I traveled to Chennai in south India a few years ago, and I was not prepared for the fact that everyone there eats everything with their hands. It seemed to go against every manner I had been taught. “You mean you just touch all your food?” My hosts were gracious and offered me friendly Western utensils, but I’m a stubborn traveler (and always follow all the Spanish Rules) and ate everything with my hands too (making more of a mess than the two year old next to me). It felt uncomfortable, a little weird, and definitely wrong, like I was breaking so many rules. I did it three meals a day for two weeks and wanted to think that I would be getting used to it, but picking up my vegetables and scooping rice mixed with yogurt into my mouth just felt bizarre.
Before I could even figure out a polite way to ask someone, “Why do you eat with your hands?” They were asking me “Why don’t you? Why are people in America afraid to touch their food?” They explained to me that food is what keeps you alive, it’s the stuff of life, so why shouldn’t you be as close and connected to it as possible? An installation in a cultural museum I visited with my hosts stated that touching your food, making that tactile connection, was actually the first step in digestion. All this seemed to make sense, and as I thought about it, I realized how little we in the United States touch our food at all, even long before it gets speared on our polite forks.
Machines plant seeds, prods prod cattle, dispensers feed chickens, other machines harvest vegetables, conveyer belts carry them, plastic packages it all, and stoic shelves support it. Much of this is done in the name of efficiency and much more of it in the names of sanitation and public health. What have we done to our food to make it so untouchable? Even vegetables come on Styrofoam trays wrapped in plastic. We can buy squash diced and swaddled in Saran wrap, dump it straight from the package into the steaming pot and then use a utensil to put it right on to our plates without ever laying a finger on it at all, impaling it with a fork–the first moment of contact it has with our bodies being the moment it hits our tongue.
For better or for worse, for the sanitary or the soulless, we don’t touch our food. Human hands have removed from direct involvement in the process of growing, preparing, and eating food. Of course they can still be present in all those steps if we’re eating homemade bread and peppers from our neighbor’s garden, but a lot of our food is untouched.
When I first got to the coffeelands I had a similar reaction to the one I’d had at the dinner table in India and thought, “everyone seems to be touching stuff a lot.” Coffee can’t happen without human hands. Every single cherry in the coffee mountains of Latin America is picked by hand. Every one. Hands pull the cherries off trees and sort them in baskets. Every single seedling that becomes the trees that produces those cherries is planted and transplanted by hand. Every one.
It remains pretty untouched as it is depulped, washed, and dried by machine, but there are still lots of hands pulling rakes to dry coffee in on patios the sun, turning it over and over, hour after hour, day after day.
Coffee is roasted by heat and metal machines, but with some human touches.
In coffee preparation, we’re also putting coffee back in human hands.
Espresso is made by pushing buttons, pulling paddles, and turning dials, and to make a really good espresso those touches are the work of the human as much as of the machine. “Hand brewed” coffee is becoming the new term to toss around, referring to pour over preparations like Chemex, Aeropress, and V60. This is as close as we can get to making coffee by literally touching it, because if there was a way to brew coffee by sheer force of will, cradling it delicately in one’s hands, there would be people doing it left and right.
In Affinity I discuss how I discovered that I really like being in the cafetales, in and around coffee. Maybe I like it in part because it’s refreshing to see and be a part of the tactile interactions between human and plant, between hands and drink-to-be. There’s plenty of coffee in Brazil that’s as untouchable as any grain in the US, and that is where most of the world’s coffee is sourced. But most isn’t all, and there is still quite a bit of coffee here in Latin America that is the product of the work of human hands directly engaging with the plant, transforming it from seed to tree to welcome beverage.