his talks whenever he entered a new village.

This is how author Jonathan Bernis describes the parable: I ascended into the earth and sky. First, I went to see hell, and the sight was horrifying. Row after row of tables were laden with platters of sumptuous food, yet the people seated around the tables were pale and emaciated, moaning in hunger. As I came closer, I understood their predicament. Every person held a full spoon, but both arms were splinted with wooden braces, so they could not bend either elbow to bring the food to their mouth. It broke my heart to hear the tortured groans of these poor people as they held their food so near but could not consume it.

Next, I went to visit heaven. Again, I was surprised to see the same setting witnessed in hell: row after row of long tables laden with food. But in contrast to hell, the people in heaven were sitting contentedly talking with each other, obviously satisfied from their sumptuous meal. As I came closer, I was amazed to discover that here, too, each person had their arms splinted on wooden slats that prevented them from bending their elbows. How, then, did they manage to eat?

I watched as a man picked up his spoon and dug it into the dish before him. Then he stretched across the table and fed the person across from him! I suddenly understood that the recipient of this kindness thanked him and returned the favor by leaning across the table to feed his benefactor.

Heaven and hell had the same circumstances and conditions. The critical difference is in the way the people treat each other. So, the message of this parable is clear: We suffer when we think only of ourselves. We thrive when we work together.[4]

While there is no historical connection between the expression “feed someone with a long-handled spoon” and the Parable of the Spoons, there is a deep spiritual meaning. The Parable of the Spoon encourages us to love our neighbors. Likewise, the expression “feed someone with a long-handled spoon” offers wise guidance for how we can love those neighbors who make it difficult to do so.

[1] Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Harper & Brothers, New York, p. 281 from William Chaucer’s Canterbury’s Tales, Penguin Classics, [Group F] The Squire’s Tale, Part II

[2] Shakespeare, William: Comedy of Errors, Dromio of Syracuse, Scene III

[3] Ibid. The Tempest, Stephano, Scene II

[4] A Rabbi Looks at the Afterlife

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s