New York Mayor Bill de Blasio caused a stir when he ate pizza with a fork, reported The New York Times on January 11, 2014. This tidbit is not as newsworthy as the criminal activities of Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Nor is it as juicy as Bill Clinton’s White House liaison with an intern. But it gives us all a chance to examine how even small details of eating can cause big brouhahas.
De Blasio defended himself, “In my ancestral homeland, it’s more typical to eat with a fork and a knife.” True enough, every culture has its manners. We shudder to think how many of us have used the wrong end of the chopsticks to take from the serving platter or have not understood the subtleties of politesse when we eat curry with a chapatti and our hands.
It is more than obvious to state: Different families eat differently. While the way one eats is a marker of one’s background, it is not a marker of one’s character. So, then, how does a run-of-the-mill political outing to a pizza joint on Staten Island end up as a scandal now known as “forkgate”?
The obvious answer is that de Blasio’s latest job, leader of the oft-claimed (especially by New Yorkers) “Greatest City in the World,” means that whatever he does is news, whether he’s taking out his garbage in his pajamas or eating pizza with a knife and fork. But the fact is that similar “scandals” are played out every day between family and friends at ordinary dinner tables around the world.
The food we eat and how we eat it tells us loads about who we are, so it’s no wonder that we often conflate eating habits with personality and morality. Indeed, food behaviors often lead to judgments about a person’s character. How many times do we hear people sanctimoniously espouse their own nobility in eating environmentally correct or animal-rights-sensitive food? The implication is that bad people eat everything else. Those obsessed with eating healthy and local foods may sometimes have contempt for others who even occasionally chomp down fast food. Yet one person’s “healthy eating” is another person’s definition of orthorexia, a severe phobia about eating impure or unhealthy food.
Indeed, different backgrounds, different values and different definitions of hospitality, as the pizza fiasco shows, can lead to hostility. Often, name-calling follows: we cast one another as “snobs,” “show-offs,” “not like us” or “uncivilized.”
And the kinds of food we eat are only the beginning.
As de Blasio’s aghast supporters on Staten Island demonstrated, not only what one eats but how food is eaten can lead to vexing criticism and even more heartburn than pizza. Some of us prefer to sit down together to eat, while others like to grab a meal from the fridge. Some families follow Emily Post’s etiquette instructions, while others follow their own cultural conventions. None of these behaviors are bad. They just are different. What is bad, are supercilious attitudes toward manners, customs and ideas that are different from our own.
Pizza and de Blasio, regardless of culinary or political preferences, have much to teach us: a little understanding and a lot of respect go a long way to help the pizza go down more easily, even with a knife and fork.
RUTH NEMZOFF AND ELLEN ROVNER
Ruth Nemzoff is the author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with your Adult Children, and a popular speaker on the topic of parenting adult children, intergenerational relationships, and family dynamics.
Ellen Rovner is a cultural anthropologist who began her professional career working with adolescents and incarcerated youth. She has directed a delinquency prevention program and battered women's advocacy project and is currently studying the cultural and emotional impact of food.