It was very common in the past for children of the same household to eat from the same plate because, in most cases, there were not enough plates and cutlery.
The parents would each have a plate or bowl and spoon or fork and then the children would share the third plate or bowl and eat from it with their hands.
This was a way of economising the kitchen’s already limited resources.
There are some traditional dishes today that we prefer as Africans to rather eat with hands no matter how much cutlery is laid on the table. They just go down better perhaps because there are elements about eating with hands that are reminiscent of our past.
Growing up as the youngest in yesterday’s household meant one would always enjoy the privilege of being left the last piece on the plate.
Being the youngest sibling in most African cultures means that you are protected the most by your whole family. For this reason when a plate was shared amongst children, the older ones would sacrifice the last bit of food on the plate to the satisfaction of their youngest brother or sister. It was the loudest communication of love, compassion and affection as they left this bit of food regardless of whether they were full or not, it was how we lived.
The modern household is very different; there is normally enough food, plates and cutlery to go around so the need to share has become less.
We do not eat together anymore. And because these days our lives have become even busier and less communal, we very rarely sit and eat at the same time let alone from the same plate. The dining room does not really serve its real purpose anymore, but has sadly been reduced to just a feature in our homes. Our daily living often dictates that everyone grabs something to eat as and when they get home.
Even though we still protect our youngest siblings in many respects, today’s youngest family member does not enjoy the last piece on the plate because they have the whole plate. Only when there are the likes of grandmothers and grandfathers will you find emphasis on the last food being given to the youngest child who I doubt even appreciates the gesture for its essence.
I very recently decided to go out by myself one evening. While I was out, I bumped into a couple of old friends, both of which were men. They invited me to sit with them at the table only to discover about twenty minutes later that they had ordered a pizza even before they knew I was going to join them.
Naturally, the three of us went on ahead to devour the pizza, which was no longer a lot being shared amongst three.
It was very amusing how neither of the men wanted to touch the last pizza slice. They just immediately stopped eating as if suddenly some invisible power had ordered them against touching that piece of food with serious repercussions had they decided to disobey. “Aren’t you going to finish the pizza? I’m full,” I asked them.
They looked at me as if I was going insane!
We had a somewhat lengthy discussion about it and they told me that it is tradition that, as a woman, that last slice was mine, just by virtue of being a woman in the company of men.
“It’s your piece, take a doggy bag and eat it later or have the waiter take it back. Whatever you do with it is entirely up to you,” said one of them. And that was how the conversation was ended with no room for further discussion!
Lovers also are very commonly in romantic situations where the mood calls for a bit of traditional behaviour.
They cook food or order in and I find eating together as a couple very intimate in its own right anyway. When you decide to eat from the same plate it gets even more intimate, sometimes even feeding each other while you talk about sweet nothings.
In every romantic relationship where everything is going right and the nature of the relationship is ideal, the man normally assumes the position of the protector and, therefore, the last piece on the plate is left to the woman. I have had countless conversations with a lot of people in relationships and in the ones that seem healthy this very regularly appears to be the norm.
I used to think this was just one of those petty high school puppy love expectations. Or that it was the kind of life you only see on television or romantic novels. But it seems very real the more attention I pay.
I have caught myself more than once needing a friend’s shoulder to cry on because I was sharing food with my boyfriend and he did not let me finish it off.
Only as an afterthought it might seem silly but these are the little things that happen in our relationships, especially the intimate ones and they count for a lot.
Some men may take the last piece on the plate for granted but when we get together as women and talk about our relationships, issues like these always come up and, in time, such are the ones that define the fate of our relationships, insignificant as it may seem. Simple things can count for a lot.