Food is a sensual experience — if you eat sensually experienced food. I don’t. I eat a lot of fast food, which does not get its name from any of the five senses. Fast food is less an experience than a process. The successful experience of fast food is built on continuity — this sandwich tastes the same as the sandwich I ordered the last time. Whenever I go to any of my favorite restaurants, I order the thing that I like at that restaurant. If I wanted something else, I would go to a different restaurant. When I go to a Japanese restaurant, I order chicken teriyaki (with shrimp if they have it). When I go to a burger joint, I order the bacon cheeseburger. I always get chicken and broccoli at a Chinese restaurant, the Chicken Planks at Long John Silver’s, original recipe at KFC, a baked potato with cheese at Wendy’s, and so on.
I am not in a rut. Stop saying that. I just know what I like. I have been eating for over half a century, on and off. They say that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. If you assume one hour a day spent actually eating on average, I have approximately 18,000 hours of practice, which means I have been a master of eating for 24 years.
As a result, in certain establishments I am well-known for my preferences, to the point that sometimes I have lost the ability to order food. Last night, I went to dinner with a friend at my favorite Japanese restaurant. The two guys who run the place have taken my order a hundred times each, to the point that each of us has the other’s lines memorized.
Him: Chicken and shrimp.
Me: Nine dollars and 46 cents.
Since yesterday was a Friday during Lent, and I’m Catholic, I don’t eat meat. So as we walked in the door, the owner looked up at me, smiled, and started to ring up my order. I had to actually say to him, “Hang on, I’m changing my order! Leave off the chicken!” My friend was amused by this. When we got to the counter, I paid for my chickenless shrimp, and it was his turn to order. As he perused the menu, he asked me, “What did you get?” and showed me the menu. I suddenly realized that I had no idea what my meal was actually called. I couldn’t find it on the menu.
I often have the same experience at my local Starbucks. My drink of choice is a venti decaf raspberry mocha. Sometimes I get peppermint instead of raspberry, but usually only around Christmas. (Peppermint is very Christmas-y. The Magi brought Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and mint. Or something like that.) So when I come in, if there’s no line, the young baristas (baristi? baristinas? baristerati?) shout my order to me and start making it, while the person at the counter (countera?) starts ringing up the drink. Unfortunately, if everyone working that day is new, sometimes I forget how to order.
At my favorite Chinese restaurant, I have become so predictable that I no longer even have to walk up to the counter to order. As soon as the person at the register sees me, they call out “Chicken and broccoli!” and I respond with “I’ll be back.” (I walk up to the grocery store and get something to drink.) Sometimes, usually if someone else is ordering, they’ll just yell “5 or 10 minutes!” and I nod and leave. I don’t take this for granted. I’m always willing to stand in line and order like a normal person (assuming I remember what my order is called — I’ve been corrected before when I accidentally ordered chicken and shrimp). The game for me is to see how few steps into the store I have to take before the ordering process is complete. My record is getting the door open without stepping inside. My ultimate goal is to walk in and find my order already done. (Disclaimer: I never call ahead. Why would I? It doesn’t save any time.)
Now, while my ordering process is the height of efficiency, some of the people in the food industry are in a rut. Today I went into Jersey Mike’s for lunch. (Jersey Mike’s is basically a Subway with better sandwiches and no irritating “Five Dollar Footlong” jingle.) Since the sandwiches are made to order, you have to give them the itemized list of condiments. I have mine memorized, and I always give them in the same order (because I’ve got them memorized). Today, I got as far as “Mayo, bacon… <pause for effect>”, before the sandwich maker (Disclaimer: Jersey’ Mikes doesn’t have “sandwich artists” — neither does Subway — sandwiches are food, not art) reaches over and puts a handful of lettuce on my sandwich. Now, lettuce is not on my list of condiments, so I just looked at him. You see, bacon is a combination of protein, fat, and salt (in reverse order). Lettuce is a leaf. (Disclaimer: Lettuce is the opposite of bacon. In the Mirror Universe, people order lettuce and eggs for breakfast, which is brought to them by a waitress with a goatee.) However, lettuce is the first thing you add to a sub at Jersey Mike’s when you’re on autopilot.
I’ve run into this before. One time I went to Burger King (Burger King is like McDonald’s, only without the irritating “Ba-da-ba-ba-ba” jingle) and ordered a drink with no ice. However, that day the ice machine at Burger King was broken, and the girl had repeated so many times, “Sorry, we’re out of ice” that she looked up at me and said, “I’m sorry, sir, we’re out of no ice.” (Disclaimer: this girl was not called a “burger artist”, because there is no such thing.)
On another occasion, I was at a different Burger King, and I was in a hurry, so I went through the drive-thru. Now there is a dance that one must engage in when ordering: you either order a combo, or you must individually deny all of the elements of the combo. I was in a hurry, so I attempted to shortcut around this little tango, by announcing, “I want just a cheeseburger, and nothing else.”
I was only partially successful. I had managed to subvert the process of upselling the combo with my bold declaration. However, I had neglected to consider the endgame gambit. When taking drive-thru orders, the auto-pilot process is to echo the order back to the customer and ask if there will be anything else. So the young man (Disclaimer: he was not a drive-thru artist, because there is no such thing) delivered his lines in a clear, crisp voice.
“Yes, sir, just a cheeseburger and nothing else. Will there be anything else?”
I ordered a small Diet Coke. With no ice. Fortunately, they had plenty of fresh no ice on hand.