Eating Cake

Sensual eating

How should I put this? Mike was always a sensual eater. Why use utensils when you can feel the texture in your hands? I suppose it adds to the complete culinary experience… assuming you have someone to clean up after you.

Brief recap

For those of you reading my blog for the first time, I should explain. My older brother Mike is autistic, low functioning and nonverbal. We grew up in the 1950s. He was at home until I was about 10 years old and then was ‘cared for’ in a large institution on Staten Island, New York. After Willowbrook was closed for widespread abuse, he was eventually placed in a group home. I started a long term photography project to try figuring out my relationship with him at his 40th birthday party at one of New York’s Developmental Centers, before he went to the group home.

Birthday parities 

Mom always did something for Mike’s birthday. We would visit him and bring a cake and soda for him and the other residents. Everyone would gather in the dining room, we’d all sing Happy Birthday, and Mom would cut the cake. Mike usually had a staff member with him when he ate, and with the cake, it was all the more necessary. Inevitably, Mike would become overly enthusiastic and dig in with his hands.

Today’s study

Today’s watercolor sketch is a continuation of my series of studies of hand postures and gestures (When Mike was in HospitalHolding HandHands Full). The point of these sketches is to convey emotion by only showing hands in different positions. Just as facial expressions are universal (see Paul Ekman and the TV show, Lie to Me), some believe that gestures also surpass cultural boundaries.

The sketch below shows one hand reaching for something on a plate, while the other hand is either at rest or clenched somehow. The food on the plate is supposed to be cake.

Watercolor sketch of Mike eating cake with his hand

7″x10″ 140# Rough Watercolor Block


There is a good deal of ambiguity in the above sketch. The bits of cake could be popcorn. It is appropriate to eat popcorn with one’s hands, so there is no real tension in the content of this picture. If I had somehow made the food on the plate appear to be gooey or messy in texture, I could have emphasized that a hand in the plate was out of the norm. The left hand could either be clenched, or the hand of someone who has had parts of his or her fingers amputated.  Whereas the form of this hand is a true representation of the hand represented in the photograph, perhaps I should have brought a little more ‘artistic license’ to bear, in order to reduce this ambiguity. Adding a fork or a spoon on the table would also emphasize the inappropriateness of the hand in the plate.

As a sketch, and not a finished work, the above study serves the purpose of suggesting additions, subtractions or modifications that would help convey the message I wish to send: inappropriate use of the hands while eating. If I can convey this, hopefully an emotional response would follow.


5 thoughts on “Eating Cake

  1. Another gesture study which reminds me intensely of my own son Jack – thank you. I have battled for years to get Dylan to use cutlery. His preference is always for hands. As you say, it is a sensory experience. And I’m aware that conventions around eating are purely cultural; in the Indian sub-continent eating with hands is an important part of the process of digestion (a friend once explained to me that the manipulation of rice with the hands begins the break-down of carbohydrates – never checked this but it has stayed with me). Also, of course, it’s much more hygienic; it is easier and more effective to clean our hands after eating than to wash utensils! Well, Dylan uses his hands whenever he can get away with it 🙂


    • Yes, it seems that use of utensils is a foreign idea for both Dylan and Mike. Why bother with the middleman when the food is on the plate and the hands are the easiest means with which to form a relationship with it? I just now recalled how, when we picnicked at Willowbrook, we had to clean him up right away or the yellow jackets (like bees or wasps) would gather. He was never stung thank goodness.
      As usual, thank you so much for your comments.


  2. It is so hard to do hands. I really struggle with them and have a piece that is 100% done except that I have no hand model!


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