No Forks Required

Photo by catsper/Flickr CC

If you've recently eaten a sandwich or a tortilla, you probably did it sans fork. When you eat pizza, the same: you might pick it up by the crust, one supportive hand tucked under its middle, and propel it to your mouth without intervening cutlery. Chips or fries? Finger foods. If you and I made lists, we'd probably be in pretty strong agreement about what should, and shouldn't, be eaten with one's hands.

So, how about salad? When did you last eat greens with your fingers? I started indulging in this social taboo when I started growing greens. I had dabbled in the habit when I was young, when head lettuce from my grandmother's garden made it into the Sunday dinner salad bowl. Something about the curve of the green, the texture of the romaine, the way the surface caught salad dressing and light made me want to touch that pert green leaf.

Recently, in order to remind myself of everyday manners, I had begun separating the world into two categories: occasions where one could eat salad with fingers, and occasions where one could not. The first category was short: meals alone; meals with well-established boyfriends; meals with particular chefs, but not most chefs; meals with friends--intimate friends--when I am hosting.

Another colleague, a gracious, attentive hostess, saw our state. "Forks?" she offered kindly. I paused. The dean filled the gap, "I'm quite enjoying myself."

The category of places where fingers are forbidden is longer. Forks are required at lunches with bosses, dinners with colleagues, meals with new acquaintances, meals out in general, and most every sort of meal you normally share with people.

And then something wonderful and unexpected happened, turning these categories on their head for me.

As a farmer turned university administrator, I'm always looking for wiggle room in college decorum. I like summers, when things relax a bit. Meetings are jokier. Jackets are abandoned for knit polo shirts. Ties are forgotten. Heels hang out in the closet, and open-toed shoes get an airing. I stretch the dress code and wear sandals.

Still, I don't abandon cutlery. Until the other day, when I was lunching, as I often do, at the Yale Farm. I was joined by a dean from the College and her staff, a group of forty, who had come to try pizza from our wood-burning hearth oven. She and I had grabbed plates, served ourselves salad, and then started gabbing about the upcoming fall semester. I paused. She dove into the salad--fingers first.

I repeat. Fingers first. No forks.

At first I thought it was a mistake. An accident of the picnic line and the urgency of our conversation. Surely this dean, a Brit of impeccable manners, did not mean to be eating salad with her fingers.

I decided to take advantage of the moment and follow suit.

So, here we were eating crunchy deer tongue, flashy trout back lettuce, and peppery mustards with our fingers. Another colleague, a gracious, attentive hostess, saw our state. "Forks?" she offered kindly.

I paused. The dean filled the gap, "I'm quite enjoying myself." And we piled on seconds, eating our way through the greens a fingerful at a time.

All cultures have their rules about what one eats with fingers, and what requires cutlery. Italians defend eating pizza with a knife and fork. In most of India, on the other hand, stew, vegetables, dal and rice--things that Americans might find sloppy or awkward--are eaten with fingers.

So how do we get salad on the list of finger foods? And why do I find it so pleasurable?

I asked this question of Alice Waters. Alice will eat salad with her fingers just about anywhere. Her answer, as you can imagine, was sensual, practical, and thought-provoking. The first words out of her mouth were simple.

"That fork gets in the way." She paused, as she wondered out loud how to explain further. "Salad is tender and irregularly shaped. It doesn't easily go on the fork. And the fork is metal, and you're having a vinaigrette. There's something about the metal and the vinaigrette. You stir with wooden utensils. Maybe I would use a wooden fork," she offered.

"You get to know your salad when you eat with your hands. Cooking is parallel." Using a mortar and pestle, she explained, was entirely different than using a machine like a food processor. "The fork and the machine separate you from your senses. When you use your hands, you've really engaged. You are using your senses."

So, tonight I'm making salad. And I'm leaving the fork aside. What about you?