MANILA, MAY 25, 2006 (STAR) By Mary Ann Quioc Tayag - I will never forget the meal that was prepared for us during a visit to Lake Sebu in Mindanao. I was with my hubby Claude, his cousin Dan, our friend Ofie, and her French hubby Mark. There were 20 of us, including the schoolteachers and children. The food was served on the bamboo floor, with a huge banig serving as tablecloth, or floor cloth rather. All the dishes, which consisted mostly of tilapia cooked in a variety of ways, were served on banana leaves. We were invited to sit on the floor, but we made sure not to sit on the banig.

The rice was wrapped in a banana leaf, and each portion was to be shared by two people. Of course, I sat with and shared my rice with Claude. I looked around and there was not a single spoon. I hoped to see even just a sandok as serving spoon. That was when I realized we were to dip our hands from the dishes that were being served communally.

The grilled tilapia was easy to pick up, but those dishes with sauces, especially those cooked in gata, were really messy. And those dishes that were too far for us to reach, Paris-based Ofie and the host got some for us and dropped them on our banana leaf plates with the same hand they used for eating. It was the most natural thing to do, I guess.

I was very uncomfortable with the situation for I was born with a defective and oversensitive tummy. I prayed hard to God to bless my food and protect my tummy – and He did. Not wanting to offend anyone, especially our very sincere hosts, I, too, dipped in and started to eat with my hands. As Miss Manners Emily Post said, good manners is being sensitive to the feelings of others. It does not matter which fork you use; in this case, it did not matter if there was no fork to use.

I was in India once, and a beggar carrying a baby tapped our taxi window. When we looked at her, she put her fingers together the way one would eat rice and put them close to her lips.

"What is she doing?" my Japanese friend gently asked.

"She is begging," I said. "For food, or for money to buy food."

What the Japanese asked me next surprised me: "How do you know she wants food?"

"Did you think she was blowing us a kiss?" I said. She was about to ask me further when I realized the Japanese do not eat with their hands, which was why she did not get the message.

"I guess in your country beggars carry chopsticks to show they want food," I said.

In the western world, putting fingers near one’s mouth mean a great appreciation for the food. The Italians often do this, but with their eyes closed, a contended smile on their faces, and they say, "Molto bene (Very good)." You see one who says "I want to eat but have no food," and another who says, "I am very happy with what I am eating." Their gestures are very much the same but their facial expressions differ.

In the West, they cut their food with a knife and eat with a fork. If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Our ancestors ate with their hands until the Spaniards came and introduced the cuchara. Today we serve, cut, and eat our food with a spoon. So do the Thais, Indonesians, and Indians. The Chinese and Japanese use the thin end of chopsticks for eating and the thick end as a serving spoon, but they use their teeth to cut their food and noodles. I find it unglamorous, but it is acceptable in their culture. Their ancestors regarded the knife as a warrior’s weapon, and therefore it had no business on their dining tables. It is, however, easy to tell who is who because the Chinese are chatty and eat with gusto, while the Japanese hardly talk when they eat. It makes you wonder if they appreciate their food.

Of course, you know the story of Luc Cagadoc, the seven-year-old Pinoy who was punished and made to eat alone, away from other students by his school lunch monitor in Canada. His crime? He refused to eat the Canadian way, i.e. with a knife and fork and insisted on eating with his spoon. His story made it to the local news.

Filipinos got very angry. Some marched and protested at the Canadian embassy carrying big placards of spoons and forks. A week later, probably to appease angry Filipinos, a photo of the Canadian ambassador eating (also) with a spoon was on the front page of the Philippine STAR.

Here in the Philippines, we also teach our children to eat with knives and forks and chopsticks. These are perfect examples of East-meets-West table culture.

That hullabaloo about Luc and his lunch monitor would have taken a more interesting turn if the Canadian lunch monitor did one thing: to declare that in her sacred opinion the correct Canadian way of dining is to use knife and fork. And before she gives an answer, she should bring in a European and an American to debate on the issue. Both debaters would most probably be stubborn and combative authorities on this subject matter. In the end, she will be the sole judge, and she must give a final answer at the end of the debate. But please do televise this event because the whole world will want to know and understand better her expertise on the Canadian way of dining.

I bet the debate will turn out like this. The American, with her distinct twang, will say, "You know us Americans are correct with our zigzag way." She elegantly slices her food with a knife and then transfers the fork to her right hand to bring the food to her mouth.

The proper British gets upset. She rises up and exclaims: "By George, that transferring is bloody nonsense and pretentious. The European direct way of dining is what Luc must bloody learn." With her nose up, she then slices her food with her knife and brings the food directly to her mouth with the fork on her left hand.

"Holy mackerel," the American exclaims, "You cannot wait to put the food in your mouth. So damn informal and only good for the hungry. (I wonder if she will also say pigs.) Remember Canada is in North America."

"Indeed, but forget not, she was colonized by France and England," the Brit proudly answers. "And so was your America, my dear."

The two feisty debaters then face Luc’s Canadian lunch monitor, and with much pressure demand her to answer: "Tell them now what is the correct Canadian way – American or European? Zigzag or direct? Which one must Luc follow to please you? Which one?"

The Canadian monitor surprises the whole world when she mumbles, "Spoon na lang."

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