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My friend Minerva is fed up with her cousins. To put it more precisely, she’s fed up with the way they feed each other.

The cousins (let’s call them Calvin and Blanche, since, having actual names of their own, they truly do exist) have been married forever — at least 40 years. All that time, it appears, they’ve been eating off each other’s plates, both at home and in public. I, for one, have actually seen them do it — ¬†at Minerva’s house, at their own house, and at fine restaurants in major cities, all across our fair nation.

There appears to be an unspoken agreement between the two of them. Blanche takes a few bites from her entree and then slides her plate across to Calvin. Forthwith, Calvin takes a forkful of Blanche’s poached salmon and shifts the plate back toward her. Being more adventurous of spirit, she then stretches across the table and dips into Calvin’s boeuf bourguignon, holding her napkin under her soup spoon, so as not to dribble on the linen. Then they look at each other and say either “Mmmm…” or “Mmmm?”

In short order, and after a swift swallow of wine, they return to their own dishes. Until the dessert course arrives, nothing else is shared across the course of the evening, except polite conversation.

It drives Minerva crazy. (“Why can’t they just eat their own food?!!?” she’s been known to screech in the cab riding home from a restaurant.) And it would drive me crazy, too, if this weren’t such a ritual for Calvin and Blanche, a rudeness they’ve fine-tuned down to the point of high art. They handle it subtly, and rather elegantly, to tell the truth. Hardly anybody notices, except perhaps for probing eyes who have very little to pay attention at their own tables.

What would drive me crazy, however, would be if Calvin and Blanche — on a first date, or four decades into their marriage — were heard asking each other, “What does that taste like?” “May I have a bite of that?” or, worst of all, “You’re not going to eat all of that, are you?”

Such questions suggest a hunger that cannot be healed by the size of any portion on any plate. They also bespeak disturbing lacks of self-confidence, self-reliance and self-discipline.

In such cases, the fellow diner is perfectly correct in asking — even if it’s something he’s been asking for the past 40 years — “Would you like to order something else?”

The answer, almost inevitably, will be, “No. Of course not. I’m loving my poached tripe on cheese grits. I’m sure the second bite will be wonderful.”

To which the well-thought-out response will be, “Waiter! May we take another look at the menu?”

Even amongst the closest of friends, the trading of tidbits is a questionable practice. Who will know, at the end of the meal, how to divvy up the tab? Who will have been keeping track of the spoonfuls of boeuf bourguignon? Who will be counting the shrimp in the scampi?

Friendships have been parted over smaller things. Reputations have been ruined by considerably less.

— John/

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