Why the way we teach kids table manners is actually kind of racist

The message that eating food with your hands is unmannered is dripping with the control and shame of colonization — and we need to rethink our idea of "good manners," says chef and food activist Joshna Maharaj.

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When we were little, my father taught me and my brother how to eat with our hands using roti, an Indian flatbread. He was very clear and specific with his instructions, showing us how to tear a piece of roti with one hand and how to wrap it around a medium-sized mouthful of food (big enough to be efficient, small enough to not land on my shirt on the way to my mouth). He taught us how to be neat and tidy, reminding us that the roti’s job was to keep our fingers from touching the food and that our fingers shouldn’t get messy beyond the line of the first knuckle (because we were kids, he said that we could go to the second knuckle, but absolutely nothing beyond that!).

Later on, I learned how to eat food with rice with my hands from someone else. This process involved using my fingertips (again, not beyond the first knuckle) to pull a mouthful of lentils, vegetables and meat with rice toward me on my plate. I was taught to use my fingers to work the mouthful together so that I would have a reasonably portable, mashed-up nugget. Then I was instructed to bring the nugget to my mouth and use my thumb as a sort of catapult to send it in. It’s both tidy and effective. As I grew up and found myself eating with other Indians in Canada and India, I realized that we had all been given this same lesson from our parents because everyone of all ages would do it the same way.

I’ve always believed that food tastes better when it’s delivered to your mouth by your hands, regardless of what you’re eating. But what feels important to say is that my dad was very clear that the technique he taught us was only for eating Indian food. He spent just as much time teaching us how to use a knife and fork and how to behave properly at the table, with all of the detailed instructions of an etiquette lesson. There was never any horsing around allowed at the table or complaining about not liking the food, and both my brother and I learned to tip our soup bowls forward and ladle up the last bit of soup away from us to avoid any accidental drips on our clothes.

young girl eating omelette This is what kids' breakfasts look like around the worldAs we grew up, we learned that there were times to eat with our hands and times to use cutlery and that this difference was largely dictated by the culture of the food we were eating. A roast chicken dinner needs a knife and fork to break down the meat and roasted vegetables into bite-sized pieces—plus, navigating through mashed potatoes and gravy is a hot mess with your fingers. But sandwiches and falafels are all about hands. And, of course, chopsticks make their way into the picture for noodles, sushi and dumplings. I have known my whole life that not all of the food around the world is eaten with a knife and fork.

Recently, I chatted with someone who told me a story about her young niece, who goes to a prestigious preschool and was eating rice with her hands at lunchtime. The feedback her parents received was that this child needed to work on her table manners and use proper cutlery to eat. I immediately felt a rush of anger bubble up inside me when I heard this. The message that eating food with your hands is an unmannered way to eat is a real problem for me because it is dripping with the control and shame of colonization, which is particularly dangerous in an educational context. Suggesting that a child who eats with her hands has no manners is an echo of European colonial powers looking to tame the wildness out of the people they controlled. These European table manners were imposed on conquered people in an attempt to “civilize” them. It’s a damaging message about right and wrong ways to do things. It positions the technique as superior and the people who practise it as setters of the standard, leaving those with a different approach to eating with a status of inferiority. The idea of a single standard of acceptable table manners is just one of a host of strategies used to grow and promote racism. It’s a subtle message but one that is reinforced three times a day, every day, which makes it quite powerful.

Let me be clear here: I think it’s vitally important to teach children how to behave at a table. But I think we need to revisit what we’re teaching and how we’re teaching it. Recognizing diversity in cultural backgrounds and food traditions is essential, especially in a country as multicultural as Canada. We shouldn’t be teaching kids that they’re not supposed to eat with their hands at all or that eating with cutlery is a more refined or sophisticated way to eat. Different people eat their food in different ways. My father’s instructions were very detailed, with a big focus on being tidy and efficient and maintaining Hindu customs around cleanliness and purity. There is a very mannered way to eat with your hands, and there are more than a billion people around the world who eat this way.

The lessons we receive about how to eat come from our particular cultural background and experience. As adults, this is something that is very important to remember. The better message, I think, is that sometimes we eat with our hands and sometimes we eat with cutlery. There are prescribed and traditional ways to do this, and both options are equally legitimate. To illustrate this point, just think of the complete madness of watching someone insist on eating sushi with a knife and fork. In this case, if you are eating sushi and don’t know how to use chopsticks, your fingers are a much better option than the imposing violence of a knife and fork.

I remember being in my 20s and taking some university pals to an Indian restaurant. These friends had all been taught from a young age that it was bad manners to eat with your hands, and they were very hesitant about it. They would start to use their forks to eat, dipping edges of naan clumsily into the gravies. I lost my patience at what I felt was a mediocre experience, and I showed them how to tear a piece of naan, scoop up some food and deliver it to their mouths. Every single time, you could see delight wash over their faces once they were brave enough to just dive in and go for it. I’ve since taught many people how to eat with their hands, in formal and informal settings, and I constantly marvel at how much support and courage they need to muster to do something as simple as put food in their mouths. What I’ve since realized is that, with one mouthful, they are violating a lifetime of their own cultural conditioning about how “rude” it is to eat with their hands.

I recently spoke with some friends of British descent, who recalled their own strict lessons at the dinner table about not touching a single thing on their plates with their hands, with the curious exception of unsauced asparagus, which is somehow given a pass. (Yep, this is actually an etiquette thing.) They talked about how much of their own tradition they had to set aside to become comfortable eating more than just sandwiches and fries with their hands.

The message we need to send to our kids is that there are many different ways to eat food and that they’re all worthy of respect and acknowledgement. We need to show them that good manners can look quite different from table to table, particularly here in Canada. A great way to start is to ensure that there’s real cultural diversity in the menus served to kids in schools and daycare centres so that they can be exposed to a variety of cuisines and how to eat them. Learning how to properly use a knife and fork is very important, but so is learning how to squeeze a slippery dumpling between chopsticks and how to tear the perfect piece of naan with just one hand.

The more time we spend around the table with others, the more we’ll learn how to do this. And really, it’s the most joyful, delicious homework.

Joshna Maharaj is a Toronto-based chef, activist and author of the upcoming book Take Back the Tray about reforming institutional food.

Read more:
3 tips for teaching your toddler manners
Taming the feral beasts: I sent my kids to etiquette classes

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