Monday, 19 November 2012

Eating with your hands

Sometimes, you have an epiphany as you stand in the middle of a moonlit park, staring out at the lonely trees and the icy surface of a stream twisting by. Other times you plop your bum down in the actually-quite-tasteful  new booths at a McDonald's and you have some interesting thoughts. The latter happened to me yesterday as I devoured my Quarter Pounder in trademark fashion. (For those of you who don't know me, I eat much too quickly. And I can be messy.)

The thought which popped into my mind was to do with eating with my hands. When I made a brief visit to India a few years ago, I was told that many meals are eaten in such a way, as it connects you with your food in a very meaningful way. I didn't process this at the time, but it occurred to me yesterday that a connection with food is a very valuable thing to have. It is at the essence of what were are, being, of course, the material from which our bodies are constructed. You are what you eat is very literally true.

Now, I am far from the kind of person who espouses organic food (partly because I believe it is, in many cases, just another advertising scam), or an Amish-like return to a natural life. And this is not what I witnessed in India. But I do think there is something to be gained from understanding the texture of the food, how it feels; definitely in a way which enhances the dining experience, but also in a way which goes hand-in-hand (if you'll forgive the pun) with the idea that people should know where their food comes from and what it consists of. One of my goals, should I continue to be an omnivore, is to actually kill something I later eat. This is because I think it would be hypocritical of me not to be prepared to do so, if I am happy to chomp down the remains.

On another level, if I had lived in a big city my whole life, it occurs to me that I might never have any real idea of what food is, beyond the end product I see in the supermarket. What is involved in bringing this shrink-wrapped chicken breast to the cooler? How did those peppercorns get into that packet? And so on and so forth. And I can't say that the prospect is one I find pleasing; perhaps this is academic snobbery, but a fundamental understanding of the processing of food is one I'd say everyone should have.

The other idea which occurred to me is that there may be certain unconscious taboos against eating with hands in Western society, in a few senses. The first being the idea of hygiene, which is a fair concern, but which can easily be alleviated with a bar of soap. The second is social, and the idea of cutlery, manners, and decorum. The third is the sense that much of the food we eat with our hands is associated with fast food, which is often unhealthy: burgers, fried chicken, kebabs. And then of course there is simple practicality. Soups, porridges, yoghurts; try scooping these up with your fingers. I couldn't say with any certainty how much any of these ideas prohibit the wider practice of eating with hands, and I'm sure that if they do, in many cases the prohibition is logical.

However, in other cases, the prohibition may in fact be simply habit. I have decided to weigh this up on the next convenient occasion, and perhaps put the old hands to use a little more frequently. After all, they are very skilful. It'll be like swapping chopsticks for a knife and fork (but that's another story). It does help with many dishes and the experience of the food, if that doesn't sound too poncy, is so much better. Or, maybe it's just because I like to get dirty.

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