x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

To share or not to share... food

Since childhood, I have always found it a challenge to share food.

Personally, I'm hugely sceptical of altruism, and I always have been. My father loves to remind me of my insatiable appetite during infancy and toddlerhood, when he found endless entertainment in asking me to share a bite of whatever it was I was eating, only to be consistently met with a guarded "tomorrow, Baba", whether I was chomping on bubblegum, grapes or a great big steak.

In a group setting, I make the automatic assumption that the sharing of food is modelled on the principle of reciprocal altruism, which doesn't bother me at all. I never accept a bite unless I'm willing to share my own, and I'm almost always willing to share my own, as long as I'm consulted about it. I don't like surprises - and I especially dislike them when they're headed towards my food.

It's true that the circumstances under which I feel like sharing are a demonstration of my neuroses about boundaries, intimacy, sanitation and etiquette. But one mustn't underestimate the potential quandaries presented by wild cards, such as the questionable hygiene of your sweet friend. "I'm weird about sharing food," you might say, with an apologetic shrug. So you're weird. There are worse things; some are communicable.

I'm not expected to put food on a table every night, but I have tried to imagine how exhausting and potentially oppressive the expectation to do so might be to some people at times. While ritual and routine can be digestive aids, obligation is a bitter pill. I'm certain that my relationship with the kitchen, unadulterated and hedonistic in spirit, is defined by the freedom to explore that space without any sense of obligation or resentment.

Sharing space in my kitchen isn't always easy for me, not because I'm a control freak but because I'm a creature of habit. I live alone, I cook alone, and I have a system by which I like things done. But it's impossible not to love the guest who stays late to help clean up after the party, even after you've realised that they've folded your Silpat baking mat and put your Global knives in the dishwasher.

Like dancing, the rhythm and synchronicity between two great cooking partners is one that's hard to put into words. Finding someone with whom you can share the chemistry of the kitchen in addition to a few laughs throughout is nothing short of magical, both in the personal sphere and professionally.

A couple of days ago, I was driving across the border towns of southern New Mexico and west Texas in a caravan of three cars and six women. During the course of the journey we shared it all, and by we I mean everyone but me, of course. We shared water from bottles, sloppy mouthfuls from a roast beef sandwich when there was no knife handy, and socks.

When it comes to sharing in transit, I'm happy to share the driving, my tent, the provisions, the cost of petrol, the occasional embarrassing story and any tedious responsibilities along the way. But unless my dinner looks like a pizza or nachos, I don't particularly want to see five other forks poking around in it. After all, some dishes were made for sharing, others, such as soup and burgers, not so much.

A close friend recently managed to horrify me with a story about a dinner party thrown by a mutual acquaintance who offered dessert to the table after dinner was cleared, then frowned when the guests said yes.

The host rose from the table, walked to the freezer, took out a quart of ice cream, peeked in, commented on the freezer burn, and brought it to the table with a single spoon. She scooped herself a frozen spoonful, licked the spoon clean and then passed the quart - and the spoon - to the next guest at the table.

The proper etiquette often depends on the situation. For example, I'll eat the pickles off your sandwich if you don't want them but only if you haven't touched them first. On a similar note, my aunt Kathy famously used to lick both sides of her ice cream as soon as the ice cream van man handed it to her, just to deter my mother from asking for a taste.

Yesterday, I saw the same instinct in myself while eating a bowl of gelato. Surrounded by friends who had opted out of ordering dessert, I set up a barricade with my forearms and got to work, guarding my bowl from prying eyes as I ate. It wasn't until later that I realised what a jerk I must have looked like. Oh well.