I love eating with my hands; there is something earthly and sensual about it. Eating with my hands allows me to engage with my food intimately in a way that no knife, fork or spoon can. This style of eating indelibly marks me as a product of the multi-cultural society to which I proudly belong. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Growing up, the only person in our house who ate with her hands whenever she felt like it was my mother. On occasions, such as when dhal or roti was cooked, we got to eat with our hands. One day I worked up the courage to ask her why we (my sister Pat and I; my brother Eon was too young at the time) could not eat with our hands like she did. Bear in mind I would have been about 10 years old at the time. My mother’s succinct response was, “Because I say you can’t. Eat your food.” Some time later, not the same day, more like weeks later, I recall her making a deal with us. She said, “When you all have mastered the art of eating with a knife and fork, then you can eat some of your meals with your hands but only the ones I say you can eat with your hands.” This meant that things like baked chicken, fried rice, cook-up rice, Spanish rice, you know, all the fancy dishes, were off-limits for hand-eating. Like many Caribbean parents, my mom was concerned that we should be seen as having ‘good table manners’ and often this meant conforming to English notions of what was proper. She often explained that she was teaching us these things so that when we grew up we would know how to conduct ourselves properly.
Nevertheless, with practise, and by carefully watching my mom and other relatives, I quickly mastered the art of eating with my hands; oh yes, there is an art to it. You cannot let the palm of your hands be covered with food; the food must be mixed with your fingers and taken in small portions cupped by closed fingers with the thumb operating as the lever that will deliver the delightful morsel to your mouth. When it comes to mixing your food, you do so a little at a time, in other words, you won’t mix everything on your plate at one time, so you mix a little, eat that, then mix a little more and eat that until you finish the food on your plate. And finally, your free hand should always be left clean. While I had quickly mastered this, my sister Pat, when she was younger, struggled; she could mix the food, but she could not execute the action of forming the cup with her fingers and transporting the food to her mouth. The problem is that she always had her fingers spread apart and the food would invariably fall out. So, it took her a while to be able to eat with her hands and to this day, though she has mastered it, she opts for other eating utensils. My brother has never been interested eating with his hands.
What I like about eating with my hands is that it puts me in touch with my senses. As we all know, we eat with our eyes first but touching the food is an altogether different experience – the warm, fluffy rice that caresses your fingers, the soft flat bread that begs to be torn and doused with a fragrant sauce, slathered with butter or to envelope meat, chicken, vegetables or pickles, the sushi roll that fits comfortably between your thumb and index finger. The intimacy of such touches is complete when the food reaches your mouth and engages your sense of taste while giving a big shout out to your sense of smell. Soon, you find yourself almost in a trance as you eat.
Eating with your hands is also about feeling comfortable, feeling at home and at ease. I remember being shy the first time I ate with my hands in front of my best friend. Being British born and bred, she ate all her meals with knife and fork and all the trappings of British notions of proper table manners. I had cooked curried chicken and rice – she was joyfully eating her meal with her knife and fork and there I was, looking down at my plate longingly and wishing with all my might that I could down my fork and sahnay my food. I asked her if she’d mind if I ate with my hands “Not at all,” she said, as if she’d been asked this question many times. As blasphemous as this may sound, it was like an Alleluia-moment.
There’s only one downside to eating with your hands, when you want more food and you’re the only person in the house at the time. You have to get up, wash your hands, dry them and then get what you need; by the time you’re done washing up and drying, it’s possible you might have lost your appetite, but hey, that might not be a bad thing right? After all, if you’ve lost your appetite, then surely you didn’t need the second helping you were going after.
Let me leave you with this – tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Why not make a meal and feed each other, with your hands, I bet you it will be romantic and you’ll always remember the sweet hands that fed you.