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Eat with Your Hands

Posted Dec 11 2008 9:01pm

Where Do We Draw the Line, MDA Readers?

We follow the diet of Grok, we exercise the same muscles with the same movements that Grok used, and we just generally do our best to live Primally in a decidedly modern world. At the same time, though, we use cell phones and computers. We drive cars or take public transport. And unless your HMO covers shaman visits, we go to the doctor when we fall seriously ill or break something. I guess what I’m trying to convey is that, as followers of the Primal Blueprint, we get the best of both worlds. We’re Primal, but not to a fault (no coming-of-age blood initiation rites, no dying out because of a sprained ankle ). Likewise, we’re modern (modern evolutionary science has given us the tools to conclude that the Primal way is the best for us), but cognizant of the considerable downsides this world entails.

For the most part, I think I’ve arrived at a healthy compromise in all the problematic areas where the Primal Blueprint and modern life could potentially conflict: medicine (preventive care is good, excess reliance on Big Pharma is bad, and most of our health issues can be dealt with by taking care of our bodies and eating the right stuff), the increasing industrialization of food (stick to organic and grass fed when possible, and if you can’t find organic, try to eat only hard-skinned fruits and vegetables, support local farmers, hunt/fish if you can, etc.), exercise (avoid chronic cardio, and stick to lots of low-level aerobic activities, large compound movements and short bursts of speed), various contemporary stresses (spend time in the sun and with family and friends, get plenty of sleep, find time to play). There is one area, though, where I’ve personally struggled for quite some time. It’s an issue that, until now, I had no easy answer for. I was honestly, genuinely stumped. I refer to, of course, the question of cutlery! I’m kidding of course, but this email from reader Ryan piqued my interest:

Mark-

The more I read your site, the more I am getting into being “Primal” - and that just doesn’t cover the types of food I eat, or the topic of this email. But lately, I have been eating with my hands quite a bit.  When I make food at home, I sometimes leave the fork and knife in the drawer.  During and after eating, I say to myself “Now, THATS primal”. So, I gotta ask, do you use your own primal utensils when you eat, or have you shed that part of cavemen skin?

Ryan

ps- When in public, I of course, eatwith utensils :)

Without a doubt, Grok never used eating utensils beyond his hands. I suppose he probably used obsidian knives and axes to shear huge cuts of meat from a carcass, but it’s not like he was slicing masterful steaks into little pieces. Once he got a workable piece of meat, Grok would tear into his kill with two hands and blood running down his chin (Grok was definitely a rare/medium rare type of guy). And so, our first inclination might be to follow in Grok’s exact footsteps and eschew all silverware. We’d be making a mistake, though: we are not single-minded in our quest to live Primally; we follow only the Primal methods that clearly aid our attempts to live long, happy, healthy lives and work for humans living nowadays (Grok may have had a lot of great ideas about food, exercise, and leisure, but he’d be an entirely unsuitable companion for a lavish dinner at an expensive restaurant). If you’re meeting your future spouse’s parents for the first time, no amount of rationalization and MDA-plugging will sufficiently explain your decision to drink your soup by dipping your face into the bowl or eat your banaganoush with your fingers. Like it or not, we have to coexist with neighbors, coworkers, and even family and friends in a society that doesn’t quite “get” us.

Still, though, there are good justifications for eating with your hands. Most of my readers are American, but eating with one’s hands is fairly common in some regions of the world. Ethiopian food, for example, is based on use of the spongelike injera bread to scoop up food and sop up sauce – no utensils required. Nann is used in much the same way in areas of India, and the Mediterranean countries see a lot of pita and hummus eating. But in the US (and, I’d imagine, much of the Western world), you won’t see the hands used all that much, unless it’s Grandpa picking at the holiday ham or people using dinner rolls to sop up sauces. I don’t know about you, but I think we could learn a thing or two from India or Ethiopia (except for the heavy reliance on breads!). Sure we have our own list of finger foods (burgers, sandwiches, fries, chips, cookies etc.), but we also have a much longer list of hand-to-mouth no-nos.

One potential advantage of eating with your hands is the utility of it. No matter how deftly you wield a pair of chopsticks or a knife and fork, your hands and fingers will almost always be more dexterous. Think about it: you grew up with these things. As a species, you were naturally selected to have those opposable thumbs and agile digits, and to use them to grasp, hold, manipulate, and maneuver objects. Have you ever spent ten minutes using a knife and fork to get that last morsel of flesh hiding amongst gristle, bone, and tendon, only to give up and rip that sucker apart with your fingers in five seconds? Exactly. Using our hands – without relying on silverware, the metal middleman – allows us to precisely take apart food and get the choicest bits.

Really, though, eating with your hands is a wholly pleasurable practice in and of itself (without needing validation from other cultures where it’s accepted, or from the practicality of it). I personally liken it to one of the reasons I love my Vibram FiveFingers. Just as the FiveFingers allow me to experience the same tactile sensations of running barefooted on the land (while staying safe from nails, glass, and other obstacles) that Grok knew, eating with my hands adds an extra-sensory experience to breakfast, lunch or dinner. It allows me to be connected with my food in a way that simply can’t be replicated with silverware. It’s difficult to explain or articulate, really, but picking up a blood rare grass-fed steak with your hands and just ripping into it, letting the juices run down your chin and even down your elbow (if you’re in understanding company) is perhaps the most utterly Primal act you can undertake. Using brute force and the ripping power of jaw and neck instead of adroitly cutting a piece with your factory-made cutting implement – there’s really no comparison. Nothing against knife and fork, of course, but there’s really nothing like it.

Of course, you’ll have to try it for yourself. As I said before, don’t do it with new people you’re trying to impress or with royalty, or at a fancy restaurant on your anniversary. Try it at home first, preferably with a large piece of meat. Make sure your hands are clean (as Grok never had to deal with enormous public reserves of genetically-hardened bacteria everywhere) and be sure to lick your fingers clean. If you’re camping, hiking, or otherwise Primally living it up in the great outdoors, you probably don’t have to clean your hands (real dirt is good!). Otherwise, just do it! Try all foods. Nuts, raw vegetables, and fruit are obvious choices, but get creative. Lap up soup with your tongue like a dog. Stick your entire face in a bowl of water (like you’re drinking from a stream – the most satisfying way to drink). Scoop up mashed cauliflower with your fore and middle fingers. Go for some Ethiopian or Indian food (but skip the injera and naan, of course).

As always, I’d like to hear from you. Got any great eating-with-the-hands stories? Any foods you feel are perfect for digitized digestion (sorry for that forced alliteration)? Or are you disgusted by the very suggestion that we forego cutlery altogether even if its just in the name of a fun Primal experiment?

Though this is more of an anything goes type Primal challenge, check back tomorrow morning for a “Eat With Your Hands” Primal menu if you’re curious.

ParaScubaSailor Flickr Photo (CC)
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