Yes, I Went Out to Eat Tonight

Why is it one of the most predictable exchanges or conversations when dining in a restaurant goes something like this:

Diner 1: How’s your fish?

Diner 2: Not bad. A little dry.

Any food item and judgement thereof can be substituted, and the effect is the same: we ask about the quality of the food our companions are eating as if we’ve had anything to do with its preparation. As if we are somehow invested in how it has turned out, and our fellow diner’s relative enjoyment of it. (We might be monetarily, but the question of how the food is bespeaks a more producer-ist underlying concern on the part of the asker. And this is why such conversations struck me as odd.)

To contrast, rarely is such an honest review of a meal given in someone’s home, where the host or a family member has prepared it. It would be rude to say that your friend’s fish were dry. But somehow, in a restaurant, where presumably the cook cannot hear (although the wait staff certainly might) it is perfectly acceptable to be blunt. The spatial separation is key, here, in avoiding the rudeness label for such an exchange. That and the fact that the cook in a restaurant is a stranger with whom diners have no social relationship, while the cook in a home is.

Discussing food quality and the enjoyment of a meal with honesty is only acceptable in certain contexts. Contexts in which there is spatial and social separation between the cooker and the eater. So, basically, you can be honest about how well or little you like your food in the public sphere. In the private sphere, being honest (unless it’s positive honesty) is a faux pas; a snub at the edible gift.

It should be pointed about that dishonesty usually occurs in restaurants when the asker is the payer and the answerer is the receiver of the gift of the dinner. In this case, the asker of the “how’s your meal?” question is seen as having a vested interest in–and of having contributed to–the quality of the eater’s experience. To speak ill of the food that someone else has paid to put in your mouth would be to metonymically insult them via their gift. (But in most casual restaurant contexts, this does not apply. Diners feel free to speak ill of the food regardless of who’s fronting the money for it.)

All this is to say: how weird is it that we do not think about the feelings of the nameless cook in a restaurant as we bash their work and what they have made, but lie our asses off about the food a friend or relative or host has prepared? Upon deconstruction, it kind of makes sense, but it’s still odd. (And I really hope our waitress didn’t tell the cooks that I said their soup was salty and the cheese-bread smelled like chlorine.)

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