By Elizabeth Jaikaran
Anyone who has ever eaten a cheeseburger, or even hummus with pita chips, can eat with their hands. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about submerging your finger into steamy rice, white and soft like the snow that my parents’ country has never seen. Mechanically bending and curving the joints you didn’t realize served purpose in your hands in order to apportion balls of rice with spicy stew or curry. Nudging them into your mouth off the tips of your finger like a child encouraged by her mother on the first day of school. A practice so intimate that one would easily bypass a stack of shiny silverware for the opportunity to confront their plate with their bare hands. An opportunity to work through their meal as though molding the plate before them, in delighted conversation with their food.
This is how I grew up watching many of my family members consume their meals at home. When we were out of the home, say, for weddings, we all picked up our silverware in unison and ate the meals before us in a way that I’ve come to characterize as cold and impersonal. But at home? At home the elder generation of my family typically plates their food, forces too many chairs around our dinner table, and sinks their hands into their plates. Their fingers like machines in effortless locomotion as they joke and howl in laughter—their meal just as part of their conversation as their dialogue. The stews and curries interweaved in the joys of getting together with loved ones.
My father generally uses a fork. And so do my uncles. But when my mom and my aunts get ready for dinner, their stomachs grumbling in hunger, they salivate over their cooking just as much as they do at the thought of using their hands to bring the food to their mouths.
“Why do you eat with your hands if we have forks and spoons, mom?” I asked once as a young girl as we ate dinner while my parents watched The Jamie Foxx Show.
“Because the food tastes better when you eat with your hands,” she replied without lifting her eyes from her plate. Her right hand moved swiftly as it picked up a little rice, dabbed some gravy, lifted a chicken bone. Her answer was so quick and dismissive that I took it as a joke.
Nearly 15 years later, I had the same brief exchange with my paternal grandmother. It was New Year’s Day and my paternal relatives got together at my aunt’s home in Queens, New York for dinner. There was everything from pasta to goat curry on the menu. Cheesecake to pine tarts. I arrived late with my husband and rushed to join my grandmother and cousins at the table. My mom and aunts had long finished eating and were catching up over a bottle of wine in the kitchen. By the decibels of their laughter, I presumed they were on the second bottle. The food was spread family-style down the center of the table in glistening porcelain bowls with silver serving spoons stuck in them like national flags marking new territory. A shiny stack of silver forks lay in a pile at the very head of the table. I grabbed a plate and sat across from my grandmother, who sat in concentration as she ate with her dinner with her hands.
Grandma is a small woman. She’s under five feet tall and I’d be surprised if she weighed 100 pounds. She is petite in all senses of the word—even her voice is delicate, as though emerging from the opening verses of a song. She wore a fuzzy blue and white cardigan that night, fit for a New York winter, and her short bob was curled like an aura about her head.
“Granny, do you want a fork?” I asked absently as I rushed to dish out my food, my pupils likely in full dilation as I skimmed the delicious spread.
“Hand came before fork,” she replied without lifting her eyes from her plate, just as my mom did years ago. She continued to maneuver her food with her fingers mixing rice and dhal and curry all about her plate. My cousin giggled at her response from the other end of the table; she, too, eating her food playfully with her fingertips.
“You know, I grew up eating strictly with knife and fork in my parents’ home,” she began again. By this time I was already bringing my fork, piled with food, to my lips.
“I never ate with my hands. But your grandfather? He and his family always ate with their hands.”
My grandmother was married at a young age and widowed with five children at a young age. She and my grandfather had an arranged marriage and eventually grew to love one another deeply. But, of course, their early days were those involving the perennially difficult process of getting to know one another that all newlyweds endure, albeit a heightened experience for them. It is the same phase that my husband and I are traversing right now. Learning each other’s quirks. Pretending not to be surprised about the eccentricities and oddities of our routines. I have learned that he snores loud enough to wake the dead, and he has learned that I can only take showers when the water is hot enough to boil an egg. This was the scene my grandmother was painting for me as we ate. She, a newlywed, was learning that her new husband only eats with his hands.
