Etiquette in Question: Meeting a Stranger While Eating With Your Hands

The odd life of a food critic: electronic cigarettes, handshakes and lies.

Photo by Stefanie Gans

While I admire the beauty of utensils, I don’t find them all that necessary. Sure, I like to look at sparkly things. I like to find art in the roundness of a knife’s handle. I like to twirl noodles with pointy tines. And I like spoons. I like wide Japanese-style soup spoons for eating ice cream. 

But sometimes, I want to pick up a hunk of steak with my hands and gnaw on it. I can’t find a lot of reasons why we can’t eat more with our hands. But then there’s the tricky question of greeting a stranger while dining manually. And maybe this is why we spend money on silverware. 

I sat at the bar of an Ethiopian restaurant and explored what it was like to eat family-style portions for one. In case you are wondering, the portions don’t change with the amount of people ordering. My order filled the entire round of injera, just like when I’m with a party of six. 

Anyway, sitting at the bar usually involves meeting strangers. In my job as an anonymous critic, I often lie about who I am and what I do. I am not a great liar, but I am working on it. While I could sit at a table, by myself, and avoid potentially awkward and fiction-filled conversations, I like people, so I sit at the bar. This job is lonely and chatting with new people always provides me a learning opportunity. (Side note – I now know how to operate an electronic cigarette, understand how expensive the gadget is—$80 at 7-Eleven—and spied someone one “smoking” one in a pretty posh restaurant bar the other night.)

At this five or six seat bar, at this Ethiopian restaurant, I used my hands to scoop up chickpeas and lentils and you know, other standard fare. This man, with the most magnificent bling on his fingers, started to talk to me. Dude was like 60-something-years-old and wore jewelry like an 8-year-old playing dress-up. I was mesmerized. Again, I like shiny things.  We chatted. I asked him about his favorite restaurants, as I always do with strangers, as I try to learn the dining land of NoVA. 

He told me that he’s a really good cook. He told me about his mother, whom he still lives with. He told me about his jewels. He got up to leave and put his glimmering hand out for me to shake. 

Couldn’t this man see that  I was eating with my hands and that maybe I should be recused  from shaking his hand in this situation? But I didn’t know what to do. He was lovely and he wanted to say goodbye. So I wiped my hands on my napkin, shook his hand and then went back to eating with my hands as he stood there watching me for another few seconds. I didn’t know what else to do. 

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