There is a simple, sensual pleasure in eating with your hands


This is the season for gorgeous, glossy magazine spreads of plaid quilts topped with beautifully laid out layers of jarred salads and delicate peacocks that are presumably to be eaten with cutlery from a wicker basket casually flung open nearby; beautiful images of inevitable disappointment.

I blame that Victorian household goddess, Mrs Beeton. In her reflections on picnics, published in 1861, she writes: “It is hardly necessary to say that plates, glasses, glasses, knives, forks and spoons should not be forgotten; as well as cups and saucers [and] three or four teapots. The at least three corkscrews she recommends sound like you’ll have a good time eating two cuts of beef, six lobsters, collared calf’s head and so on, included on her menu for a modest 40-person party.

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The idealized British picnic is an orgy of performative aristocracy in a setting that really should be as wild as possible. Of course, a big part of the fun of eating outdoors is being out in the open, feeling the cool grass between your toes, the smell of hot gorse, and the soothing buzz of insects (so soothing that they land in your drink)—so why deny yourself in additional sensory stimulation of food with hands? Even Debret, the self-proclaimed “authority in [British] Etiquette and Behavior” admits that “in an informal gathering such as a barbecue or picnic, one may eat chicken wings or spare ribs with one’s fingers.”

Personally, I would go much further. Not only are obvious candidates like sandwiches, pies, and pizza far more practical to transport than the uplifting offerings of ambitious food writers (the guilty ones), but it’s also a sheer pleasure to feel the silky, sun-warmed skin of pizza. a tomato between your fingers as you bite into it like an apple. In the same way, it is better to appreciate the sausage whole, and not emasculated with a knife, like a hard-boiled egg dipped in salt, or a juicy cucumber.

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While we, or at least the people who care about such things, have firm, albeit apparently arbitrary, rules about what is allowed to be eaten with the hands in polite society (only “bread, biscuits, olives, asparagus , celery and candy” may be allowed). “touched by the fingers”, in the words of Ms. C. E. Humphrey. Manners for men in 1897), many other cultures know the importance of getting close to their food. Bengali-British writer Misha Hussain explains, “I feel a real connection to food that I don’t get through cutlery,” while Iranian-British comedian and writer Shaparak Khorsandi, who remembers being taught the art of proper nutrition. hands of his grandmother, describes the experience as “more conscious”. Ghanaian baker Selasi Gbormittah tells me that “somehow, food tastes so much better when eaten this way,” and Malaysian writer Keith Ng agrees, adding, “Also, you can lick your fingers afterwards, which is incredibly nice.” “.

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The scholarly European preference for cutlery over God-given tools at the ends of our hands—what writer and anthropologist Margaret Visser describes as “a marvelous example of artificiality”—is a relatively recent borrowing. As early as the 17th century, the fork was ridiculed in Britain as a continental cuteness, although its use was often justified on grounds of hygiene. And yet, Visser notes, “among polite eaters, handwashing is a demonstrative and frequent occurrence” – as it once was in the UK (and should be again; who wants to tear off a piece of bread with the same fingers as literally five minutes ago wrap yourself in a bus?). Any squeamishness in the use of fingers says more about our standards of cleanliness than anyone else’s.

Finally, as one anonymous correspondent admits: “Eating with your hands is very sensual. You just sort of know that someone who is good at dismembering a crab will be good at other things as well.” Eating with your hands makes you more attractive. You first heard it here.

[See also: Our diets are international, but at the breakfast table, Britishness reigns]


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