How a trip to Nigeria removed a lifelong stigma of eating with my hands – and helped me understand the deeper meaning of this practice.
Don’t eat with your hands!
It’s a familiar order given to kids, especially to my Black and Latino friends growing up. With that admonition came the familiar “Or else!” which implied the threat of physical harm, often followed by a long, icy gaze.
I think back to moments like these and wonder if this mindset kept me from partaking in this beautiful custom. When I heard that we’ll be eating from the same pot(s), my initial thought was “How are we going to share this?” I’ve always avoided eating with my hands at home in the States, insisting on ordering my own dish for the few occasions I found myself at Ethiopian restaurants with friends. I even went as far as to ask for utensils and the waitstaff would happily accommodate me. I hardly gave a second thought to these requests – after all, I rationalized that dining in New York City made my requests less offensive somehow, or even expected.
In the humble house of my friend’s grandmother and in the presence of his extended family, I knew I could not continue operating within the narrow paradigm of my American standards.
I likened eating with my hands was similar to sharing a bowl of popcorn or potato chips, and that’s how far my imagination took me. Fast forward a few years and a few thousand miles later and the bowl was not a snack, but garri (pounded cassava) with a traditional bitter leaf stew, a staple Nigerian dish. In the humble house of my friend’s grandmother and in the presence of his extended family, I knew I could not continue operating within the narrow paradigm of my American standards. Craving an authentic experience, my friend spoke to my values when he said, “If you don’t eat with your hand, you’re not a real Nigerian.” It was something I could not avoid if I wanted to connect with the culture.
Besides, I already flew 16 hours to be here – was I really going to put up a fight and allow this to be an issue anymore? It’s not like eating with one’s hand is particularly complicated – you simply rinse your hands in a bowl of water and dip your right hand into another bowl of a deliciously prepared, shared meal.
I found myself scooping with my fingers only what I could enjoy in a single bite – no more scarfing down food or eating under a imaginary time clock like I usually do
I felt a wave of humility in this simple act, in eating a traditional meal in the traditional way. I’ve avoided eating with my hands for most of my life, and yet I felt an unexpected connection with the people surrounding me. I found myself scooping with my fingers only what I could enjoy in a single bite – no more scarfing down food or eating under a imaginary time clock like I usually do. I enjoyed a meal as Nigerians did, surrounded by friends and their families. In those moments, eating with my hands became more than a shared experience, but a declaration of community.