Dear Helena,

Recently I took my girlfriend out for dinner at a fancy restaurant. The pieces of lettuce in my Caesar salad were too big to fit neatly in my mouth. So I ate them with my fingers. My girlfriend called me a cave man. She said I should use my knife and fork to fold each leaf up until it’s small enough to fit in my mouth. Is there any rule of thumb about when to use your fingers? —Cave Man

Dear Cave Man,

Many say that food tastes better when eaten outdoors. In my view, it also tastes better when eaten with the fingers. My friend Bob Blumer, a.k.a. the Surreal Gourmet, a TV chef and professional bon vivant, agrees. He eats salad sans cutlery, even in upscale restaurants. “It seems more pleasing that way. You appreciate the texture and temperature of the food,” says Blumer. And at dinner parties, eating with your fingers introduces an element of sensuality. If you want to encourage flirtation, Blumer recommends serving Dungeness crabs on a plastic tablecloth—no cutlery, no plates.

Here are some tips if the protocol is not so obvious:

  1. Shun the shellfish fork. Jon Rowley, an oyster expert in charge of marketing for Taylor Shellfish Farms, the largest grower on the West Coast, says you should pick up the shell with your fingers. “Just the feel of the oyster shell stimulates your taste buds.” And bringing the whole shell to your mouth allows you to drain every drop of the oyster’s liquor. Use your fork only if you have trouble coaxing the oyster from its home.
  2. Observe tradition. Some foods are designed to be eaten out of hand. These include obvious examples like burritos, pizza, sandwiches, and candy bars. Indian food traditionally is eaten by picking it up with pieces of bread, and sushi is designed to be eaten with the fingers. According to Mineko Moreno, coauthor of Sushi for Dummies, you may even use your fingers to help yourself from a communal platter. “But only touch the piece you want,” she cautions.
  3. Take the path of least resistance. Use your fingers when it’s much easier—as when eating corn on the cob, lobster in the shell, and whole artichokes (but remove the choke with a knife and fork). Note that the effort saved must be significant. You can’t eat a roast potato out of your hand, since it’s easily tackled with a knife and fork. But you may manually remove a mint-leaf garnish, rather than bat it out of the way with your dessert spoon. And if bacon is so crisp that a knife and fork would shatter it, pick it up with your fingers.

And your Caesar? If the leaves are lightly dressed and you can do it without making a mess, go ahead and use your hands. Sure, you could fold the leaves neatly, but you’re eating salad, not sending off résumés.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.

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