When I was a kid, one didn’t ‘eat out’ as a rule, except to occasionally visit a ‘dining room’ on Sundays after church where a waitress named DeeDee or Trixie wearing a white uniform with an exploding handkerchief in the blouse pocket would bring you one of the specials. Since the main reason for this exercise was to free up Mom from the labors of food preparation once a month, the whole affair was straightforward and workaday, and the amusement for adults involved seeing some of their acquaintances among the townspeople out doing the same thing. For the kids, it was getting butter in individually wrapped pats.
Now that we collectively spend nearly as much being served our food as we do in buying it, how we eat out says something about the reigning assumptions of a place and the way we handle the emblematic act of consuming. I just spent a week on the road and so had multiple opportunities to experience the way Americans are expected to eat in public and to compare them with the rituals and habits of my jaded fellow New Yorkers.
Needless to say, it ain’t a pretty sight given that bipeds are involved. I include myself in that sentence since despite my best attempts at cultural sensitivity, I did not always contain my annoyance at the chirpy intrusiveness that marked the relationship between me and the local versions of Candace and Dotty, who consistently assumed that I had come to restaurant not to satisfy my hunger or to have a business meeting but to spend time with them.
These youthful waiters are now trained regularly to interrupt whatever their customers are doing to see if they are delighted with the dishes laid before them. No amount of monosyllabic replies, eye contact refusal, or stubborn continuation of the conversation will dissuade the confidant servers from another offer of freshly ground pepper or inquiries about iced tea refills. The idea that one might prefer to be left alone would come as a shock to them, as I can attest from having suggested it.
And woe is he who puts down his fork! One must stand ready to defend one’s plate like Leonidas on the bridge at Thermopylae lest the wait staff, in their misguided notion of efficiency, whip it away to get the diner into the next phase, no matter what the rest of the table is doing.
The overall impression—and an apt symbol, I believe, for how consumption of all varieites has been organized in our culture—is that the situation is tightly controlled by the seller, with the purchaser bundled neatly into a narrow range of apparent, but not real, choices. To put it another way, it is as though the waiter is the customer and we the beneficiaries of his or her performance, for which we should gladly accede to the established rules and then pay handsomely.
Only a culture in which the human interchange that uniquely occurs over the breaking of bread has been debased and nearly forgotten could reify so consistently and completely the mechanics of obtaining a public meal to the exclusion of the role of people in it. Like the state-run economies of the disappeared Soviet bloc, the consumers are unimportant as individuals, expected partiently to queue for whatever products are provided, to carry them home and gives thanks to the people’s republic. We are at their service and in exchange, allowed to live another day.
At my last meal out, even the musicians providing background music thought it appropriate to chastize the diners sarcastically for not applauding them with sufficient energy. After all, who did we think we were, sitting there eating while they created Art? I wanted to explain that I didn’t dare put down my fork.