“The waiter looked at me critically and said, “Fresh off the boat, are you?” I blanched. My fingers, which a second before had been taste buds savouring the food a little ahead of my mouth, became dirty under his gaze. They froze like criminals caught in the act. I didn’t dare lick them. I wiped them guiltily on my napkin. He had no idea how deeply those words wounded me. They were like nails being driven into my flesh. I picked up the knife and fork. I had hardly ever used such instruments. My hands trembled. My sambar lost its taste.” Thank you, Yann Martel for the most personally relatable slice of culture in a book. An introduction so tender, I could not put down Life of Pi despite a fittingly matched fear of metaphorical tigers.
A page from the 1897 Gorham Strasbourg catalog, which lists more 69 different items of cutlery, including the tea maker, butter pick, sandwich tongs and terrapin fork. Via Eden Sterling.
Being cutlery-ly challenged was a non-issue in my eyes for a long time. I was brought up eating with my fingers in India, whether it was chapathi, rice, curries, or even curries with near-soup status. Spoons, and sometimes forks, were reserved purely for restaurant fare, to appear polished and avoid offending onlookers, who in turn returned the supposed favour. The etiquette extended to when we ate non-Indian food at home, almost as a reflex to a non-native experience. In either case, a simple shoveling action with one piece of cutlery was enough. There was never a need to be so brave as to pick up two pieces at a time or to use them to signal messages about my meal. There was, however, the odd spoon-spoon combination as employed by some idli-sambar lovers in streetside Sangeeta Cafe‘s and Shanti Sagar‘s, nimbly dicing and picking idlis from a bowl of warm sambar. I was but a mere onlooker, as the expertise never fared in my skillset. It wasn’t until I left India that realization dawned that I’d have to hold both a fork and a knife at the same time like an experienced puppeteer in a ballet piece.
Amidst this ping-pong of etiquettal obligations and hand-eating emotions, as a designer and maker, I bear witness to a plentitude of work on eating utensil design flowing out of food design schools, often designed for sensorial experiences. Given the tendency of the market in conferring productivity only upon the creation of “stuff” and our sustainability issues demanding otherwise, I wonder ever so often if revisiting the trusty cutlery we were born with could stand the test of our future needs. Like most design, the creation of cutlery also serves to address and solve for two paradigms: Aesthetic– its visual appeal coupled with social positioning, governed by what is considered respectable etiquette and what begets the user the intended social perception in the given context. Functional– to fulfill the practical purpose of its existence, to do the job based on the subject at hand: to cut a steak with finesse, pick spaghetti without missing a loop, or elegantly piece an unwieldy baked potato.
“I’m eating my dessert. How do you eat it, with your hands?” Via Seinfeld (Facebook)
The aesthetic function of eating with fingers seems rather unfairly maligned, and chances are, you would agree. What is it about touching what is about to be consumed by our own bodies that invokes such visceral reactions? Whereas, the addition of implements, any implements, automatically seems to lend a visage of refinement and civility. Try Snickers with cutlery, à la Seinfeld. If the highly stereotypified design of the American medieval-themed dinner show Medieval Times is anything to go by, eating with fingers conjures up a notion of a rather barbaric cultural artifact. Even in the 1700s, poor people eating pasta with bare fingers in Italy seemed such a spectacle, it became a tourist attraction that brought droves to Naples. Watching the lazzaroni or the street beggars make a mad dash to grab pasta by the fistfuls and lower them into their mouths was a phenomenon captured in guidebooks, paintings and also in film.
Two boys eating pasta, Naples, c. 1900. Via Library of Congress
In Indian culture, eating with the fingers is believed to be related to Ayurveda and mudras (spiritual hand gestures) that promote wellbeing and mindfulness. From the gathering of different elements on the plate, the gentle massaging into a handful, to picking it up with all fingertips with a gentle twist of the wrist; the gesture is sensuous, employing sight, smell, sound, taste and touch, all at once. Feeling the texture, the warmth (or the lack of it), wetness or dryness of every morsel of food, one after the other, is a ritualistic act that creates an instantly tactile relationship with one’s food. In fact, children are often fed small mouthfuls created by their mother’s hands, customized for the right temperature, texture and bitable size– a gesture full of love and closeness. After that, less familiarized morsels on cold metal pale in comparison. Take two steps back in the creation of the food– many households still adhere to age-old rituals in the process of cooking. They include: the kitchen is never to be entered with footwear, the kitchen fire is to be lit only after having had a bath and even if one did not participate in the cooking, the food cooked is to be eaten only after having had a bath– all customs that hold up the making and consuming of food akin to a special and sacred ritual.
Gracefully eating with the fingers is an art. Often overlooked, the outwardly raw-looking act comes with its own etiquette in cultures that are home to it. Contrary to popular concerns of hygiene, hands are strictly expected to be washed clean before eating. Eating then is only done with the right hand, as the left is considered impure. While there exist wild caricatures of people licking curd dripping all the way to their elbows, in reality, the dominant rule taught from childhood is to pick food only with the fingertips, and to never let it go beyond the first joints. After eating, hands are to be washed as soon as possible, unless waiting for everyone on the table to finish, since arising earlier is considered rude. Ideally, food is not allowed to dry out on the fingers after a meal.
With characteristic wit, Bruno Munari, in Design as Art, waxes sardonic about the number of types of everyday eating utensils one needs “so as not to cut a sorry figure when the duchess comes to dinner”. The functional purpose of eating with fingers is an easier argument to make. While it would be a certain culture shock to witness said duchess eat with her fingers, it needs to be said, Indian food is designed for eating with the fingers. And, vice versa. Perhaps as a result of having to use the hand, vegetables and meat are traditionally chopped into smaller entities to be cooked into curries, into rice preparations as well as into breads. These are mopped up with a piece of bread or rice, without the concern of containment or volume. With a piece of meat or a whole fried fish, the index finger and thumb are used to gingerly remove the flesh from the bones and relish it all the same.
Even if we were to humor the thought of cutlery for a traditional Indian meal, the question of using a knife and fork on a banana leaf, for example, answers itself: not only does it feel like fingernails on a wall, but the leaf would simply shred to bits in no time. Ultimately, eating utensils are tools– they are influenced by and created for the subject at hand. And so I muse, if dripping wet curry rice can be skillfully eaten by hand, then what’s to stop anyone from eating anything else by hand? Even as other cuisines influenced the Indian cuisine, the Indian kitchen quickly adopted and adapted the food to find a place on the plate along with the curries, rice and chapathis. Take the Indian adaptation of vermicelli, for instance. Made into upmas, puddings and other snacks, vermicelli is broken into pieces and cooked at a consistency to be eaten by hand, as opposed to retained in its long loopy forms.
If the implements we use influence the way we eat, what could the way forward be, if we had no cutlery at the table? Would the form of our food change or would we develop new etiquettes for our existing food, the world over? Perhaps the finger can indeed act as unifork and scoop up spaghetti in a beautiful twirl? Would we go to finishing school to learn to eat with the hand? Or would it be the beginning of mini-knödels and bite-sized steaks?