ESSAY ... Sharon BAKAR
MISS MANNER’S GUIDE TO READING AND EATING
Reading a book and eating at the same time is truly one of life’s greatest pleasures, but it’s not as easy as it seems, says bookaholic SHARON BAKAR
READING when you eat (or eating when you read) is one of life’s true pleasures. Besides, we might as well make productive use of our brains while we go about the fairly mindless task of munching our food, and so should consider reading at the same time a perfect example of “multitasking,” as the business gurus call it. Eating while reading also serves to quiet the guilt which speaks with your mother’s most irate voice, “Don’t you have anything better to do?” whenever you pick up a book.
Be warned though, if carried out correctly, reading while eating is an inherently unsociable activity. The most unwelcome words you can hear when reading in a public place is “May I join you?” Sadly others don’t take it too kindly if you bare your teeth at them and say, “I was just getting to a good bit,” but this may be your only option unless you feel like telling them that you have a communicable disease and they’d be safer if they sat at another table.
It does of course help if you marry a partner who spends half his life buried behind a newspaper, so he won’t be able to claim the higher moral ground when you don’t talk to him during mealtimes at home because you have your nose in a book. Indeed, if both of you read at the dining table, marital conflict may be avoided altogether. Unless of course your partner insists on reading out loud articles on subjects he feels you ought to know about, such as the ins and outs of the economy or rugby statistics.
You also need to be aware that the calories consumed by reading are not offset by the effort involved in turning the pages (or the occasional round of book-hurling at the partner who insists on reading about the economy or rugby statistics to you from the paper.) Reading can contribute to obesity if not undertaken in moderation.
Certain foods lend themselves to being consumed by fervent readers. Sandwiches are the most obvious, of course. They were deliberately designed for one-handed eating by the Earl of Sandwich when he did not wish to forsake his card games at mealtimes. However, I must confess that I find lamentable the present-day trend for doorstop-sized sandwiches with foliage and mayonnaise spilling out in all directions, by those with scant regard for British tradition. The genuine British sandwich is a dried-up slice of cheddar cheese or Spam slapped between two slices of stale white bread, its lack of taste more than outweighed by its inherent convenience because surely, if you have to eat it with a fork and knife, it defeats the object of ordering a sandwich in the first place?
Noodles are a good choice for readers, provided that you are adept at using chopsticks and don’t baulk at the thought of a few grease spots on your shirt when the noodles splash back into the sauce. Here’s a hint: avoid wearing white if you are planning a prolonged reading session over noodles, or choose the drier noodle dishes: you really can’t do much harm with a plate of Singapore fried bee hoon. With sufficient practice you should be able to consume an entire plate of noodles without taking your eyes of the page even once. Spaghetti may be consumed in a similar fashion: Marco Polo did steal the idea of pasta from the Chinese, after all.
Malay food and Indian banana leaf curries are other possibilities. These are eaten with the fingers of your right hand only, leaving your left hand free to hold your book. However, unless you wish to decorate the pages with garlands of chilli or pickle, the skill of turning the pages with your nose should be acquired with alacrity!
It is also possible to read while eating Western food with one hand provided that you abandon your British table manners and cut your food up into bite-sized pieces first, as the Americans do, so that you will not need to look up while reading. (Don’t worry too much about letting your standards drop in this instance: reading, after all, is much more important.)
Fries and salad garnishes should always be treated as finger food. Provided you maintain a facial expression of snooty indifference, the locals will accept this as a perfectly acceptable way to eat and you may even find them emulating you.
It is a foregone conclusion though that you will not manage to avoid food stains on your book entirely and that the pages with be besmirched, spotted, dotted, splashed, smeared, glued together and otherwise sullied by a variety of edible substances. Fortunately, this enhances rather than detracts from the personal value of the book, particularly if you make a note in the margin of what you were eating and where, alongside each stain. Just imagine the nostalgia you will evoke when you reread your books sometime in the future.
I like to imagine that after my death, my biographer will scour the books in my private collection (which I will bequeath to some university department or other) to gather clues about my life and times. DNA tests on all those stains will provide a pretty complete picture of what I ate and, with a little carbon dating, when.
SHARON BAKAR is a freelance writer and teacher trainer in Kuala Lumpur. Her work has appeared in a number of Malaysian publications, including The Sunday Star, Off The Edge, Men’s Review, Quill, kakiseni.com and Chrome. She is the editor of an anthology of short fiction, Collateral Damage, published by Silverfish Books. She teaches creative writing in partnership with the British Council, and organises Readings, a monthly event for local writers, at Seksan’s Gallery in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. Check out her blog on writing and publishing in Malaysia, thebookaholic.blogspot.com.