Friday, January 20, 2012

Stand up to Culinary Authoritarianism and Get Closer to Your Food! It's All the Trend

They may go overboard on utensil obsession, but at least the French know dogs make the best dinner companions sometimes.

Wow.  I just realized we have wasted a lot of parenting time.  Apparently the countless dinners we spent teaching our kids to use knives and forks could have better been spent turning them into musical geniuses.  The latest food trend at fine restaurants, it seems, is eating with your hands.  Evidently, using your fingers instead of the fork passé allows you to “eat with conviction and passion.”  I thought it just made your hands dirty and dribbled food on the tablecloth.

Lest there is any doubt, this fine dining trend got its start in New York City and California eating establishments.

Egg rolls, fried chicken, a barbecued pork sandwich?  Sure I use my hands.  But what about a communal bowl of orange chicken with chow mein noodles?  Do I really want that mess all over me?  What technique do I use to dig in to my crème brulée?  Is that a one-finger or a two-finger scoop?

I’m not ignorant of the fact that other cultures eat with their fingers.  And if I were the guest in a Bedouin tent in the Sahara being served goat meat and couscous on pita bread, I’d follow custom, even if somewhat awkwardly, just like I follow the insane French custom of eating pizza with a knife and fork when in that country.  But if using silverware is, as one chef has said, like “fingernails on a chalkboard,” then exactly how do I attack my chicken vegetable soup?

“I hope that people let their guard down and throw out some of the rules we have regarding etiquette and connect like animals,” says chef Roy Choi.  I know exactly what he means.  Every day I encounter people who are just too controlled by etiquette, starting with the guy at the gym yesterday talking in triple-digit decibels about every career opportunity he was considering, right down to the salary and benefits package, and the woman who draped her sweat jacket on one machine, her towel on another, and a pair of free weights on the bench so she could flow unencumbered from one exercise to another in her sets without pause, leaving me to devise an exercise routine on her gym leftovers.

Yes, indeed, modern America needs someone to give them permission to throw the restrictions of etiquette out the window.

Something tells me that ancient cultures that ate all communal finger food (e.g., Ethiopian, Indian, Asian) did not do it because, as cookbook author Zakary Pelaccio claims for himself, utensils slowed them down.  It was not a metaphor for life for them.  They probably built the tradition around the high cost or lack of access to a full set of eating implements.  To be honest, last week in New York, my husband expressed regret/hesitation at our expensive steakhouse that it would be out of place to pick up the bone of his $48 mutton chop and suck out every last drop of flavor from the marrow.  On the other hand, I feel safe in assuming that tacos were not invented because someone wanted to reject culinary authoritarianism and get emotionally closer to his beans or meat.  However, some culinary traditions, like French food,  do treasure overkill and demand a full battalion of eating utensils that need a guidebook to go with them at each meal.
The French have their finger food moments, and do it with panache
I’m not a cultural luddite who thinks all trends are bogus.  That intense desire to experience the latest thing just doesn’t grab me.  I’ve yet to see a 3D movie (how do those cheap movie theater glasses actually stay on over the real glasses I must wear to see?).  I’m sure for some films it enhances the experience, although I can’t see why it’s necessary to film The Great Gatsby that way.  I can only think of one trend I was ahead of back in college.  I wore parachute pants – original olive green parachute pants bought at the Army Surplus store with work boots, not the disco ones.

No, I’m not against trends (although you can get whiplash from watching them speed by so quickly).  I guess I’m against the trendsetters pooh-poohing we who remain uninitiated or unenthusiastic.  But maybe I’m really ahead of the trend because I can see that for many of them (are you there, Jazzercise?), this too shall pass.  At least I’ll never be caught following a trend after it’s gone.

Oh, and as for that one hard and fast rule of communal platter eating – reaching in with only the first two joints of the thumb, pointer, and middle finger of the right hand?  One of the pieces of useless information I remember reading somewhere long ago was that certain cultures traditionally ate only with their right hand because they used the left hand to wipe their behinds.  It stands to reason – if they didn’t have silverware they probably didn’t have any Charmin.

Be first to the table!  Talk to me about trends in the comments box.  What trends did you throw yourself into that faded quickly?  What trends did you join only when they finally became mainstream (hello, e-reader).  Are you an early adopter or always late to the party?  What is your favorite finger food?  Have you had the opportunity to eat at an ethnic restaurant that uses this tradition?

Kebab and frites.  My favorite food to eat with my hands in France


Scrollwork said...

"It stands to reason—if they didn't have any silverware they probably didn't have any Charmin." LOL! My kind of logic.

I've always bucked the trend. Growing up, my peers actually teased me because I was discovered to have no hand-to-mouth dexterity when we all went on a field trip and sat down to a lunch of rice and fish minus utensils.

I remember when the platform wedges from the '70s came back. Sprained an ankle in them, so I sat out that trend. And I think if I'd been a teen during the micro-mini years I'd have been too mortified to wear one. Didn't seem to faze my older sis, though.

Julie Farrar said...

Yeah, I know what you mean. I could never really make friends with any trend.

Laura@Catharsis said...

Eeks. I'm not too keen on this finger food thing either. Here I am, desperately trying to teach my children eating etiquette, and it's all going out the window. Well, I suppose I will be one of those grouches who holds onto stale tradition and insist we all use silverware even though it's no longer fashionable.

And as far as trends go, bell bottoms. Why?

Debra said...

Oh no, Julie. We don’t want to eat chow mein noodles with our hands do we? Unless… we want to become like toddlers again. But see, I like my food hot and my clothes clean. So I’ll use a fork, thank you. Because I like swirling noodles around the fork and blowing steam away and eating at leisure. Don’t you?
I’d have loved your olive green parachute pants!
Trends? Whatever happened to Fondue Pots? That was a fun communal trend.
I’m following your site on Google Friend (will you be my friend?) and NB. Bon appetite!

Julie Farrar said...

Hi, Debra. Thanks for visiting. I already follow you. I agree with wanting food hot and clothes clean. This weekend I made a pot roast with carrots and red potatoes (and gravy). Not sure how you handle that the no silverware way.

Unknown said...

I don't mind finger food if its prepared in a way that's easy to eat - but the thought of having to eat sloppy or mushy food with just my fingers is awful. I am starting a new trend if anyone wants to follow - I just bought an old typewriter. Works just like a keyboard but without the distractions. (LOL).

Julie Farrar said...

Hi Margaret. I still have one manual and the electric that I got for grad school. I just don't have a place to put them right now, but I do love the feel of typing on one.

Unknown said...

Julie you're right. The feel is very different and for me the thinking is also different. I don't know why.

Carrie Daws said...

Too funny! I'm thinking of the Ramen noodles my children love -- I'm guessing you slop the liquid after dribbling the noodles across the table. My, my. I think I'll stick to my silverware...

Anonymous said...

And now all the talk here is of the latest parenting book called 'French Children don't throw food' - bringing your children up the french way. I'm not sure who throws food, but there is a bit of rivalry out there for writing books about a more authoritarian form of child rearing.

Julie Farrar said...

I've heard of that book. I think, like "French Woman Don't Get Fat," it's about doing things in moderation. I will say, though, that I've been impressed with the children I encounter in France. They seem to be calmer and less the focus of attention than in the States. Don't know how the parents do that. Guess I'll have to read the book.

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