“Those men do not have any manners,” staring wide-eyed at a large, round table of men lifting their bowls to finish slurping the last of their soup course, I comment to my mother in my overly loud, four-year-old and most self-assured voice.
In response to my comment, a long finger comes to rest perpendicular to my lips, telling me to hold my tongue in this very public context. My extended family and I have been on the road for days. We are stopping briefly at a large, family-style restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Our road trip includes touring the Redwood forest, a snow-covered visit to the Painted Desert, a stop at the Petrified Forest, as well as a careful viewing of the expansive vistas of the Grand Canyon from the canyon’s south rim.
I grow up eating soup and avoiding slurping, even after one of my first experiences of manners, culture and context invite me to do otherwise.
Years after my first trip to San Francisco’s Chinatown for dinner and days before one of my birthdays, a package from two dear friends arrives in the mail. The note inside says, “We wanted to take you to the movies for your birthday, so we sent you this film. XOXO”
Unwrapping the package, a Japanese film, Tampopo, reveals itself—a self-styled “Japanese Noodle Western.” From among the film’s many plot turns and twists, my favorite scene involves the “re-education” of a group of young Japanese women who are relearning the art of eating noodles in the context of an Italian restaurant in Tokyo—without slurping. (In traditional Japanese culture, it is considered a compliment to the food when a person eats her soup or noodles with an appropriate food-relishing slurp.)
The cultural instructor in the film is preparing her students to follow the non-slurping, noodle- and soup-eating etiquette the students will encounter overseas. As the older Japanese woman is modeling the silent, eating etiquette that her students will need to follow and the students themselves are doing their very best at eating their own dishes quietly, a mischievous foreigner begins drawing noodles up from his own full plate of pasta with grand, relishing, smacking and slurping sounds, thoroughly disrupting the cultural instructor’s lesson.
Yet, even after watching Tampopo, I do not even attempt the practice of slurping, but I continue the practice of spooning liquids into my mouth and twirling my noodles on my fork with great care, just as I was taught. I also continue “growing up.”
Then, many years later and by complete chance, on one fall day when I am facing a particularly deep, hot bowl of soup after working in the yard all afternoon—in my hunger—I draw the steaming liquid through my parted lips in an understated slurp, hoping to cool the soup (politely) on its way through my mouth and into my gullet.
Cool the soup I do. But, more important than cooling the soup is what happens as the flavorful vapors from the hot, fresh soup pass over my tongue to travel through to my pharynx and on up into my nasal passages until my unsuspecting olfactory lobes become involved. Finally, I understand.
We, the non-slurping soup-eaters of the West, have this soup and noodle etiquette thing all wrong. If we were really committed to embracing the whole gift of having sacred food on our tables at each meal, we would need to learn how to bask in foods’ full flavors and be willing to relish subtle taste experiences by taking some social cues from the cultures who know best how to embrace their brothy dishes—with just a little more noise allowed at the dinner table.