by Christopher Bachler
I am very unusual. I don’t like to eat out. In fact, I prefer to dine alone. This makes me a curiosity to most people, who relish the formal dining experience.
To me, eating is a purely biological function; I eat because I am hungry, and for no other reason. I see nothing socially appealing about dining with others. The last thing I want while eating is to listen to someone’s mindless chatter, or to be pelted with flying morsels of partially-chewed food. No less nauseating is the sight and sound of people talking while they chew. If eating and talking were meant to be done simultaneously, we would have been given two mouths!
In short, I no more wish to share a meal than to share a Kleenex.
At the same time, I can’t understand why so many people enjoy dining out. Consider, for instance, the time and money saved by eating at home. Can any restaurant feed you for less than you can feed yourself? Some people say, “Never mind the cost! It saves me time in the kitchen.” But in the age of microwaves, how much time is required in the kitchen? Conversely, how much time is wasted in dressing up, driving to and from a restaurant, waiting for service and more? Evidently, time is something people hate to spare, but love to waste.
Many people say they like the feeling of being waited on. These aristocrats must get better service than I’ve gotten. My experience typically includes: mixed-up orders, unintelligible menus, long waits, waiters who constantly ask if all is well. (It would be if they would stop asking. When things aren’t well, they’re nowhere to be found.) Dirty silverware; you get a fork that looks like something Fagin used to pick his nose. You ask the waiter for a replacement, and you get one that looks suspiciously like the original. Raise an objection, and you are assured that those goobies are “only water spots!”
This last point brings me to sanitation—always my main concern. I like to know who has handled my food and in what manner. Along with the legions of horror stories I’ve heard about certain food handlers, I also have sufficient knowledge of human nature to know that not all animals go about on four legs. Should I be reassured by the restroom signs that remind employees to wash their hands? Restaurant aficionados evidently have great faith in humanity!
Ingredients are another “beef.” Would it be spices that leave that evil aftertaste in my mouth for days and give dinner companions Komodo dragon breath? Must spices go into every dish? Does everyone really like that stuff? Or are they used to conceal some more abhorrent taste?
Given the devastating effect that restaurant food has on the breath, I am amazed that wining and dining has such universal appeal for lovers. Is love so mighty that it can overcome fetid breath? Or is there something more psychologically fundamental about this tradition?
The ritual of group dining probably dates back to times when food was very scarce. Whenever one person found something edible, everyone within sniffing range piled on to get their share of the spoils. Nothing brings a family together like a nice food fight!
As creatures of habit, people become habituated to old customs, no matter how senseless they might be. The late B. F. Skinner proved how easily people can be conditioned by experimenting with pigeons. Humans never knew this until the pigeons proved it.
Lovers clearly apply this ancient tradition towards their own ends. A clever woman can determine how free and easy the man is with his money. If she considers him a prospective husband, she will discover his taste in food; that is, if she believes the old canard about the stomach being the path to a man’s heart. If she doesn’t like her date, she can load up on the spicy stuff and keep his lips at a safe distance for the rest of the evening.
For the man’s part, the dinner is a way to appeal to the female’s subliminal desire to be supported and indulged. Soft music, candlelight and elegant pretence poorly veil the dominant pull of animal urges, centered in the gut.
I have dined with many a date — in the distant past — and never without regret. I am the basic meat-and-potatoes type. I like nothing that is difficult to pronounce or digest. So when I can make no sense of a menu and ask the waiter for chicken and corn, he looks as though I had asked for a shrunken head, and the little lady appears mortified to be in company of a culinary ignoramus. As if to compensate for my faux pas, she will order something unintelligible to me but which elicits an approving smile and nod from the waiter, indicating that the order will be expensive.
At times, the lady might badger me into getting something I’ve never heard of; all the while assuring me that I will love it and that it won’t offend my sensitive gut. When the touted dish arrives, it invariably looks like a blob of alien ectoplasm to me. But the impressed woman will bracket her face in both hands — as astonished women will do — and repeatedly sing such praises as: “Oooh! Ahhh! Oooohhh! Aaahhh!”
Whatever the damned dish is supposed to be — which is known only to God and the cunning chef — it unfailingly costs me a bundle, and leaves me gassy all night! But of course, it looks good to my dinner date and establishes my taste for elegance, and my respect for an idiotic custom.
Now what else should matter?