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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Finger Lickin’ (No) Good

September 21, 2015

My brother and I were sitting in a diner having breakfast. During a lull in the conversation I heard a loud smacking noise that I didn’t quite recognize. Two tables away was a man sitting alone, finishing a syrupy sausage patty, and sucking on his fingers.

That’s “suck” not “lick.” You can call it what you want, but this guy wasn’t licking his fingers, he was down-past-the-second-knuckle-smacking-and-slurping-and-sucking on his fingers.

I don’t know what the etiquette books say about licking fingers, and I’m not a prude— especially in a casual diner— but there is something extremely gross about the “licking” of one’s fingers with leftover food and sauce on them.

I am not sure when this became the norm in our society, maybe it was in the 1960s and 1970s when Kentucky Fried Chicken featured a decade-long advertising campaign that touted it’s chicken as “Finger lickin’ good.”

I would imagine the idea for that campaign came during a Madison Avenue advertising meeting where a bunch of Northeastern suits— strangers to southern cuisine— were eating their client’s fried chicken and wondered how the were going to get customers in regions outside of the Deep South to get past the greasiness inherent in fried chicken.

“Bob, I’ve never eaten chicken that has been deep fried before, but this stuff is a little greasy. How are we going to sell this to people on the West Coast and in the Northeast?”

“Let’s just turn it into a positive, Ed. Let’s say that our chicken is ‘finger lickin’ good’ and they’ll think we want it to be this way.”

“Bob, you’re brilliant. But what do we do when the entire country starts licking their fingers inside of restaurants?”

“Cash the check.”

I have a deep-down aversion to finger licking whether one is eating or not. The older I get the more of a germophobic I become. Seriously, I’m kind of freaky about doorknobs and stuff these days. I understand that I’m probably more worried about that kind of stuff than most people, but that doesn’t make finger licking any less palatable to me.

A few years ago I was at a very formal party in the Garden District of New Orleans. My wife and I were in a conversation with a very well-known woman in New Orleans social and business circles. I don’t remember what she was eating while she was talking to us, but it didn’t matter because what it looked like she was eating was her fingers, as they spent more time in her mouth than whatever hors d’ oeuvre she was consuming. She never stopped talking the entire time. She ate, licked several fingers, spoke, ate, licked, ate, licked, spoke, until I finally just walked away.

The problem is that she was using her previously licked fingers to go back in the bowl and pick the next bit of food she was going to eat. THAT is one of the main things that gets me on finger licking. It’s not much different than people who sneeze into their hands. Who was it who thought this was a good idea? Does any parent teach sneezing into hands? No one really carries handkerchiefs anymore (though I do), I get that. But if you can’t grab a tissue or a napkin— and you have to sneeze— then walk away and sneeze into the crook of your elbow or your shoulder, not your hand. Then go wash your hands anyway.

I have seen countless people sneeze into their hands and then shake someone’s hands minutes later. Gross right? I know. To me, there’s no difference between that and licking one’s fingers and doing the same thing if there isn’t a sink and some anti-bacterial soap in the mix.

Question of the day: Is there ever a social situation where its OK to lick one’s fingers?

I say, “No.” Even at a barbeque joint, I load up on napkins or paper towels. I want to taste the ribs and the sauce. My fingers are never a part of the meal.

BBQ Ribs

3 full racks of pork ribs-3-4 pounds each (3-inch/down)

2 cup white vinegar

1/2 cup Paprika

1/4 cup Garlic Powder

2 Tbl Onion Powder

1 Tbl fresh ground black pepper

2 Tbl kosher salt

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/3 cup sugar

1 Tbl Creole Seasoning

1 prepared recipe of Barbecue Sauce


Place the ribs in a large roasting pan or baking dish and pour the vinegar over the ribs. Using your hand, rub all of the ribs with the vinegar and allow them to marinate for 1 hour. Drain the vinegar and dry each rack completely with paper towels.

Combine the spice mixture and coat the ribs completely. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Prepare the grill. Cook the ribs over indirect low heat for 2 1/2-3 hours or until they begin to pull away from the tips of the bones and the entire rack bends easily when held in the middle with a pair of tongs.

Yield: 6-8 servings


BBQ Sauce

2 Tbl Bacon Fat

2 Tbl dehydrated onion

2 tsp fresh garlic, minced

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup molasses

2 cups chicken stock

1 quart ketchup

1 1/2 Tbl black pepper, freshly ground

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

2 Tbl dry mustard

2 Tbl Lemon Juice

1/4 cup Worcestershire Sauce

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup cider vinegar

Preheat oven to 300.

In a 3-quart Dutch oven, heat the bacon fat over low heat. Add the dehydrated onion and garlic and cook for 3-4 minutes. Stir in the remaining ingredients and place the sauce in the oven. Bake for 2 hours, stirring every 15 minutes.

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