“For some weeks we would have dinner together and I would use my knife and fork and he would use his hands. No problem.” I imagined them, virtual strangers, now sharing a bed and a dinner table.
“Then just like that,” she continued, “One night he picked up a fork and had his dinner. And he never ate with his hands again.” A playful smile danced on her face as she remembered this moment. She became silent and, some seconds later, I realized that her story was over. Though she has long remarried and many years have passed since losing my grandfather in a freak accident, my grandmother remembered this single moment when he picked up his fork for the first time as they ate together.
Then it hit me. That was it. That was the moment when, after weeks and weeks of getting to know and understand his new bride, my grandfather, for the first time, said, “I love you.” And now, 56 years later, the same young bride who only ate with a knife and fork recounted this story to her grandchildren as she ate contentedly with her hands.
I looked at my grandmother with affection glazed eyes. The woman I had always known as the one who cleaned the sleep from eyes before the school bus came and who taught me how to read—she was also a woman who survived losing the love of her life and raising their children alone. A woman who could have easily become hardened by a world that had not been very kind to her when she was young, leaving her to endure both loss and poverty, yet still instructed her children to pray to a God that she believes will always provide. I looked at her carefully, my fork shaking in my hand. Her frame had become smaller, and her hands seemed somewhat frailer as they labored in her plate. A woman who had survived the worst of the world was sitting, happily, in front of me and recalling a fleeting moment over a small dinner table 56 years ago in the old country.
This was the first night I earnestly ate without a fork. Sure, I had always used my hands to eat meals involving roti (how else would one eat that?) but for everything else, silverware had always been my friend. When French manicures cost $20, I simply believed it was financially irresponsible to dip your fingers into the guaranteed yellow stains of curry and turmeric, branding myself with heritage. But this was the first time I purposely dipped my fingers in the rice sitting before me and held the grains between my fingertips. My grandmother chuckled at my awkwardness.
From that night on, I began training myself to eat with my hands. It sounds like this would be something easy and natural since, as grandma said, “hand came before fork.” But it’s not. It’s hard to get over the initial impressions of crudeness after being socialized to cringe and race for the hand sanitizer when foreign matter touches your hands (although that is, surely, still a good policy). I started with rice, okra, and pepper sauce. I wasn’t ready for gravy, not yet. I worked my way around the bowl—easier to manage than a plate—and practiced swiftly grabbing rice and just enough pepper.
When I felt comfortable enough, I shifted from a bowl to a plate and began trying my luck with more difficult dishes. It wasn’t as hard as I imagined and I quickly mastered the movements necessary to ensure that all of the rice or quinoa or other grains are completely covered in delicious gravies and sauces. Potatoes are tricky. With potatoes you must first break off the portion you want from the larger wedge, and then smash it between your thumb and your fore- and middle fingers. Alternatively, you can also mash all of your potatoes beforehand and mix everything up—rice, potatoes, meat, and gravy—all before you start eating. Being a woman of efficiency, I’ve begun to exclusively employ this latter method. My hands now working like a newly minted engine.
I’ve quickly learned that my mom was right. Food really does taste better when your own fingers bring it to your lips. It is not something that I can easily explain, which explains her quick and dismissive response all those years ago. But above achieving a new eating experience, I feel transformed and proud for achieving this small feat, a feeble ant in comparison to what my grandmother has overcome—pains that many people would not survive. It is with great pride that I can say that I share even one quality with her: That I can converse and dance with my food as eloquently as she does.
My hands have not nearly endured the labors that she has withstood. But I would be remiss not to emulate those hands, and all the ways they pray and move and uplift, in some way. My grandfather’s transition to a simple fork was an act of love for her. Her transition to her hands, an act of love and remembrance for a grandpa I wish I got to know. My decision to lay my fork down on New Year’s Day, an act of love for the matriarch of my family—a woman and delicate force that I am so lucky to call my gran.
Elizabeth Jaikaran is a freelance writer based in New York, where she lives near all 300 of her relatives. She is a third year law student at New York University School of Law and, when she’s not reading or writing, she enjoys watching live theater and spending time with family. Her writing generally focuses on themes related to gender politics and social and economic justice.
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