The first time I had African food was in the Height/Ashbury district in San Francisco. It wasn’t trendy; it was just another culinary voice in the cacophony of city sounds and sites I once knew in my college years. I remember the large plate with the pancake on the bottom; small dabs of colorful food adorned the top. I recall the distinct lack of cutlery. The smiling African waitress offered only folded bits of the same pancake base with which to scoop up the messy morsels. The food was flavorful and spicy.
On my second visit I decided to take a couple of young ladies I knew from my London semester of study abroad. They happened to be studying at San Francisco State University as well, so we had our post-London reunion over African food. As anyone who has had East African food (Eritrean, Ethiopian) knows, the size of the plate correlates to the size of the dining party—a bigger plate and a bigger pancake for a party of three. Everyone shares from the same plate using their hands. One of the more uptight ladies in our party interrogated the waitress: “Am I to assume we get no knife and fork with this?” The waitress merely laughed and walked away shaking her head. Later the same young lady informed me that she would never return to that—or any—African restaurant again. Snotty racist cow.
Europeans and certain ‘upper class’ Americans won’t eat with their hands. I’ve seen Europeans eat pizza and hamburgers with a knife and fork, and we’re getting tired of it (just ask the New Yawkers at The Bird: ‘Please, at least try eating the damn burger with your hands. All you uptight people with forks and knives are driving us crazy.’) Some food DEMANDS that you touch it. Why else would they coin the phrase 'finger food?' An Indian acquaintance I met in Cyprus explained to me as he taught me how to eat Indian food with my hands, “We have five senses. To not touch your food is to deny the full experience.” Damn, with logic like that, I’m glad he didn’t try to talk me into trying yoga. Then I’d have to bounce my foot off his Ghandian ass. And that would be sad.
In the States we pick up our burritos, tacos, pizza slices, burgers and chicken wings. I have actually gone weeks without touching a knife or fork. This weekend qualifies as a forkless nosh period. Yesterday: fish tacos (made myself), today: African food at Bejte-Ethiopia in a far flung place in Berlin (Nollendorf Platz). We enjoyed the food, although the pancake was a bit sour for our taste. Once again, we suspected that they are catering to the locals’ love of everything sour (sauerkraut, anyone?). But the food itself was delicious, though not quite as spicy as the African restaurants I visited in San Francisco or Munich. The kicker was the finish. We had read that they offer a special type of coffee in the joint, so we ordered coffee for two. It came with a bowl of popcorn and I have no idea why. I guess they’ve never heard of biscuits or wafers. I drank the rich, strong coffee and just stared at the popcorn. I couldn’t cotton to it.
Years ago in Prague, an American picked up his slice of pizza with his hands and heard the muffled mutterings of the Czechs. They sat there like the dorks that they are, pretending to be all 'Yer Row Culture,’ pizza on the plate, knife and fork in sweaty hands. Step off, bitches. Pick up that mother humping pizza, hold it under your nose, look at it and smell it. As the saliva starts, slide that tasty morsel into your mouth and chew: LISTEN! Your teeth are talking to you now!
Your Dunkin’ Berliner lesson in the culinary arts has just begun.
Next week: unleash the Third Eye Chakra in the center of your forehead and head butt your chow!