’Tis the season for gorgeous, glossy magazine spreads of gingham blankets topped with prettily layered salads in glass jars and delicate pavlovas, to be consumed, presumably, with cutlery from the wicker basket flung carelessly open nearby; beautiful depictions of inevitable disappointment.
I blame that Victorian domestic goddess Mrs Beeton. In her thoughts on picnics, published in 1861, she writes: “It is scarcely necessary to say that plates, tumblers, wine-glasses, knives, forks and spoons must not be forgotten; as also teacups and saucers [and] three or four teapots.” At least her recommended three corkscrews sound like you’d have a good time while tucking in to the two joints of beef, six lobsters, collared calf’s head and so on included in her menu for a modest party of 40.
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The idealised British picnic is an orgy of performative gentility in surroundings that really ought to be as wild as possible. Surely, much of the joy of eating outdoors lies in being in the open air, the feeling of cool grass between your toes, the scent of hot gorse and the lulling buzz of insects (so restful until they land in your drink) – so why deny yourself the added sensory stimulation of eating with your hands? Even Debrett’s, the self-professed “authority on [British] etiquette and behaviour” allows that “at an informal gathering, such as a barbecue or picnic, it is fine to eat a chicken wing or spare rib with the fingers”.
Personally, I’d go a lot further. Not only are obvious candidates such as sandwiches, pies and pizzas far more practical foods for transportation than the aspirational suggestions of ambitious cookery writers (guilty as charged), but there’s a simple pleasure to be had in feeling the silky, sun-warmed skin of a tomato between your fingers as you bite into it like an apple. Equally, a sausage is better appreciated in its magnificent whole, rather than emasculated with a knife – as is a hard-boiled egg dipped in salt, or a juicy cucumber.
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While we, or at least people who care about such things, have firm, if distinctly arbitrary, rules on what is allowed to be eaten with hands in polite society (only “bread, biscuits, olives, asparagus, celery and bonbons” may be “touched with the fingers”, according to Mrs CE Humphry’s Manners for Men in 1897), many other cultures know the value of getting close to their food. The Bengali-British writer Misha Hussain explains, “I feel a real connection with the food that I don’t get with cutlery”, while the Iranian-British comedian and author Shaparak Khorsandi, who remembers being taught the art of eating properly with her hands by her gran, describes the experience as “more mindful”. The Ghanaian baker Selasi Gbormittah tells me that “somehow the food tastes much better eaten this way”, and the Malaysian writer Kate Ng agrees, adding, “Also, you get to lick your fingers after, which is incredibly satisfying.”
The learned European preference for cutlery over the God-given tools at the end of our arms – what the writer and anthropologist Margaret Visser describes as a “marvellous instance of artificiality” – is a relatively recent adoption. As late as the 17th century, the fork was mocked in Britain as a continental affectation, even though its use was often justified on the grounds of hygiene. And yet, Visser observes, “washing tends to be ostentatious and frequent among polite eaters with their hands” – as it once was in the UK (and ought to be again; who wants to tear into a piece of bread with the same fingers that barely five minutes ago were wrapped around a bit of bus?). Any squeamishness about using our fingers says more about our standards of cleanliness than anyone else’s.
Lastly, as one anonymous correspondent confides, “It’s a very sensual thing to eat with your hands. You just sort of know that someone who can expertly dismember a crab is going to be good at doing other things too.” Eating with your hands makes you more attractive. You heard it here first.
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This article appears in the 22 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn’t working