A Fork By Any Other Name

by Louis Gropman
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human_hand.jpgA fork by any other name would still be a fork. Unless you called it your hands. Then the fork is rendered moot. Hands are more versatile than forks. They posses a way cooler gadget. The opposable thumb (come-up of all evolutionary come-ups) possesses some remarkable moves.

Unfortunately we don’t often get to put those moves into practice with familiar western cuisine. But why rely on some intermediary device to enjoy that most intimate sensation of eating? Some form of artifice, really, when we consider that we already have what it takes.

My earliest inclinations were to forgo tools and bound the gulf between food and eating (associations begin firing at Lacan’s l’hommelette, a slippery slope). My favorite foods (burritos, sushi) can technically and efficiently be eaten with one’s hands. Still, my lifetime eating career has been dominated by silverware.

Until my wife introduced me to her native cuisine. Nepali food predates industrial metal forgery and globalization. Silverware was not a concern when the recipes took shape, nor is it a concern today when they’re served.

I was delighted to arrive at a culture of eating that demands hands. That offers the elegance of serving spoons and then a greater sophistication of dexterity to tend to the details. That grants the greatness of cultivated hand styles. Though I as of yet had no such skill sets.

Shortly after we went from dating to going steady, my wife and I were at her sister and brother-in-law’s home in Poulsbo. Her sister discovered I had never eaten Nepali food and cooked a feast encompassing three of the most served dishes I’ve had at Nepali homes since: Chicken Ladtho (lay-though) – whole chicken cleaved, marinated in a mix of grounded garlic, ginger, cumin, tumeric, salt, pepper, tomatoes and cilantro then slow cooked over flame. Yellow daal (lentils) cooked with tomatoes, ginger and garlic. Saag (spinach) cooked with garlic. Rice as the binding force. And spicy. salsa-like tomato aczar (ah-tzar) for garnishing bites.

nepalilunch.jpgPlates were loaded up. We set ourselves down at the table. I ripped into a piece of tender chicken falling off the bone, loaded with spice and smothered in its own gravy, and fell in love. I reached down for the saag next, looking across the table to take note of how everyone else was eating. I unsuccessfully tried to mimic what I saw.

My hands were bumbling, untrained meat machines. I made the first-timer’s entertaining error of getting my hand stuck in my mouth (only briefly, but at all is more than enough). Ever reach into a coin jar and try to remove a fistful only to realize you need to relax your fingers first to get them out? Like that.

Luckily I was with family, the best crowd when you need to laugh at yourself. My sister-in-law coolly caught my attention and broke it down.

I watched as she quickly swooped her hand through the different items on her plate, blending them together. Next she turned her hand into a crane and pinched a perfectly composed bite of rice, daal, saag chicken and aczar. I followed as she raised the bite to her mouth with her four fingers delicately arched inward, her thumb cradling the bottom of the bite.

“Now, watch,” she said, making sure I was focused as she performed the subtle yet epic move to equip my etiquette. Her fingertips remained slightly distanced from her lips as her thumb gracefully guided the bite into her mouth. A beautiful delivery.

I reenacted the movement, astonished at how well it worked. There was no telling how great of an asset this move would be.

handfork.jpgOver a year later we were all in Nepal for our wedding, going from family home to home and enjoying the most generous, delicious spreads of Nepali cuisine. I immediately put the thumb move into effect. Then began picking up on more nuanced styles from my mother-in-law, watching her delicately rest her fingers on her plate between bites, her wrist slightly bent at the plate’s edge in repose.

Or the knuckle sweep: A move that occurs towards the end of the meal. The hand in a fist, the knuckles sweep across the of plate’s surface, picking up remaining tidbits of food to be licked off like the flat end of a cooking spoon. Or the snack-time pop of puffed rice into the mouth like a fade away jump shot.

Eating served as my best communication when words failed. Meals make family. I didn’t have the language down. But that thumb move worked almost better than the charm of politeness.

“Look how well he eats,” my wife would translate from relatives to our amusement. That thumb move not only saved me the embarrassment of looking ridiculous at the dining table, but raised my joeen-sahb (son-in-law) stock.

I’ve never been commended for my command of a fork. Getting props for executing the Nepali hand style, however, is one of the prouder eating moments I can recall.


Louis Gropman loves to eat, has always loved to eat, and is probably eating right now. If not, he's either writing or humming to himself. His non-fiction Notes From the Driver's Seat and Inaugurate the Day will appear soon, either by those titles or in alien form. 

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