As a nation, we have become increasingly more affluent and better educated. For most of us, eating out has gone from the odd special occasion to a regular part of our daily lives. If you add lunch counters, fast food enterprises and formula eateries to the limitless variety of ethnic, product specific, and upscale general American restaurants, more people are eating food prepared for them than they are cooking for themselves. There is some irony in this as we are, on the one hand, the most nutrition-conscious nation on earth, with the largest number of obese citizens. In addition, kitchens represent both the focal point in our homes and the largest part of their cost.
Restaurant menus have evolved over the last 50 years from fairly straight forward declarations of content – “bacon and eggs – meatloaf and corn – sirloin steak – corn beef and cabbage” – to almost poetic tone poems – “omelette Bordeaux la viands – prime rib hash aux poivre – rack of lamb forestiere – Louisiana baby back ribs Baton Rouge – New England boiled dinner Appalachian style – chopped steak Florentine.” In addition to the almost romantic lilt to the entrée’s name, most good restaurants go on to explain the method of preparation (char-grilled – flame broiled – sautéed – poached – marinated) and a litany of herbs and spices which now accompany, mask or enhance the once predictable flavor of lamb, beef, chicken or fish.
In addition, it is rare when the waiter or waitress doesn’t take the time to explain in great detail the integrity of the consommé, the origin of the onions and cheese in the onion soup, and the ingredients which transform their special chicken potpie into a gourmet experience worthy of a $27.95 price.
Never has the public received more information about the food they are eating. We know beforehand that our filet mignon “du chef”, began as an Angus steer, raised in South Dakota on corn, free of steroids and antibiotics, butchered humanely, char-grilled in a fine burgundy with shallots, Vidalia onions, garlic, fennel and rosemary. In the face of this information overload, how can one explain the nearly obligatory interrogation many feel compelled to administer to the server before actually ordering a meal?
I have observed with growing frustration my closest friends’ complete inability to accept on face value something as crystal clear as linguini with white clam sauce. They need to know the thickness of the linguini, whether it will really be served al dente, how much garlic, the consistency of the Romano cheese, the number and size of the clams and spice content. If the soup is minestrone, a full disclosure of thickness and cup size is required. It is not sufficient to only know all of the ingredients in the house vinaigrette, but a detailed analysis of the mixed green salad as well.
Perhaps this need to X-ray our meals in advance stems from some latent insecurity we feel about paying lots for someone else’s definition of good taste, or the need to prove we are not intimidated by, or unfamiliar with, the restaurateur’s marketing message or head chef’s culinary skills.
We are lamb aficionados preparing chops, shanks and roast on a regular basis, but have never considered even trying to prepare an herb-encrusted rack forestiere. Perhaps, because it doesn’t seem like something real people do at home, or because for most it totally obliterates the wonderful taste of lamb.
Another point of view says that the food industry has chosen to give more information than we need and that our natural curiosity when piqued wants even more. My suspicion, however, is that as the public has become accustomed to being offered braised perch filets Cajun style, with Tyrolean tartar sauce, the sellers of plain old perch have been put on the defensive. Sufficient reasons must be found by the restaurant to charge enough to cover the high cost of their facilities and staff and with the ferocious competition which exists almost everywhere for the diner’s dollar, few are confident enough to offer the ordinary in an ordinary fashion.
As a result it is certain that ordering a restaurant dinner will continue to be a long and involved process that no doubt frustrates the average waiter by forcing him to actually know more about the food he serves or appear to, and a few who believe all the conversation is an exercise in futility. What’ll you have? is clearly a loaded question for which there is rarely an easy answer.