Somewhere in the cyber ether is a clip of me confessing to a cherished old habit that I no longer practise very often. My proverbial 15 seconds (less, actually) on YouTube happen midway through a promotional short for Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin's recently published book, What We Eat When We Eat Alone. Although my recorded monologue lasted about four minutes in studio time, the clip that was chosen for the final cut features this line: "I love eating alone because I can focus on the food... and most of all, I can eat unapologetically with my hands."
Many people, particularly in the Occident, find the notion of eating with one's hands a bit too touchy-feely, so to speak; it forces one to develop a certain intimacy with one's lunch. When I say that I love eating with my hands, I'm not just talking about food that was intended to be consumed out of hand, though the idea of eating whole lobster or a slice of pizza with a knife and fork, no matter how crisp the linens, makes my blood run cold.
Being assertive with one's hands is the mark of a seasoned cook. To test a steak for doneness, thumbs beat thermometers, hands down (or up, for that matter). Last month, the German chef Martin Enger blew both of his hands off while experimenting with liquid nitrogen to make his girlfriend a romantic, albeit avant-garde, dinner. Reading his horrific story inspired me to cut back on my compulsive knuckle cracking. My hands have been good to me, and it's probably time I began returning the favour.
Other people's hands are another story, especially where food is concerned. Edible Arrangements is an American company that offers alternatives to standard flower bouquets: fussily cut melon that's been arranged into decorative starbursts. The idea turns my stomach. When I was a child, thumbprint cookies, with their jam-filled, buttery dimples, made my skin creep. I didn't care that the cookies had braved a 200-degree oven; the idea of a strange finger mashing pits into them was repulsive to me. Then, yesterday, at our favourite chocolate shop in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, my sister and I stood in line, waiting to buy a box of fudge. A row of samples was laid out along the counter, and a girl of about seven proceeded to pick up each piece, examine it, and put it back down. She did this a half dozen times, her parents standing blithely nearby, before growing bored and moving on to something else. I (temporarily) lost my appetite for fudge.
When I was young, my father used to feed me expertly rolled, compact quenelles of neatly packed rice and fish. Despite my most focused efforts, I still can't manage to form anything resembling his perfect little mounds; I just end up with an empty palm and a greasy mess of smooshed rice flecking everything from the webs of my fingers to my shirtsleeves. I have since given up trying. There are certain foods I don't like to eat with my hands because I can't stand greasy fingerprints on glassware, so I have to consider the law of diminishing returns. And some foods, particularly fish, leave particularly tenacious olfactory markers in their wake. As for the steel Rub Away soap-shaped bars intended to help eliminate odours, I've never found them to be effective.
Some people feel that it is uncultured, uncivilised or just plain unhygienic for anyone in this day and age to eat with their bare hands, when they have the option of cutlery. I've found the opposite to be true. Eating with one's hands cultivates more hygienic habits; it encourages people to wash their hands before meals and forces them to wash them afterward. Some folks choose to carry around a small bottle of Purell hand sanitiser, but it leaves a gritty, filmy residue on the skin, smells like rubbing alcohol and isn't as effective as water.
Throughout the Arab world, forks, spoons, bread and hands can be seen being used as primary utensils. Even within homogenous cultures, the use of utensils and cutlery can vary based on the formality of the setting. In general, Emiratis tend to use a combination of the above, and with silverware there is a generational tendency to use forks to manoeuvre food into spoons, from which we eat. My preference is for a literal and figurative breaking of the bread with meals - and I love chopsticks, if only because they force me to pace myself.
Behind the Indian practice of eating with one's fingers is a multi-sensory approach to eating, which is a sensual, tactile experience. In Northern India, where the diet is based on breads and drier curries, it is considered oafish to touch much more than the pads of the fingertips to the food, whereas in the South, curries tend to be soupier, and the primary starch is rice, so it's acceptable to involve the entire hand. And by hand, I mean the right hand. This applies throughout the Muslim world, where the left hand is considered unclean, though it can be used to serve or pass food.
As fine dining grows more adventurous and playful, more chefs seem to be considering course-specific alternatives to the prosaic knife and fork. Some chefs, such as the Chicago-based Grant Achatz, invest enormous amounts of thought and planning into custom serving vessels for each micro-course of his legendary degustation menus. One of Achatz's most famous food-delivery systems was a shrimp tempura skewered on a vanilla bean. Diners were instructed to tilt their heads back and take the shrimp into their mouths in one sweep. Those who know how expensive vanilla beans are may be wondering the same thing I did: what happens to them afterwards?