Mind Your Manners
Without saying anything, nothing gives an American away faster than the way we eat. We savagely carve, stab and shovel our food. Knife and fork tearing away, independent from one another. It is a clunky and clumsy process. There is a better way.
I first really noticed this stark contrast when I was in London. I sat down for lunch at a pub called The Badger, right across the street from Parliament. I ordered bangers and mash, fulfilling one culinary first, and a Fursty Ferret, which turned out to be a delightful beer chosen on the merit of its name alone.
Snug in the tight little booth I began to observe as many details as I could while I waited for my meal. The walls were beautifully adorned, the furniture ornate and the dark wood really fit the bill for a proper pub. I also noticed how the little pieces of silver seemed to dance across peoples' plates. Effortlessly, their hands, forks and knives corroborated in the consumption of the hearty bounty before them.
In the moment I thought nothing of it, then my own plate arrived. I faced a mountain of peas, mashed potatoes and two large links of sausage, i.e. The bangers. Armed with my utensils I got to work, plunging my fork as if it were some type of spear into the first banger. The prongs drove all the way through to the plate. I only then picked up my knife and began to saw off my first piece. Putting the knife back down, I raised the fork with a large hunk and consumed it with the enthusiasm of a ravished traveler.
I repeated this process, trading knife for fork, putting one down, picking up the other, changing hands, over and over. When I decided to come up for air, I again looked around. I was suddenly acutely aware of just how seamless those around me handled themselves. They worked at their food as if it were an instrument. Like a violin, the fork worked the neck while the knife was the bow. They were not separate utensils but parts of one singular performance. I was surrounded by master musicians.
In CrossFit, the top of the "fitness pyramid" recommends you play new games, try new sports ... essentially put your fitness into play outside of your comfort zone. This could be something like trying netball or playing in a local game of football (soccer) but it also could be something smaller and much more subtle. Right before me, served on a silver platter, was an opportunity to put my fitness to the test.
Coordinating movement through your whole body is often a very big motion, easy to observe. You can clearly see someone opening their hips or hitting depth in a squat. Here in the sport of dining though, technique happens at a much smaller more nuanced scale. I studied what I could without being too obvious or staring and gave it a go.
All I could relate this first attempt to is the image of a small newborn deer just learning how to walk. It was shaky, hesitant and we shared the same lost and confused look. I could only laugh at myself when I then noticed the French waitress who had served me was watching from a distance. She too, was smiling. From across the bar she encouraged me with her grin and a slight gentle nod to go on. Back to the image of the helpless fawn, this was just the gentle nuzzle I needed to move forward.
By the end of the meal I was still wobbly. Reluctantly, I even ate the peas for practice. In the spirit of MCI (mechanics, consistency, intensity) I was still firmly planted in M but I now had been introduced to the basics. My 'coach' came over once she saw I was finished and offered some sweet words for my efforts. I laughed and went a little red, to which we both grinned in response.
Since then I have been traveling with a group of nomads from all over the world across Southern Africa where I am only one of two Americans. The observations have continued as it seems only the North Americans are at loss with this technique. I am still very much learning the mechanics and slowly moving towards focusing on consistency. From French waitresses in British pubs to good friends around a fire, I have dialed in on the sport of dining. Consumed by the art of consumption.
Trying new things, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and exceeding your comfort zone are all at the very core of adventure. Virtuosity also defines a lot of what we hold value in. Doing the common, uncommonly well. What is more common than breakfast, lunch and dinner? If there is another way of doing something, isn't it worth exploring?
This same approach to the plate in front of you is the very same drive which calls you to the far corners of the world. Curiosity and openness. Get out there, observe and explore the difference. Mind your manners traveller, you might just learn something new.
The next thing for me to learn is, what the hell do I do with the spoon?"