I Warned You Not to Touch That

Food For Thought – Smithsonian 8-24

by on Nov.30, 2009, under Essays

I’ve never been good at sending back food.  If it comes before me with no visible infestation of maggots, I really am fine with it.  I’m not even upset when the portions are microscopic.  To be honest, I’m more of a quantity guy but small, artfully displayed “meals” are so complex and sublime that I can’t turn them away.  In fact, if I suspect that I’ll be dining at Chez Starvation, I’ll make a point of eating before stepping inside. 

While dining out with friends recently, I had the misfortune of ordering the Chilean Sea Bass Maria.  I’m not sure who Maria is.  For all I know, she may be an innocent victim in this blasphemy.  Perhaps she has a licensing agreement to allow the use of her name, taste concerns notwithstanding.  Maria’s Bass was best suited to those whose diet required high dosages of salt, like deer.

One of my dinner mates asked, “How’s yours?”  I replied, “It’s okay” which is the polite way of saying, “It’s swill.”  Since they chose this obscenely expensive Italian restaurant, “okay” was far from good enough.  They pressed further, a note of alarm creeping into, “Is there something the matter with it?”  I said, “No, really it’s fine.”  Now everyone wanted to taste the disappointing fish.  For some reason, there’s an irresistible allure of food on other people’s plates, good or bad.  The server could be bringing a bucket of lard to the couple on the far side of the room and it would look better than anything already ordered.  After descending on my meager helping like vultures, the critics agreed unanimously, “It’s really salty.”  “That’s not right.”  Then the dreaded, “You should send it back.”

My primary reluctance to returning food is that I’m afraid some underpaid chef will season the replacement with his or her spit.  Like political scandals, a bad plate of food has a way of taking on a life of its own.  The masses wanted justice.  The bass was salty and needed sending back.  I could hear a coliseum of gastronomes chanting, “Send…It…Back.  Send…It…Back.”  Bowing to the groundswell of increased pressure and, despite the obvious risks, I returned my finless friend.

The waiter didn’t blanche at the request.  I asked if I could replace it with the day’s special, Lobster St. Pierre.  If there is a Saint Pierre, I’m not familiar with him.  Perhaps he knew Maria.  Maybe they had the same agent negotiating the naming rights to these dishes.  I tried to imagine saints dining out.  Did they go as a group or split up?  How would they dress?  What would they order?  I wondered if St. Pierre would’ve returned the bass. 

My dining companions and I were in the honeymoon phase of our acquaintance.  This stage of the relationship is a time to be spoon-fed tantalizing appetizers of what lays under the top shelf of someone’s personality.  Little snippets about your pending cure for world hunger or the feeling of re-entry after nine days in orbit.  Your last three spouses or finer points of prison cuisine should unfold more gradually.

Jackie went with her experience working as a state employee.  “I thought, when people were getting paid to do a job, they should work hard for the money.”  She chose to rant about this despite leaving her job five years earlier.  It turns out Jackie has a long memory.  She covered the time her parents walked in while she was having sex with her high school sweetheart twenty-five years earlier.  “They weren’t expected back from their trip until the following day.”  If that wasn’t enough, I learned about her brother’s license being revoked after too many DUI’s.  More wine please.

Just when it appeared things couldn’t get any worse, my Lobster St. Pierre arrived.  By now, everyone had finished their dinners and was looking expectantly at me for a “thumbs up” on my replacement meal.  It had ¼ pound of buttery lobster meat drizzled over angel hair pasta with a creamy saffron sauce and, I thought, a mild hint of spit.  It was delicious.

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