Issue One


When is a Hand Not a Hand

The way we move our hands is a reflection of who we are as individuals.
if we observe a chef’s hands we will be able to tell how that chef cooks.”
Nuno Mendes -  Viajante / Chiltern Firehouse

“I’d write an essay on the peculiar smell of chefs’ hands: Fish, meat, onions,
chemicals, it’s almost indescribable. Incidentally, lemon juice is much more
effective than any soap when it comes to trying to get rid of it.”  
Brett Barnes - Duck Soup

“There is something beautiful about gnarled, rough, hard-working hands.
I look at them with love for all they have done for me,from their work in the kitchen
to mothering and loving. They have been good to me.”  

Margot Henderson - Rochelle Canteen

“A German chef accidentally blew off both of his hands while attempting
to create a dish with liquid nitrogen. That’s from google.”

Kitty Travers -  La Grotta

Suppose you’ve set yourself the task of writing a piece on chefs’ hands. First, admit that there is nothing to be said on the subject of hands. You are in a desperate position, so begin (because it is your only option), by defining the hand as a thing; as a prehensile organ forming the end part of a limb on various mammals.  One capable of gripping objects. There are other gripping-things out there (the elephant's nose, certain tails) but they’re not hands. Don’t even try to explain the distinctions – this is beyond you.

Having tried to define the word, expand on the various grey areas and conflicts in the taxonomic categorisation of hands. Say that a bird’s talons fulfil all the basic hand-criteria as defined in certain free online dictionaries, but are not hands. That to attain proper hand-like status they must have more than one finger, also a thumb, and be capable of both gross and fine motor manipulation. The Koala, who has two thumbs in apposition on the front paws, does not have hands. She is a marsupial and only those with mammalian primate DNA qualify. Comment on how unfair this is for the Koala who, after all, has more thumbs than everyone else. Say something glib and ironic about biologists and their systems. Maybe don’t. Maybe resist that urge. Keep it serious for your readers.

Drill deeper still. Talk apes. Monkeys.  Talk about how they are sometimes defined as having a surplus of hands – four – and how in scientific reality they have the regular number –two – with one thumb each, and alongside these a pair of feet, albeit ones with an elongated hallux (toe) where the thumb should be. Maybe say something about how this hallux, being opposable and mobile and working in apposition to the fingers (or toes) and closing towards the palm (sole), sort of achieves thumb status according to most of the taxonomic criteria laid down by those same scientists who say the foot is not a hand. Maybe take a moment to wish you had an elongated hallux yourself.

Think how much easier your life would be if you could type or perform basic, day-to-day stuff with both hands and feet. The multitasking you could do. Mention that ex-girlfriend who could smoke cigarettes by wedging them between her toes and bringing the whole foot up to her mouth; talk about how profoundly unerotic you found this move, even though it was probably designed to show you how flexible she was. Think what exactly that meant. (We know exactly what that meant.)

Maybe risk everything and talk about amputation. About a half-remembered news item on the San Francisco man who had his dominant big toe grafted onto his hand to replace a thumb lost to carpentry. About how that looked (grotesque: Google it). Mention how – if we subject that toe-hand to the strictest codification, as we did the ape’s – his is not a hand at all, but a foot. Or, at least, his is less hand and more foot than the ape’s foot is hand. 

Fill up some space by mentioning that no (zero) fish have hands, though some have taken to using their flippers to commando-crawl across the ocean floor. Mention that this could be the beginning of ‘fish hands’ as an evolutionary event, apropos of no scientific proof or evidence whatsoever. Speculate that your children’s children may live to see or even eat a fish-hand.

You’ve talked about the ‘thingliness’ of hands, so now draw up a list of human achievments that somehow involve them. Accept that this is  a list of all human endeavour. Abandon it to write “beautiful things wouldn’t exist were it not for the hand”. Discuss another half-remembered news item from the 1990s in which was discussed a kind of genetic anomaly in adolescent boys, born of overuse of the Game Boy – teen thumbs growing preternaturally large and supernumerically jointed to cope with the rigors of prolonged game play. Suggest that we do not use the thumb enough, that it may one day wither to a nub. Finally, realise there is nothing to say on the subject of hands.

Words: Thomas Viney
Photography: Thomas Lohr