There are a number of relevant factors to consider in determining when it is acceptable to eat with one’s hands (not including the obvious one of “Is anybody looking?”):
1. The formality or informality of the circumstances
On the Tonight Show many, many years ago, tough guy actor Robert Blake related a story about how surprised he was when he was served an apple at a very posh restaurant, and his companions insisted that he’d be committing a terrible faux pas if he did not eat the fruit with a knife and fork. (He reported proudly that he defied them.)
There are indeed restaurants, or other social situations, where virtually anything that can be eaten with cutlery must be eaten with cutlery.
On the other hand, if you’re at the ball game, your neighbors in the bleachers are probably not going to react with disapproval if you eat pretty much anything with your hands.
It’s all a matter of where you are and what the expectations are.
2. The type of food
Though there are some foods that are in a gray area and depend on the circumstances, clearly there are other foods that are definite hand foods or definitely not hand foods. An ice cream cone, fried chicken, shrimp or other seafood that must be peeled, potato chips-these are foods that you just about have to use your hands at least to some extent to eat. But if you’re using your hands to eat your oatmeal, your chili, or your potato salad, that’s a little odd (and more than a little messy).
3. The cultural context
Eating customs differ a great deal from country to country, and there are many foods that are perfectly fine to eat with your hands according to some cultures but not according to others.
India, Pakistan, some of the southeast Asian nations, some of the African nations, and some of the Arab nations are among the countries whose people eat with their hands the most. An American might think it quite peculiar to see an Indian eating from a bowl of rice with his hand, but the Indian would think it at least as peculiar that someone would awkwardly try to shovel rice into his mouth with a fork or chop sticks when nature provided a far more efficient tool at the end of his arm.
Because these factors are fuzzy, and sometimes pulling in different directions, it isn’t possible to provide any kind of a comprehensive list of when one may and may not eat with one’s hands. But a little common sense is usually sufficient to figure it out, and when it’s too close a call for that and you’re still in doubt, you can strategically wait to see what others are doing before deciding whether to reach for a fork or just dive right in with your hands.