I bet your mom also told you not to play with your food. If not, maybe your grandma or some other adult did. For them, playing with food was disrespectful -toward those who prepared your food, and toward those who did not have enough of it.
I was brought up to anything that was put on the plate in front of me, and to eat all of it. As a result, I consumed – sometimes under great duress – a lot of bad or bland food. And as was expected, I thanked the cook with a smile. Every time. It is called: good manners.
Now, I have to admit, I also get slightly irritated when someone does not eat with conviction, especially if I invested a good deal of time and resources in preparing the meal. So much for growing up determined not to be your parents, I guess.
But it was only much later that I began to truly understand the consequences of their demand for politeness. It kills curiosity, creativity and any sense of adventure.
Let me explain: I do think that one can eat creatively. Just look at babies trying to feed themselves. It is a messy but devoted joyful exercise. Food flying everywhere. Gurgles, gushes and bubbles. Yet, despite their obvious joy, we dedicate much of our time teaching them how to restrain themselves – how to behave ‘properly’ around food and the dinner table. And so, they get acquire the rules of etiquette, and become socially acceptable, restrained by customs and subdued by etiquette.
Why is this a problem? Surely this is a good thing?
Well, only up to a certain point. The way I look at it specific elements are necessary. Like washing your hand before a meal. This prevents you or maybe others from getting sick. This is a good thing.
But consider the following: “When eating soup, the spoon is held in the right hand and the bowl tipped away from the diner, scooping the soup in outward movements. The soup spoon should never be put into the mouth, and soup should be sipped from the side of the spoon, not the end. The knife should never enter the mouth or be licked. Food should always be chewed with the mouth closed. Talking with food in the mouth is seen as very rude. Licking one’s fingers and eating quickly is also considered impolite.” Etiquette according to the British and Wikipedia.
None of this makes real sense to me. The true purpose of a spoon is to get food into your mouth. Nothing more. Lefties should use their strongest hand and not feel discriminated against. I adore guests who complement me whilst chewing. This means that they cannot wait a second longer to sing my praises, and that is a good thing, isn’t it? And at my table, if their praise is accompanied by expletives, it means their complements are honest, spontaneous and genuine. So unlike the ones I mumbled as the victim of overcooked green beans.
Eat with devotion, integrity and overall, eat with joy – and use your hands if your have to. That is my motto.
Eating is our first contact with food. During our early years, others cook and we eat. I could never understand how someone would willingly continue this pattern throughout his or her entire lives. Just the other day, I learned from an acquaintance that he has not cooked a single meal in nine years!
Now, if you have missed out on playing with your food during your early years, getting to rattle pots and pans in your own kitchen gives you a rare second chance.
Use it. Play with your food. It is good for you believe me. But then you have to play with conviction. Try new things. Mix odd things. Make a mess. Taste from the front of spoon not the side, and stick the whole thing in your mouth. Take revenge on the bland and mediocre food that you where forced to eat by making weird and wonderful things. In this, your second life, only one rule applies: it has to taste amazing. And just for the fun of it, stick your finger up the nose of etiquette and use your hands.
My kitchen is full of wacky experiments. At any time there is something on the go. On the shelf by the wall is a glass filled with vinegar and an egg submerged in it. Why? In the next two to three days, the vinegar would dissolve the calcium that forms the eggshell. Now, I have to figure our how to best cook a shell-less egg without breaking it. But why? Because it is fun.
In the fridge is large bowl with a sieve suspended over it. The sieve is covered with muslin cloth and resting in the muslin cloth is a block of frozen stock. As the stock defrosts, the gelatin and ice will retain all the impurities and solids that caused the stock to be cloudy, and after two or three days, the bowl will be filled with nothing clear, see-through, golden stock. Just perfect for that glorious Vietnamese pho I so long for.
Over by the microwave is a small box containing five grey containers, a syringe, plastic tubes and a scale. In the containers are agar agar, soy lecithin, calcium lactate, sodium alginate and xanthan gum. My first attempts at making frozen foams and jelly noodles ended in enormous failure. Straight into the already overburdened dustbin.
Damn, I wish I paid more attention in chemistry class, but no-one told me back then that one day I would have fun in the kitchen with it.
And herein lies my problem. No one ever teaches us to play with our food, and have fun with it. Instead, they teach us rules and customs. What hand to eat with, how to chew, sip and when to be quiet. Where is the fun in that? More importantly how are we suppose to learn is we don’t play?
In amongst all the failed attempts I did achieve some success however. Chocolate salami. A rich, smooth and dense chocolate log filled with three types of nuts: almonds, pistachios and hazelnuts. And just in case you wonder: yes, I did lick the bowl, and my fingers and the spatula too.