Chef Chad Johnson had just served a plate of huckleberry braised pork cheeks with crispy scrapple made of pig brain and a gastrique with cardamom and maple flavors.
Johnson made the dish at SideBern’s in Tampa as part of a snout-to-tail menu for a private tasting dinner by Knob Creek bourbon whiskey. The dish prior: cannelloni made with ham hocks. The one before that: prawns poached in bacon fat and paired with pig’s feet.
Frustrated that I couldn’t get every drop, I looked to my right to see my dining companion, food writer Arielle Stevenson of Creative Loafing, licking a succulent glob of pork cheek from her very shiny, very pointy dinner knife.
It then occurred to me: I want to do that.
So I did.
Here we were, two alleged professional journalists in a very nice, expensive, dimly lit white-tablecloth restaurant, licking our utensils clean.
It looked so wrong.
It felt so right.
I was immediately transported back to my childhood, when I would sneak a lick of peanut butter off the knife while making a PB&J.
It felt like all those times when I would drag a finger through a bowl of cake batter that conveniently hadn’t poured all the way into the baking tin. Or the mornings when it was more convenient to chug from the orange juice carton than it would be to pour it politely into a glass.
It reminded me of the time I saw “Animal House” in college and then took to slurping mouthfuls of Jell-O Bluto-style at the campus cafeteria.
It was, in a word, fun. It made the already extraordinary food taste better.
There was only one direction to go from there.
When the dessert arrived at the table, I did the polite thing and used my fork and spoon to eat the blood custard with candied pork belly, chocolate chicharron and chocolate mole.
And then without regard to decorum or manners, I picked up the bowl shaped like a flying saucer and licked that thing clean to the white enamel. To Arielle’s credit, she soon followed suit.
Rudeness was not my goal. If anything, I saw dragging my face through the bowl as the highest compliment to the chef and his staff.
Word traveled fast. After dinner, I told Johnson about licking my way through what was left of dessert.
“Yeah, I heard,” he said.
Apparently I have a reputation. On a wall dedicated to identifying local food writers, SideBern’s keeps my photo there with a notation, “Takes no prisoners.”
But I have company.
A couple of nights later, I joined food writers Matt and Ted Lee, authors of “The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen,” for a late-night snack at The Refinery in Tampa. The nosh on the upstairs patio included a bowl of spicy boiled peanuts with lavender, miso, Japanese togarashi chili pepper and bean sprouts.
After the peanuts had been plucked, shelled and eaten, the Lees took turns picking up the bowl and sipping the broth. Matt suggested it could be used as a soup. The gesture was high praise, considering the Lees ship their own brand of peanuts from boiledpeanuts.com.
Again, it looked so wrong. But it was the right thing to do. Without question.
When did we get so full of ourselves and our own grandiose notions of What My Food Says About Me that we chucked away the fun that went along with eating delicious food? There was a time when describing something as “finger lickin’ good” and then actually licking your fingers clean was the blue collar equivalent to a four-star review.
Well, it’s time to go back in the other direction. Enough of decorum. It’s time to show real joy through inappropriate public behavior.
I’m starting The Plate Licker’s Club.
Our motto: Leave No Morsel Behind.
Want to join? Here’s your challenge:
Sometime soon, after you’ve had a particularly delicious bite to eat, have someone snap a photo of you licking your plate clean. Then email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll post the pics on Pinterest in a special gallery and induct you officially into the PLC.
If you can’t lick ’em, you can’t join ’em.