A few months ago, my family went out to celebrate my birthday. We ate at a French restaurant where a number of my relatives tried foie gras for the first time. Not knowing that the pate was supposed to be spread like jam, my father treated it like a slice of ham or chicken instead, by sandwiching it on a piece of bread. My younger sister, who was the most wordly of us and had eaten at a number of fine restaurants, cried out in alarm. My youngest sister, even though not having tried foie gras herself, berated my dad for not asking about how to eat it. I was just embarrassed, not of my dad, but for him. My own sisters were yelling at my dad simply for not knowing enough, as if reaffirming to themselves they weren’t ignorant, or nearly as ignorant.
As someone who grew up using chopsticks, and the steak knife only when I ate out, there are a number of things, especially culinary, that I am ignorant of. There are plenty of spices which I have never tried, vegetables and cuts of meat that I do not know the name of but only the taste of. I took Spanish in high school and do not know one wit of French. The first time I saw “carafe” on a menu, I had no idea what it was (it is basically a pitcher of wine for people who want more than a glass, but less than a whole bottle). When “The Avengers” ended, I had to look up what shwarma was. And I have a feeling, a lot of movie-goers did to.
As children, we are taught that asking questions and learning is good, but at some part of our lives, we hide our ignorance because we are ashamed of it. But instead of trying to fill the gaps in our knowledge, we merely avoid them. I had a friend who invited a fellow classmate out to sushi. He promptly doused his rolls with wasabi (a.k.a. horseradish) and ate them without barely batting an eyelash. Luckily, he was used to spicy food, so the excess of the condiment did him no harm, but he had never tried wasabi or sushi before. My friend was appalled that he had agreed to go out to eat something he had no knowledge of whatsoever, and asked me, “Why didn’t he just tell me?”
We hide our ignorance because it can be used as a weapon against us. Most of the time, this fear is unfounded, but sometimes it can be very real. During college, my journalism professor invited a writer to come in for a lecture. He was an African-American poet who had, at one time, been admitted on scholarship into an Ivy League school, where his elitest classmates tortured him by feigning friendliness and making him eat edam with the red ring of wax still on it. He had no idea it was wax, had never eaten edam in his life, but all he could do was eat the cheese, wax and all, and then politely refuse his schoolmates when they pushed him to eat more. In the end, he dropped out of the school and transferred to another college, and became successful anyway. But that venerable gentleman, years later, never forgot about that incident.
You can avoid a conversational subject you know nothing of by changing it, you can wade in the shallow end of the pool instead admitting to people that you do not know how to swim, but when you are given a knife and fork you rarely use, you can’t hide the clumsiness of your hands as you switch between the utensils. Out of a number of un-pleasantries, it seems a culinary faux pas is the most effective at highlighting the differences between our cultural and economical uprbringings by being the most unavoidable manifestation of them. More tellingly, for some, the resultant shame at culinary ignorance may also reflect a shame at not having a certain perceived cultural and economical upbringing. The shame is even exacerbated by racial food stereotypes, often created by a more prevailent and/or privileged strata imposing itself on a minority.
But is the first, most innocent shame of simply not knowing even necessary? Whenever I meet my friends at a Vietnamese restaurant, the newbies spear their spring rolls and ignore their lettuce, and I am suddenly pushed from the role of ingenue to guru. I show them that it is customary to avoid utensils altogether, by wrapping the rolls with the lettuce by hand. The process is messy and fun and most importantly of all: delicious.