As I rub a bar of chocolate soap up and down the legs of my shower mate, I hear one of the fundamental principles burned into my psyche from childhood: "Don't play with your food!" (Hah! I am playing, and I intend to "eat like a lady" as well.)
Handling food connects the sense of touch with satisfying the, err ... appetite. Much of the world's population eats with their hands, for practical reasons, if not for perceiving the essence of it.
I love kneading bread dough — the meditative rhythm and patient determination turning sticky plumpness into silky pillow. I once deflated an entire 20-quart bowl of meringue because I was compelled to plunge both arms in up to my elbows, absolutely mesmerized by its glorious, marshmallow cloud. I enjoy the slipperiness of separating eggs in my hands and the juice of watermelon running down my chin, the greasy splendor of butter coating my lips and the burst of milk from the kernels as I bite into a tender ear of corn. I exude childish delight in popping petite peas between my fingers and sculpting a plate of mashed potatoes into a temporary masterpiece.
The meals I remember most are the meals I've eaten with my hands: Tamales on the dirt floor of a hut in Mexico; sucking crayfish in New Orleans; cracking open mussels and lobster claws on a pier in Maine; ripe tomatoes and avocados in the back of a pick-up truck in California; lettuce wraps filled with spiced couscous and currants during a Lebanese family dinner.
The joy of playing with food infiltrated one of my yoga classes six years ago when I handed each of my students a wedge of creamy brie cheese, several grapes and a tangerine, with instructions to play with their food and to eat it in no fewer than 30 minutes. During that half hour we touched, stroked, peeled, squished and sucked, laughing, juices streaming down our chins and necks. Years later, I still run into some of those students who can describe in enthusiastic detail the textures, colors, temperatures, taste and smell of that small, but focused, meal. Their awareness and respect for food was heightened.
Along with mindful intent and violating the commandments of my childhood, I am attracted to all abandonment of etiquette when playing with food. (For someone who is fond of making love eating, and eating making love, I suppose etiquette is merely conditional anyway.) Playing with your food evokes a sensuality and images of Felliniesque behavior. Who can forget the scene in Tom Jones where the hero and the whore (who turns out to be his mother) sit face-to-face while ripping apart chicken and shellfish? Or the food fight in Animal House?
Which leads me back to the shower and the delicious bittersweet chocolate carved into soap ("because friends don't let friends shower alone"). As messy and, well, brown as my friend is, he is reveling in the satiny veneer of melted chocolate and smells so much like birthday cake I could just eat him up.
"Bon appetit," he murmurs.