Food is love, food is comfort, food is culture, and food has rules.
As an Indian-American, food is such a central part of my culture, that loving and feeding a child are indistinguishable. From a young age, I was taught the basics: eat with your right hand, the salad goes on the left side of the plate, don’t use your palm.
People are very, very specific about their food rituals. I know that if I refuse to eat a homemade dish in India, I might shame my parents. But I don't know the unspoken rules in the foreign country where I was born.
Where do my elbows go, on the table or off? Am I allowed to deny seconds? What exactly is the difference between an egg served boiled, deviled, over easy, sunny side up, shirred, or poached?
Once in my life, I tried to use chopsticks at Chinese friend’s house. Potstickers ended in my lap, and on the table, but not often in my mouth.
Its safe to say I always provide the dinnertime entertainment.
But as awkward a dinner guest as I can be, fumbling to do the right thing, I always try to be the most attentive. My mealtime ineptitude has forced me to learn the ways of the many multicultural dinner tables I have been invited to, and understanding rituals is the gateway to understanding the culture.
Indian people only eat with their right hand out of respect to God. The Chinese use chopsticks so as to pick up less food at a time, encouraging moderation. And the please-and-thank-you dialogue of passing American dishes evidences civility.
I have discovered that anyone is ecstatic when they are asked about the background of their culture and rules for eating. I believe human nature includes the desire to share, and food and culture are at the top of the list. The more I attempt to understand, the more acceptable my table gaffes become.
Living in a multicultural nation has given me access to a multitude of meals and rituals, and though I have not yet mastered the art of eating, I thoroughly enjoy learning it.