Ask The Chef

Eating with your Hands

Lots of people (especially teenagers) say they don't like to cook because they think handling and touching food is icky. Raw chicken is clammy. Smearing baking pans with oil is messy. Stuffing a turkey is gross. Right?

But if you want to learn to cook, and to be a good cook, you have to be on intimate terms with food. Touch, feel, press, squeeze, sniff, pinch, rub, and massage. You’ve got to get your hands on it.
Many cultures eat with either chopsticks or with their fingers. We Americans, saddled with our numerous metal eating utensils, are a distinct global minority. So your mother told you it’s bad manners to eat with your fingers. Well, sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn't.
The rule of thumb, in formal settings, is to use utensils for most everything. But in less formal settings, it's okay to eat some things with your fingers. Think about it. Most of our favorite foods are hand-held: burgers, fries, chicken wings, popcorn, bagels, doughnuts, pizza, fried chicken, cookies, tortillas, eggrolls, barbecued ribs, and corn on the cob.
If you're nervous about using your hands, try it when no one is looking. Start with simple steps. Squeeze lemons and oranges by hand. Roast peppers and rub off the skins. Toss salad with your hands. Make bread and enjoy feeling the dough yield under the pressure of your palms.
Using hands and fingers is not only convenient and informal — it's sensual. The point is, if you don't handle food, you won't understand it. There are lots of foods that we eat in public that are perfectly fine to eat with fingers. Here's a list and some etiquette rules that go along with them.
  • Asparagus — This is finger food. Pick up the spears unless the stalks are limp or really long, but avoid throwing your head back and looking like a trained seal. If you feel more comfortable using a knife and fork, do so. Either way is okay.
  • Whole Artichokes — There's no other way. Pull off the leaves with the fingers and scrape the meaty end of the leaves upside down through your teeth. Discard the leaf onto your plate. Never attempt to eat the whole leaves unless you want to overdose on fiber. When you get to the artichoke heart, cut it with a knife and fork.
  • Bacon — If it's limp, use a fork. But if it's dry and crisp, use your fingers.
  • Pastries — At a breakfast meeting, use the tongs provided to get the pastry onto your plate. If the boss is watching, cut the pastry in half or quarters and eat with a fork. If it's not too sticky, fingers are okay.
  • Shrimp — If it still has a tail, either pick it up with your fingers, or use a knife and fork. If it has no tail, spear it with a fork. It's okay to eat shrimp cocktail with the fingers.
  • Raw Veggies or Chips 'n Dip — Fingers, of course, but no double dipping or you look like George on "Seinfeld" reruns.