Friday, January 27, 2023

Culture-Shaming - Eating With Your Hands

When I was a kid, we were told that people in India ate with their hands!  Gross!

I was thinking again the other day - a dangerous pastime, but one I can still partake in, for the time being - and thought about tropes from my childhood.  At the dinner table, we were told to eat our lima beans because there were "starving children in India!" (sometimes China or Africa would be substituted).  And yes, I am sure there are (or were) starving people in these places at one time or another - or perhaps even today.  What this had to do with over-feeding a child with beans in the United States, I do not know.

Another trope we were told was that those "primitive" people in India (or elsewhere) ate with their hands, or more precisely, their right hand and that was a sign of their cultural inferiority (never stated that way, but implied).  I mean, who eats with their hands?

We do.  In fact, more often than not, today.  I have noted before that the "staples" of American cuisine today are foods that were eaten very rarely back in the day.  You had hot dogs at the ballpark - because you couldn't set up a table with a knife and fork in the stands.  You had popcorn at the circus.  You had pizza very rarely - at a pizza parlor (there wasn't even a pizza shop in my hometown, growing up!).  No one delivered it to your home.  Dinner was a family affair where everyone sat down, said grace, and ate with utensils.  We thought of ourselves as civilized.

Enter the spork. Yes, our tableware slowly disappeared over time.  Fast food went from some occasional special treat, or something you ate "on the road" to a mainstream menu item. Many people today eat nothing but - and they eat it all with their hands - burgers, fries, pizza, hot dogs, breakfast sandwiches, fried chicken, and so on and so forth.   Even the pancake has been made into a hand food - and french toast has been made into sticks to dip-n-eat.

Tell me again why we are culturally superior to those "primitives" overseas who eat with their hands?

It is not a trope that has gone away, either. I recall going to an Ethopian restaurant in Arlington, Virginia a few years back.  The food was good, but my friends were like, "It's fun, but you have to eat with your hands!" as if this was some sort of weird thing for Americans.  I mean, there was a McDonald's right next door and everyone there was eating with their hands as well.

Why do we use forks, knives, and spoons - or in Asian countries, chopsticks?  I don't think the answer is difficult - it is more sanitary to eat with utensils, particularly back in the day before the advent of anti-bacterial soaps.  Putting your hand on your food back then was a dangerous proposition, which is why in some cultures, only one hand is preferred.  Forks and chopsticks were not just a sign of being civilized, they were a survival tool. Perhaps today, with better sanitation, it is possible to handle food without causing problems - provided, of course, you wash your hands.

But what struck me about this trope was how we culture-shamed people back then for doing something that we did back then and today is commonplace.

And yet, I am sure, that today, right now, somewhere in America, someone is saying, "Well, over there they eat with their hands! Can you believe that? Pass the french fries!" and failing to appreciate the irony.