Well, yes. But no one answered him. No one cared. It was a pre- covid party with pretty people and free food. I quickly reached for one of the garlicky little ribs and so did everyone around me. In retrospect, however, maybe I should have offered him a hand. Or at least explained the concept of finger food. Indeed, as most of us have figured out by now, what’s right in one situation isn’t always right in another. Families, cultures and situations vary. And around the world, from childhood to old age, many of us rely on our hands — not cutlery — to ferry our food from plate to mouth. As babies, we explore foods with our hands: the texture and taste of mushy noodles, soft steamed carrots or squash or peas, served on a plastic plate. We stick our fingers in our porridge, yogurt, ice cream. We make a mess. We eat. And we learn. Recent studies show that babies who explore their food with their hands are less likely to grow up to be picky eaters. They develop fine motor skills and learn to feed themselves, too.
We grow up, but many of us never lose that pure sensual joy of eating with our hands: French fries, liberated from a boyfriend’s plate, still-warm homemade doughnuts, sticky with glaze, buttery popcorn, potato chips. Hot dogs, too. There’s something so pleasurable, so immediate, about picking up food and putting it straight into our mouths, unencumbered by fork or spoon. Then there’s the opportunity to explore other countries and cultures. Try scooping a fragrant curry with naan, one of India’s famous flatbreads, or dosa with a spicy sauce. Then we have tortillas in Mexico; pita and hummus, shawarma or baklava in Lebanon; injera — a flat, spongy sourdough — with stewed dishes in Ethiopia; barbecue in Texas, South Carolina and Missouri. Or head to Hollywood for some sensual inspiration: the plate of spaghetti in Lady and the Tramp; Jennifer Beals eating lobster in Flashdance; the pastrami sandwich restaurant scene (yeah, that scene) in When Harry Met Sally; Julia Roberts eating pizza in Eat, Pray, Love; or the fridge scene in Nine and a Half Weeks.
American chef Zakary Pelaccio once claimed to eat almost everything except soup with his hands. He even turned his passion into a cookbook, Eat With Your Hands. However, his cutlery-free life may have been more about speed than sensuality. “I eat with my hands today, and not just because it would be a serious shame to let utensils slow me down,” Pelaccio told the New York Times. “It has become a sort of philosophy of mine — a metaphor for life.” He’d stick out like a dirty fork at a McDonalds in France. In 2017, the fast-food chain made international headlines after introducing cutlery — for eating burgers — on its menu in the land famous for its coq au vin and cassoulet. “This is a fact that should surprise no one — of course the French, always more sophisticated, would eat fast food with a knife and a fork,” wrote Maura Judkis in The Washington Post at the time. “And yet, it still manages to surprise just about everyone.” I’m not surprised. I grew up in a household where meals were traditionally eaten with cutlery: fork in one hand, knife in the other. Unless you were eating a chocolate chip cookie, a sandwich or corn on the cob, you were expected to use your manners and cut up your food into bite-sized bits. Still, there’s a certain joy and childlike pleasure in wrapping your hand around a slice of pizza pie on Rome’s Spanish Steps, or pinching a piece of salt-and-pepper chicken in the midst of a bustling Taiwanese street market. Somehow, sometimes, food tastes better when it’s a hands-on experience!
There’s something so pleasurable, so immediate about picking up food and putting it straight into our mouths.