Sunday, April 23, 2006


(I was going to leave something like this as a comment on Ben's blog, but then I decided it was more of a post than a comment.)

When you ask your fellow diners "What are you having?" are you merely curious, perhaps just making chitchat, or is there more to it? Positive Anymore tells us that in Chicago (where I type this morning; we are here for my grandmother-in-law's 90th birthday party) it is considered gauche if two people order the same thing. PA calls this a "strong cultural taboo." Are these Chicago people totally wackydoodles? E is from Chicago and she says taboo is too strong a word, but when I told her about PA's post she looked intrigued and didn't deny it. If it is true that Chicagoans avoid duplicating orders, then the waiter at the Chicago Chop House where my buddies and I ate last spring must have been able to tell we were tourists when all four of us ordered New York strips, medium rare. As I recall, the waiter seemed a bit disappointed that our order was so easy, but maybe there was a tinge in his response of disapproval or pity. Two might be bad, but four is beyond hope.

There are times when anyone might avoid duplicating orders. Let's say you're dining with people you don't know well who you're trying to impress. First person: "I'll have the grilled salmon." Second: "I would like the seared scallops." You're next to order. Let's say you were considering either the salmon, the scallops, or a sexy Alaskan halibut with buttermilk mashed potatoes. Aren't you now leaning toward the the halibut? It adds variety to the moment and it won't seem like you're just copying someone else. But if you are weighing salmon vs. halibut, embarrassment doesn't enter into it. It's more like, the first person filled the salmon niche so you're going to fill the halibut niche. You want to distinguish yourself from the others where possible and appropriate and you want to impress them with your originality and good taste. (That also might be a good reason to avoid ordering something unusual, you know, say, tiger penis soup.) Still, if your heart is set on salmon, you'll go for salmon.

There is a flipside, though. Sometimes there's a social advantage in having the same thing as someone. Two friends go out for lunch and the first orders a Cobb salad. The second pauses for a moment, thinking thinking thinking, then perks up and says, "I'll have the same." It's not as big a deal as friends getting matching tattoos, but that's the idea. Or you are in a restaurant famous for a particular dish, like the corned beef at Katz's deli. If you're from Chicago, do you choose pastrami if the first order at the table is corned beef? (Of course, Katz's is the site of the scene in the movie in which the punch line is "I'll have what she's having.") Do Chicagoans try to be the first to order so that no one will steal their choice? I haven't observed this in my Chicago experiences.

Maybe you've been wondering: do people in Chicago share their food? If there is a regional norm of sharing, then distributing orders makes sense. If I order salmon after you order it, neither of us gets to try the halibut. Yet I don't think people in Chicago share their food any more than people anyplace else. My preference is to try as many things as possible and to facilitate this I will gladly pass my plate across the table in exchange for yours. People like me are the minority, though. In Western style restaurants I have rarely seen people passing dishes around the table. Even in Chicago, I'm guessing the taboo of keeping your fork off of someone else's plate is stronger than the putative duplicating-orders taboo.

I like to plan ahead when I go out to eat. When I'm going to a restaurant for dinner, I might start thinking about what to have when I wake up in the morning. Now that menus are often available online, I sometimes mull my options days or weeks ahead, even if it's a restaurant I've never been to. I might ask E what she's having at two in the afternoon even though dinner's not till eight. (She never has an answer.) But I almost never make up my mind until the moment that I speak my order. When a fellow diner asks me what I'm having, I might say, "I'm thinking I might order x or y, but I'm also considering a, b, c, d, and e...and f, g, h, i, j, and k also sound good." And really, it is hard enough to narrow the menu down to only half of the options. I can deal with huge menus at places like Japanese restaurants that serve sushi in addition to fusion entrees, tempura, teriyaki, Korean barbecue, appetizers, etc., only by arbitrarily deciding not to consider certain pages at all, basically by pretending that some of my options don't exist. And then in the moment, when the server looks me in the eye, I try to cleanse my mind of all thoughts and speak directly from the depths of the unconscious.

This review in today's NYT sums things up pretty well:
"When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer," Michael Pollan writes in his thoughtful, engrossing new book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," "deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety."


Blogger zoe p. said...

Anxiety? That's putting it mildly. A bad choice on my part will lead me to cry in public. And I am addicted to anticipation . . .

Often I try to order ever so slightly "off center" from what I understand to be the restaurants strong suite . . . I try to identify, even at a new place, just from the menu, what they do well and then pick a dish that IS that, plus a little something particular that I enjoy, or a new ingredient or preparation that I think they'll do well.

And I always hope that my dish will be enticing enough to lure other diners into sharing theirs.

And I never order chicken.

12:14 PM  
Blogger Helen said...

Hi mzn,

Great story! My favorite way to order is to tell the chef that I want the tasting menu. It's a shame more restaurants don't do them. Otherwise, I keep worrying that I didn't order the right thing.

By the way, hope you don't mind, but I just tagged you for a Meme Around the World.
Maybe you did this already? In any case, if you feel like doing it (no
obligation of course), I really look forward to reading your answers


7:49 PM  
Blogger mzn said...

Thanks, Helen. I think you eat in nicer restaurants than I do. You know, I have heard that some people don't like tasting menus. I don't remember why, though, and they sound like a great idea to me. I really want to have the five-course dessert tasting menu at WD-50 in NYC. (I read all about it on The Girl Who Ate Everything.)

zp, I think my system is similar to yours, espcially where chicken is concerned. I like to cook chicken, though.

8:26 PM  
Blogger the chocolate doctor מרת שאקאלאד said...

mzn and zp, Why don't you order chicken? (I don't either, but probably not for the same reason)

11:57 AM  
Blogger mzn said...

I order chicken sometimes but in general I avoid it because most restaurants serve white meat and cook it badly. Chicken breasts are too easy to overcook. To begin with they have less flavor than other poultry and meat but when they're badly prepared chicken breasts are just inedible. It doesn't help that many places toss away their bones and skin, both of which help to keep the meat from drying out. Some exceptions: I will gladly eat fried chicken and chicken gumbo and I could really go for some of those Buffalo wings.

zp, are these your reasons too or are there others?

1:06 PM  
Blogger zoe p. said...

yeah, no, that covers it, i think. chicken rarely tastes like anything at a restaurant.

wait, i lie. the new isreali place has chicken kabob that tastes like spiedis . . . how i managed to order chicken at the right place at the right time i don't know.

must be my sixth sense - "eating/reading," the menu sense.

8:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When we were traveling in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico a couple of years ago, we ordered nothing but chicken because it was sooooo different than the chicken you get here. It actually tasted like chicken, which shouldn't mean like nothing! I've since had the same experience here with really fresh or good quality organic chicken, but almost always cooked at home rather than in a restaurant.

9:14 AM  

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