From the Ivory Tower Kitchen: Why Can't We Touch This?

06/24/2015 03:59 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

My wife is a podiatric surgeon who specializes in diabetic limb salvage. In a nutshell, in the event of a loss of or insufficient blood flow, she is one of your last hopes to keep that lower extremity or even entire limb, before inevitable amputation. Often, her patients remark to her that no other specialist ever touched their feet to make their diagnoses, something she does routinely. The power of touching her patients' feet is exemplified in the fact that, through conservative, focused, and dedicated care; she is able to help a patient keep a part or whole of a lower extremity, which could easily be justified from an insurance and aggressive medical care's standpoint as being, amputation-worthy. Never mind that the statistics are stacked against long-term survival for a patient surviving an amputation because of vascular disease. Dr. Pulapaka touches her patients' feet so that she can better determine exactly where it hurts and exactly where and to what degree a patient's lower extremity vascular network may be compromised. She touches their feet so she can "feel the organism" following the famous paradigm of one of her personal idols Nobel Laureate Barbara McClintock.

The term "farm-to-table" may be used ad nauseum these days and it means different things to different people. One of the most powerful aspects of buying local ingredients is the opportunity it presents for one to touch them. At an early age, I learnt and had the opportunity to touch the fruits and vegetables I was buying. Beyond the obvious benefits of being able to assess various aspects of their quality, touching the ingredients is to be touched by their terroir. Our sense of touch and smell often inspires us to create in ways we might not consider otherwise. While I understand the necessity for grocery stores to pre-package and portion their produce wrapped in plastic, whenever possible, one should consider touching the same ingredient displayed in bulk. Can you imagine if all ingredients were presented to us with the opportunity to touch, smell, and when possible even taste before purchasing? And I don't mean just at specialty markets in affluent neighborhoods. It wouldn't shock me if a majority of fruits and vegetables in most grocery stores and so-called farmer's markets would be deemed tasteless and unfit for purchase. Not because they are spoiled, but rather because they've been preserved to a state of inertness. The irony is that historically, spices and salts were used for preservation -- to preserve ingredients which were spoiling because of lack of or inadequate refrigeration. At harvest, we can be certain that those ingredients were as righteous as they could be. Nowadays, we add spices and other seasonings to give flavor to dishes because the ingredients themselves are being presented to us as mere shadows of their former selves.

And then, there is the matter of touching the food we eat. I am heartened that many foods even in the United States are best eaten without unnatural utensils. In India, we still eat primarily with our hands. Well, the right hand, mostly. I believe food tastes better when eaten hand to mouth. Doing so personalizes the experience and allows the act of eating to be much more than sustaining our bodies. It must be acknowledged that many among us do not have this luxury and have had to adapt because of their handicap. So, for those of us who have the ability, let's consider returning, when possible, to making finger-licking good a literal reality with the ingredients we demand along with the manner in which we handle and enjoy them.