Sunday, October 18, 2009

On Eating

I’ve been to a lot of restaurants and done a fair amount of eating in my time. The first restaurant I ever ate in, I’m told, was Brigitte’s (we called it Brih-gee-tah’s—I have no idea if that was a weird Robinson thing or not) in Santa Barbara, California. We used to eat there frequently before it shut down/switched owners/whatever happened, and I remember, vaguely, nice chargrilled slices of chicken breast and avocado.

Since then, I’ve eaten in restaurants, both humble and fancy, all over the US, in Canada, France, Switzerland, Spain, England, Italy, Senegal, Morocco, Sierra Leone, and South Africa. Every country, and distinct geographical region, particularly in the case of the US, has its own way of eating and of serving.

A stereotypical diner waiter in New York City is very different from one in the South or in California (NYC: abrupt; South: calls you “Hon;” CA: may get involved in your conversation). American service is often DIY (“Please seat yourself”) and quick—the plates are cleared at the first sign of the food being finished, the check comes without prompting, water and wine glasses get filled once they are empty or look low. Some people may not like this approach, since one can feel rushed in and out of a meal, and you really don’t want to mess with serious and/or snobby wine people about pouring wine too quickly.

Moroccans will try to entice/pressure you into their restaurants, going up to you with a menu on the street. Sierra Leonean restaurants, as a general rule, do not have very friendly service—not a sign that populace isn’t nice so much as a symptom of servers getting paid far below a living wage (one woman I interviewed for a catering position made about $20 a month for her previous full-time waitress and cooking job in a restaurant) and not getting very good, if any, tips. French waiters are very solicitous in a hands-off sort of way, and you must assure them at the end of each course that it was very good (if you leave food on the plate you have to assure doubly hard). You don’t tip in Switzerland. Senegalese waiters go crazy when you try a little Wolof (it may take you a good ten minutes to get through an order if you start out in Wolof because you have to explain your entire life story and demonstrate what your language level is). I got a few free drinks in Italy.

South African service has, so far, been a bit spotty, or at least different from what I find comfortable (I prefer the US way, even if it is a bit rushed). South African waitrons, as they are called—it sounds like a robot waiter to me—are always anxious to warn you that you have to be out by such-and-such time, usually anywhere from one and a half to three hours later, because South Africans linger over their food. Waitrons tend to be overly attentive in a sometimes awkward way—the water doesn’t get filled or the bill brought without asking, but they’ll try to tie a bib on you (no joke) or explain the entire menu or SOPs of the restaurant to you. The upfront warning and the lack of bill bringing make sense—waitrons don’t want to seem as if they are rushing you or being rude. In the US, servers assume you know that they want to turn over the table and generally don’t mind kicking you out—all bow to the almighty profit (although, again, this rarely bothers me; after all, an establishment’s gotta make money, especially these days, and servers, who get paid below minimum wage in some states, get more tips if they have more tables). Anyway, the service in South Africa is something I still need to get used to.

Eating is just as different. Americans like to use their hands for some things, like pizzas, hamburgers, and burritos. A French person wouldn’t be caught dead using his or her hands—you have to eat a slice of pizza and even Freedom fries with a knife and a fork. French salad must not be cut up, even though it comes out to you with full, untorn leaves—you have to make a little packet using a knife and fork.

Senegalese and Sierra Leoneans (I would assume most Africans) eat with their right hand or a spoon—knives and forks are less common. One of my favorite things when eating with my host family in Senegal around a bowl was watching people help each other get a piece of meat off the bone. Since it is beyond rude to use your left hand (not a lot of money spent on the luxury of toilet paper) for eating, the person next to you has to hold the meat bone while you pull off a piece, and vice versa. It’s nice—collaborating while eating. Sometimes the cook or head of the household would distribute the meat by throwing a piece into the little hole you’re supposed to dig out of the rice in front of you. Every time you eat it, she throws another one in (which is great when you’re eating intestines—you can eat around it in your rice space for a while and therefore eat less of it overall). Even eating with hands is different. In India, I’ve been told, you are not supposed to get food in the center of your palm but rather use your fingertips. In Senegal and Sierra Leone, you make a food ball in your palm, a skill that I could never master and that usually ended in me as covered in rice as my two-year-old host cousin.

Eating on the street is generally not done outside of the US, at least in the places where I’ve been, though there is street food everywhere I’ve gone (from falafel to “bush meat”—ie, probably monkey or dik-dik if you’re lucky). Not eating on the street seems to make sense in the African countries where I’ve been, since you are expected to share food (it’s incredibly rude to not offer your food to other people, at least in Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Morocco—I don’t know the rules in SA yet) and it feels very callous and ignorant be munching a falafel wrap when an emaciated woman with legs bent from polio and carrying a child on her back asks you for food or money on the street. I’m not sure why it’s not OK in France, though I hear that since the smoking ban in restaurants and cafes and the advent of Starbucks, the French are loosening a bit.

It always amazes me that something so universal—the need to eat—varies so widely from country to country. When it comes down to it, it’s just shoving some fuel in your mouth to keep going. But it’s so much more than that to everyone on the planet—both to those lucky enough to get three squares a day and to those who consider themselves fortunate when they get a handful of rice provided by the UN’s World Food Program. Although there are some of us who live to eat, others who eat to live, and many in between, we all have very different opinions about how it’s done. One thing that’s universal, however: burgers and fries. The patty might have an egg perched on top, and the fries may come with mayo or vinegar, but they’re there.

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