Last night, we celebrated my brother-in-law’s birthday over pizza. Sitting at our long table in the pizza joint, my husband and his brother bantered about football scores, as the rest of us looked over the menu. The choices were pizza…or pizza. But the real conundrum for me was…can we all agree on toppings? From the suggestions being thrown around, probably not.
The kids got pepperoni, and the guys decided on cheese, and wait for it…jalapenos. You can take the Indians out for pizza, but you can’t take the Indian out of the guys. It’s got to burn the tongue or there’s no flavor, they say. Not in the mood for a sore tongue, I opted for my very own veggie calzone. It was safer.
As we waited for our food, we three adults ended up reminiscing about our teenage years. My brother-in-law and I were both 16 when my husband and I started dating on the sly, so we’ve been through a lot together. We started talking about my first impressions of Indian food, and eating with your hands..
“I thought mug looked like barf.” I admitted frankly to him. Visibly taken aback, he looked at me in dismay. Disbelief.
“Mug? Really? It’s just lentils. It’s so good.”
“I was 16 and sheltered, dude. I was used to hamburger and chicken. Solid foods,”I said. I painted him a picture of how mug looks to an American. “It’s brown, and runny, and has lumps. And you eat it with your fingers. If you’re a sheltered southern kid, and you see people slurping it up with pieces of roti in their fingers, you’d think the same thing.”
He belly laughed in realization, and said, “Okay, okay. I’ll give you that.” But he paused and added, “I never knew how other people thought about eating with your fingers.”
“Let’s put it this way, Americans teach their kids to eat with spoons as soon as they can hold one. Etiquette is that we don’t touch our food. We learn to use each fork, the knife, the spoon, at the correct time, on the correct food.
My husband chimed in with the rest of the story, which I’d only shared with him within the past few years. I hoped this wasn’t going to offend my brother-in-law.
“And man, you should imagine what it was like when she first had dinner with us. It was like something out of a movie. Picture this in slow motion…” As my husband recounted the story, I was 16 again, at his parents’ kitchen table, and stupefied. A deer in the headlights.
I nervously sat across from my future mother-in-law, petrified. I knew she didn’t care for me dating her son, and I wanted to make a good impression on her. I smiled and nodded when she spoke to me, but I barely understood her thick accent. Looking to my wonderful boyfriend, I silently asked him for help with my eyes. He took the hint and chimed in, rephrasing things she said, and bringing up topics that I could relate to.
She ladled some mug into our plates and they dug in. They both grabbed roti from the tin at the center of the table and ripped small hunks off of them. Expertly, they used the roti bread pieces to smoosh around in the mug, and scoop the mush into their mouths, like spongy finger spoons. Sometimes drips of the runny lentils plopped back onto the plate from the scoops as they ate and talked.
I had to look away.
My mom’s voice in my head demanded, “Be polite. Make eye contact. And try the food.” So, I looked up, smiled at my future mother-in-law, and looked at my plate. On it was a thick, soupy, brown substance, the likes of which I’d never seen before that day. A green leaf, presumably for flavor, poked up from the middle. I inhaled the aroma, which was actually pretty good, and reached for my spoon.
But, it wasn’t there.
And then, as if in a slow motion scene from a movie, my husband, gestured with his hands as he spoke, and a piece of mug splatted across the table. I watched in horror as the blob glided through the air, in what seemed like a full minute of air time. Then, in response to whatever he had said, my mother-in-law put down her glass of water and flung another glob. Their fingers were covered in mug. I looked at their water glasses. They were coated in a brown film from their fingers.
Oh, I wanted my mommy.
My stomach turned a bit, and all I could do was try to join the conversation, while I figured out how to eat this stuff without my fingers touching it. Finally, my sweetie realized why I sat in my chair like a statue. And, the hero that he was, wiped his fingers and brought me a spoon.
My brother-in-law roared with laughter after the story was over. Their pizzas and my calzone finally arrived, and we all dug in. I tore off pieces of my calzone, dipped them with my fingers in marinara sauce until their dripped, and shoved them in my mouth. I’m recovered from that traumatic dinner of long ago, and now I’m a roti scooper myself. I thought nothing of scooping my calzone in the sauce. But, when I looked at my brother-in-law’s plate, I laughed in shock.
On top of his jalapeno pizza was a thick layer of black pepper and red crushed pepper, so thick that no sign of cheese remained. And poised in his hands were a knife and fork, cutting away cleanly at the crust. I’ve never seen anyone eat pizza with a fork. But, if he’d touched it with his fingers, his skin may have burned off.
I continued to break up my meal with my fingers and a smile on my face at this little irony. But, as we talked and shared more stories, I did make sure of one thing.
I wiped my hands before I touched my glass. Some things still gross me out.
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