Eating In

Hand to mouth

Delicacy, of unknown origins, makes us reluctant to pull plums with our thumbs

This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I once shared the table of a former Master of Marlborough College with a guest who looked just like a gorilla. “I don’t want to say who it is,” announced the host’s eight-year-old daughter, “but someone here looks just like a gorilla.”

“Don’t be rude about your father, dear,” the Master interjected.

Children are invaluable interlocutors if you want to insult a guest without licensing offence. My students read Fernão Mendes Pinto’s account of an entertainment in Bungo in Japan in the 1550s, when the daimyo’s little girl and her schoolfriends put on a play, savagely lampooning the visitors for eating with their fingers.

Perhaps, the script ventured, the Portuguese revered votive offerings in the form of the hands of St Amaro because of their own cack-handedness with chopsticks. “Since nature subjects the Portuguese to such filthy wretchedness that their hands must forever be stinking of fish or meat or whatever else they eat,” the children suggested, wooden substitutes might be useful.

There seems to be no consensus on the propriety of foregoing cutlery — even now, when England’s picnic season is struggling to return and “finger food” breaks out of its cocktail-party winter bastion to invade the open air.

Prejudices for and against the use of bare hands seem to have little to do with whether the foodstuffs concerned are suitable for handling. Cultural norms are unpredictable. The history of hands at table is patternless.

Christ dipped the bread in gravy before passing a morsel to Judas

Fingers, as nannies use to aver, came before forks. Diners in Athenaeus’s Deipnosophists, where gourmets and gourmands balanced grace with greed, included Philoxenus — who hardened the flesh of his fingers to be able to grab the hottest titbits. The custom in some parts of America, of serving clam chowder in bowls made of hollowed-out loaves is surely a relic of times when crusty scoops preceded spoons for soup and stock. Christ dipped the bread in gravy before passing a morsel to Judas.

Nowadays, however, delicacy, of unknown origins, makes us reluctant to pull plums with our thumbs. A butler in one of Lawrence Durrell’s stories developed an equivocal reputation, amongst diners variously disgusted and dumbfounded, by never serving soup without dipping a digit in it.

Charles Laughton’s performance as Henry VIII made the stocky monarch repellent not for cruelty, adultery, irreligion, warmongery or any of the other excesses that distinguished and disfigured him in his lifetime, but for his greasy-fingered habits with chicken bones.

My smallest grandchild, on the other hand, has an enviable way with raspberries. She won’t eat one until she has carefully attached it, like a thimble, to her finger and raised it solemnly to her lips. No rite could be more decorous.

The correct etiquette for curry, according to a Keralan friend of mine, is to squeeze the rice into gobbits between fingers and thumb and swirl the moist, sticky globules in the sauce. To lick the residue off one’s fingers is not impolite. I’ve tried the technique: it’s practical but inelegant.

Ethiopian dinner parties as recently as in Haile Selassie’s day resembled the heroic barbecues of Homer, with guests slashing and grabbing at cuts from the joint. Amongst Bedouin and Tuareg the right hand alone can convey food from the platter, as the left is favoured for another, incompatible purpose.

At mass, I recoil from fellow worshippers who handle the Sacred Host. I don’t, however, wield cutlery to manoeuvre oysters or mussels or clams out of their shells, which are ideal vessels for slurping the molluscs, with a good dollop of sauce.

Some English ladies find the spectacle revolting, though they won’t jib at plucking prawn tartines or a petit beurre, nor refrain from clamping fingers on a chocolate bonbon or sugared fruit or iced fancy. Even from the safest sandwiches, bits of cress and smears of butter can seep out and make your fingernails filmy.

Hygiene is irrelevant. I’d rather eat with clean fingers than with the grimy cutlery that comes, sticky with the residue of former meals, out of overpacked dishwashers. Give me an oyster on the half-shell, a well-frenched cutlet, a bite-sized sandwich or crisp arancino or a firm case of pastry around a rich filling — of sausagemeat, say, or shredded crab or lobster — and I’ll happily waive the fork.

I’ll hazard salty fingers for a peanut or almond. Unless the fruit is sticky or runny with juice, I’ll forget rites of knife and fork learned in the nursery. I’ll raise my glass to the dexterous and, to the excessively fastidious, two of my precious fingers.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover