Manner Matters: The Finer Points of Eating With Your Hands

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[Image: Robyn Lee]

Dear Molly,

I love many of the rites of al fresco meals like barbecues, clambakes, picnics, cookouts, etc. But I'm never sure what to do with myself during some of the more, well, hands-on eating activities, like eating barbecued ribs or peel-and-eat shrimp. I'm not squeamish about getting my hands in there, but it can be awkward to try to make polite conversation, or worse, be introduced to (and therefore expected to shake hands with) new people when I'm digging into a messy meal. Is there a polite way to handle these things? If I'm with other people who love food as much as I do, it's not as big of a deal because we're probably all diving in hands-first, but in mixed company, sometimes I get self-conscious about really going for it. Any advice much appreciated.

Signed,
Summertime Blues

Dear Summertime Blues,

In the on-going battle to get my son to instinctively reach for a knife and fork instead of going at any and all food with his hands, I once demonstrated how one can, indeed, eat shell-on shrimp with a knife and fork. It's not fun, and it's not fast, but it is possible.

I mention this only to put the hands-on eating at many summer events in perspective: it's a concession to convenience and pleasure over usual American table manners which dictate that in most cases we not touch our food directly. So yes, fried chicken at a picnic, ribs at a cookout, crabs at a boil, corn on the cob, hamburgers, and the like are all things we've agreed are okay to pick up directly.

There is an over-arching rule to all of this, though, that must be observed: don't be gross. Don't stuff food in your mouth. Don't let your hands get completely covered in sauce or grease or juice without wiping them off between handlings. Eat with gusto, sure, but the food should be picked up with your fingertips, not your whole hand. Plus, you still need to take reasonably small bites, chew them with your mouth closed, and wipe off your face if you accidentally get food on it.

If you're having trouble holding a conversation, you've gone too far. Calm down and slow down. If you're with a group who agree that they'd rather shove more grilled oysters in their pie holes than talk... well, far be it from me to tell a group of consenting adults how they conduct themselves.

As far as shaking hands with a new acquaintance when one's hands aren't stranger-ready, we seem to have all come up with this weird system in which the person or people with the sullied appendages look at them apologetically and say something like "We'll have to shake hands later" or awkwardly offer to touch elbows or some other nonsense. It's not perfect, by any means, but it seems to work in most situations.

If you're being introduced to someone you want to impress with how much it means to you to meet them, however, consider putting down the half-eaten chicken thigh, ripping open some wipes, cleaning off your hands (remember, they shouldn't be all that dirty anyway), and reaching out. It shows the person that they are even more important than good barbecue, and that's a high compliment indeed.

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