Saturday, July 21, 2007

dining out

When I was a kid, my brother and I would occasionally play a game that involved us alternately assuming the roles of waiter and dining customer. I don’t recall if we had a name for this game, but it was surely a variation on a theme played out by countless generations of children the world over: Servant and Master.

As the youngest child, I suppose I was sensitive to exploitation, since I was naturally exploited by my siblings (much to the same extent that any group of humans—children and adults alike—express their innate tendency to create hierarchy). And perhaps my brother was indeed keen for an excuse to have me at his beck and call in a structure sanctioned by us both; but we did switch roles and each had a turn to enjoy the ministrations of the other, so I was never unhappy to play.

In addition to the preparation and serving of food, the waiter’s role included drawing up a menu for his customer. If memory serves, the result was only as elaborate as a folded piece of white paper with a penciled bill of fare, but it was enough to convey that feeling of privilege—perhaps of entitlement—that adult diners takes for granted, but which made us giddy as children. Menu selections were always a la carte, and I don’t recall a menu that did not have that quintessential American childhood classic: the peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. (Our culinary expertise and kitchen permissions were limited.)

This memory was summoned up from its sleepy mental hammock by the likeness I have lately found it shares with my present-day dining experiences. Overall, the menu selection has certainly improved, but the essential nature of the experience hasn’t really changed. In fact, I find that the reconnection with this dusty memory has clarified my present thinking about dining out. And it’s this: when we dine out, we’re all still just playing at the waiter/diner game. There is a thin facade of convention draped over the experience like a crisp, white, well-starched tablecloth covering an otherwise worn and unremarkable table. But it's still visible.

It’s all just a game.

The stakes now are money balanced against the diner’s desire, not only for good food, but for a shot at that childhood giddiness that comes with playing the role of master. The rules binding our adult selves to the respective roles of server and served are perhaps a bit more rigid; but not by much, and that difference is merely ingrained convention rather than any great immutable law: it’s just force of habit. When I am in the frame of mind to notice the habit, to see through the thin veil of this comedy we play whenever we patronize a restaurant, I am each time amused by the experience and am likely to recall my brother and I taking turns to amuse each other in our gentle and mutual exploitation.


At 7/21/2007 2:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

" brother and I taking turns to amuse each other in our gentle and mutual exploitation."

Mmmm, de-LISH-ous!

(yeah, I'm a bad, bad person -- like no one else thinks this way!)

I think waiters (and 'tresses) do also serve a practical purpose. The kichen staff needs to know what you wanna eat.

Tho I suppose one could just barge through the swinging door into the kitchen.

Customer: (over the hiss and clatter of food prep) "Yo Vinnie! Gimmie da special! No onions! I'm gassy today!"

Cook: "Yeah, alright already. Come pick it up in ten!"

It could work.


At 7/21/2007 8:46 PM, Blogger Algernon said...

I believe the gender-neutral term for waitstaff is "waitron".

At 7/22/2007 9:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Waitron" sounds not just gender-neutral, but also species-neutral. Perhaps even biology-neutral.

"Run for it George, the waitrons have blown their silicon! They're chasing the customers with cleavers and pies!"


At 7/23/2007 6:54 AM, Blogger Ernest said...

a test of login

At 7/23/2007 7:06 AM, Blogger Ernest said...

Okay, I think I've got this login thing figured out.


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