ONE of the more intriguing facets of travel is the eating process.
I’ve been to formal functions in the west where no fewer than a dozen knives, forks and spoons were laid out either side of three different plates. And don’t you dare mix up the precise formation of these utensils. First thing I’d do upon sitting? Start playing spoons like that guy from Split Enz, of course. I don’t think I’m half bad, so why would the waiters all start running over to me? Did they somehow suspect I was considering a similar number with the plates?
Then there’s the which-hand-do-you-hold-the-fork game. In America, where I grew up, the hand you throw a baseball with has top billing for all events. If I have something on my plate that requires several cuts, I take the knife in right hand, hold down the foodstuff with the fork in my left, cut half a dozen edible portions, lay down the knife, switch the fork to my right and dig in. That’s the way I learned, that’s the manner I’m familiar with.
Having moved to an English country in mid-life, this is considered lower-class, wrong. The fork is always in the left hand, you cut with the knife in the right, shovel as much on the fork as it can possibly hold, open the piehole wide as it will stretch and stuff in the whole bloody mess.
It is absolutely gross, but it’s the way of the land, and on numerous occasions I’ve endured typical British – or colonial – look-down-your-nose comments about Americans being so common that I promise myself the next time, the very next time, my so-common right-handed fork just may get planted in some smirking dolt’s eye.
In China, of course, chopsticks are the norm. I can handle sticks pretty good, I just don’t hold them the ‘proper’ way. Instead of lying flat against the web between thumb and forefinger, my sticks stick up. Plus I hold them pretty much in the middle instead of the fat end. My times in China I’ve observed people holding the food bowl just under the chin and rapid-flicking food into their mouths, accompanied by loud and long sucking sounds that send shivers up my spine. And they make fun of me.
But it’s India, my favorite country to travel – I’ve been 16 times now – where an embarrassing life-long eating disorder became for me a supreme annoyance.
This past June I stayed at a guesthouse in the city of Leh, capital of the Himalayan district of Ladakh, 3500 metres above sea level. Four years back I had been a paying guest there. The family of four included a 17-year-old daughter, who was quick to stake claim to granddaughter rights, and neither of us has regretted it. Now 21, she invited grandpa back for a stay as a member of the family. All went well except the eating part, and that was totally my doing.
There was no dining table we all sat around. This, to my experience in several parts of the subcontinent, simply is not the Indian way. Eating with my family was undertaken in a mid-size room off the kitchen. There were a couple of low tables, a small settee, numerous large, colourfully covered cushions, a pair of beanbag chairs. Oh, and three huge portraits of the Dalai Lama at various stages of his current incarnation. (Ladakh is 90 percent Buddhist, you see.)
I’ve had enough experience in this country to feel completely normal eating the Indian way: the first three fingers plus thumb of your right hand. You kind of mush everything together in a copper dish with low sides, tear off hunks of chapatti, wrap it around a clump of food, lean forward until your face is inches from the plate and chuck in the roll of edibles, aiding passage with a light slurping.
With all the positive elements here, I still had two minor problems. In typical Indian manner, the lovely momma did not understand the words No! More! Convince me Indian and Jewish mothers don’t come from the same seed. To keep from turning into the Michelin Man during my month here, I needed to be strong. I was not strong.
The second problem is one of my very own making. I’m an intrepid food dropper.
I don’t think there’s been a meal this lifetime I haven’t dropped something on myself. And I try so hard not to. I do everything right. I don’t put too much on the fork, or spoon, or chopsticks, or in the claw made by my fingers. I make certain all of it is deposited within the proper orifice, then immediately close the gates behind.
I chew with mouth closed, never talk while mastication is in process. Often I will finish a meal with the proud understanding that not a single morsel could conceivably have been dropped, then look down and spy a spot or smudge on my shirt or trousers. How did it get there?
I will tuck a napkin into the collar of my shirt and frequently place a second napkin on my lap. When I am flying, conscious of the cramped space in economy seating and jostling of the aircraft, I’ll tuck in the blanket that’s provided for warmth, spread it out so every last bit of clothing down to my shoes is covered ... and still there will emerge a spot, a stain, a blemish on my clothes. How is this possible?
And not only on my apparel. I cannot possibly eat, say, rice without a grain depositing itself in my beard. One grain, no more, as though signature of my digestive artistry. Is it not contrary to the laws of physics that a single grain of rice teleports away from the others and plants itself in my muff? Yet it happens. Constantly.
Since I was living with a family who fed me (and fed me, and fed me) three meals daily, approximately 80 percent of which contained rice, I was the prime object of their pleasant and kindly attention. They didn’t actually say anything, but to enlighten me as to my discretion would fake-brush their own chins as they focused intently on the real grain’s presence upon mine. Losing facial detritus without losing face.
I estimate that had I saved every single escaped grain of rice over the half century I’ve had a beard, I could feed all the starving minions of ... well, wherever it is they’re starving these days.