23 April 2006

You Are What You Eat

Shortly after those economists diss your latte habit, they demand you get in touch with your inner Julia Child to avoid the financial pitfalls of eating out. From take out to gourmet, restaurant patronage is bad for both your wallet and your waistline.

But is it good for your life?

I enjoy eating out. Restaurants are a topic of conversation with both my grandparents and my friends here. Have you tried that new place in Allentown? What about looking for something new on Hertel? Ooh, I read a review of that one. Let’s check it out.

When I was little, I remember it being a huge treat when Grandma and Grandpa took my brother and I to A&W Root Beer for cheeseburgers and a float. Being a “country kid,” we weren’t raised on the drive-thru since the nearest drive-thru was a 30 minute drive away, so restaurants were something special, an event for Saturday night.

In a way, my restaurant outings are still “special” even if they do happen more frequently. I’m pretty sure that my friendship with Erica was cemented over a shared dessert at Le Metro. Little did she know then how often she’d have to listen to me blather on at our regular dinner outings. Those meals together are amongst the most important things I do here in Buffalo. It may just be another round of chicken enchiladas, but I’d have to say that that’s where life is processed, rehashed and if need be, redirected. When I broke up with my ex, I had a hard time eating. Erica took me to at least three restaurants in one night, trying to find a place where I could find something to eat that wouldn’t make me yak. Now that’s friendship… especially considering that the magic stay-in-my-tummy potion was a milkshake from the dirty Denny’s.

Perhaps it’s just because I’m writing about food and consumption in the current dissertation chapter, but this week I really noticed my major food expenditures. Actually, almost all my expenditures were for food, be that groceries, beverages or restaurant meals. Wednesday it was my turn to treat for lunch with my former boss. She picks up the tab nearly every time so I try to make it appear fair by chipping in every now and then. Last night I joined friends in celebrating a completed dissertation and a return home to Hong Kong. There’s part of me that’s feeling the guilt of spending so much money on a single meal. $36 for dinner? Even if it does include wine, dessert and leftovers… that’s a chunk of change when you have to write it down for all to see.

But what all those economists tell you is that restaurants are a rip-off because you pay for ambience, for overhead, for convenience. You pay for the privilege of sitting there and telling someone else what you want while you focus on your companions. And just like the lattes, that’s something I’m willing to pay for. I enjoy the process of deciding where to go, reviewing the menu, giving the D. family rating at the end. (If only more places earned better than the “fair” evaluation...) I’ve tried to practice restraint and give up on eating out. I try to still avoid the drive-thru even if it is just around the block now. But I’m not so sure if it would be a good idea for me to give up my restaurant habit entirely.

In my research I write that food isn’t about sustaining the body. It’s an act, a ritual that determines the community. Sunday meals at NicNac with the grease and the roaches and the bizarre combination of sausage gravy and biscuits with a vanilla milkshake are a fundamental part of my identity. Perhaps not a part I should brag about, but still, those experiences were what my life was while I was growing up. Now, the restaurants have changed and I’m picking up the tab, but I’m still formulating my life around my food consumption. My life is determined or perhaps created by the action of consumption, both actual nutrients ingested and consumption of other people’s service. Now if restaurant economics are fair or not is probably another post, especially considering the news piece I saw the other day about how the current immigration debates ignore the fact that there are very few restaurants with “American” workers in the kitchen because Americans won’t work for the low wages offered most food service workers, yet we demand low priced (and huge portioned) meals.

I suppose it comes back to what I was trying to define as conscious consumption. I know that $36 for a meal is excessive for my budget. However, that same amount is a bargain for enjoying an evening out with a friend that I may not see again.

So, economists be damned. Waitress, can I hear the specials again?

Saturday, 22 April: $36 dinner and dessert with friends

Sunday, 23 April: nadda

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