“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” – Anthelme Brillat Savarin
At a group dinner at a bright cafeteria style restaurant in Santa Fe, nearly half of us ended up ordering fish tacos from the diverse menu. A late arrival, surveying our plates, wondered if someone had told us that the fish tacos were good.
“No,” I said. “We ordered them independently.” In my case, it was one of the few non-meat, high protein items and the portion just right. I don’t know why others made the same choice.
“So you all took a chance,” she said.
The comment struck me as fear-based, since ordering fish tacos seemed as risky as brushing my teeth. It was unlikely that the kitchen at this popular venue served sketchy food. With flash freezing and modern transportation, eating seafood in landlocked areas doesn’t concern me. If I had taken a chance, it was going with a larger group to a restaurant I knew little about, something this introvert tends not to do. I much prefer dining with one other person or by myself.
I let the moment pass, but several days later I overheard an older Jewish gentleman at a farmer’s market as he sampled a piece of bread. He chewed and swallowed it and then, as if wanting reassurance and trusting neither his own experience nor the vendor’s integrity, asked the woman selling the baked goods if she ate, and liked, that particular bread. She said yes. He tasted another piece, “Just to be sure.” Still, he hesitated, appearing to be in agony over the decision.
I understand the desire to not spend money on inferior products, but I wondered what was operating in the background of these two events, where the level of concern seemed disproportionate to the amount of money in question. Fear of making a mistake? Fear of disappointment? And what is it that we’re wanting when we purchase prepared food, anyway? Solid nutrition, immediate calories and energy, emotional comfort, sensual pleasure, or culinary adventure? Maybe a few of these simultaneously? Often, the context determines how much I enjoy certain foods. Atop a steep mountain, a peanut butter sandwich is heavenly, but indoors it has less of an appeal.
A friend I visited during my road trip introduced me to a Thai restaurant where she swore by a particular dish from their takeout menu but hadn’t sampled others. I chose something that I rarely see on most menus, a fried whole tilapia. Crispy, savory, and messy, it demands patient deboning. After sampling my dish, my friend commented that she might now try other entrees at this restaurant. I was glad to have inadvertently encouraged her to expand her repertoire, but it occurred to me that fried whole tilapia, while exotic for some, is one of my comfort foods. When I visit family on the East Coast, my mother and I often order it when we return to a local Thai eatery. While both of us have adventurous palates, that doesn’t have to translate into always trying either a new restaurant or a different dish. There are times when a reliable repast, like a familiar ritual, can anchor a person in relation with others, whereas disappointing food might subtly contribute to distraction and disconnection.
Perhaps I’d modify the above quote to say, “Tell my why you eat (that dish) and I will tell you who you are (in this moment).”
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