(This is the second movement of a two part essay. The first can be read here.)
Having already addressed what I think you can reasonably expect from your server when eating in a restaurant, let’s turn now to what you can-not expect. This part of the conversation gets a little exclusive: that is, I think it’s probably an issue in larger cities with more vibrant dining scenes, so with the exception of a few land-locked locales I imagine most of what follows applies mainly to areas along coastal-waters. In other words, if you dine at restaurants in LA or Miami you may encounter this more frequently than if you dine at the White Castle in Michigan City.
(Once again: please, please don’t eat the White Castle.)
There are plenty of things diners shouldn’t do in a restaurant: snapping fingers at the server, asking the chef to re-write the menu for them, breaking-up with their romantic partners (couples, seriously—please stop fighting at the dinner table), and so on. But there’s one question I hear that really drives me nuts, and I think it’s something you should never ask of your server. And that question is: Can I eat that?
I realize that line may not punch with the force you were expecting. It’s not an obvious villain, but it’s the one question I hate most, and perhaps some explanation will clarify why.
Imagine a dining scenario. A diner asks her server about x-, y- and z-, and the server provides the appropriate responses. The diner then inquires about the tuna carpaccio. The server explains that it’s raw tuna, sliced thinly. The diner then replies, Well I’m pregnant—Can I eat that?
(Sorry ladies, but the pregnant ones in your mix are some of the worst perpetrators of this, along with purported gluten-intolerants ((Gluten-intolerance/Celiac-disease is a contentious, much-debated and highly annoying subject matter I mostly plan to skirt, except to say the following: First: celiac-disease is a real autoimmune disorder from which less than 1% of the American population suffers. (The stats are roughly 1 in 133 people, or .007%. In other words: the odds are real good you don’t have it.) Additionally, a celiac diagnosis must be made by a real medical doctor after a series of blood tests and/or endoscopies; Web-MD self-diagnoses do not a disorder make.
The second point is a simple test you can perform at your leisure: compare how you feel after eating a bowl of pasta with how you feel after eating a bowl of raw vegetables, then take the information you receive from this self-exam and use it to guide what items you subsequently place in your body. Odds are good the pasta will leave you feeling tired, slow, and droopy, with opposite adjectives being derived from consuming the veggies. With this information you are heartily encouraged to go forth and dine.
The last point is an issue of language, and an important one we could all improve upon: even if eating gluten makes you feel cruddy (remember how lethargic you felt after that bowl of pasta?), unless you are part of the few (remember, it’s only .007%) who actually have celiac disease you are not “gluten intolerant,” and likely the best and most accurate terminology you could use to describe yourself would be gluten selective. That is, you choose to put gluten in your body regardless how it leaves you feeling. If you want to eat a bowl of pasta or gnosh some bread pudding or relish a club sandwich—that is your choice to do so, damn the consequences, in the same way someone who drinks a half-bottle of whiskey knows what’s coming in the morning.
Lastly, I mentioned this above but I’ll reiterate it here: regardless your situation, your server doesn’t care one whit about the internal reasonings that got you to it. If you don’t want to eat gluten or any other items, for any reasons, you needn’t explain or justify yourself to her. Simply don’t order said items, or ask nicely if there’s a way to serve the caesar salad without breadcrumbs. Another approach I greatly admire would be: Hey, I usually avoid eating bread because it doesn’t make me feel good, but I really love bread pudding. Is it super-delicious?, because if so I’m going to get it anyway. And look at you there—you’re all grows-up and ready to eat with the big people.)) and those who have dairy allergies.)
You might guess this question bothers me because the simplest answer to it is a snarky nip: How in the hell would I know what you can eat? That’s part of it, but not all. I’m also only moderately bothered by people who ask questions via the convolutions of modalities such as “can.” (If that doesn’t make immediate sense, think of your annoying Aunt-What’s-Her-Name and those stupid “life lessons” she tried to convey with responses such as, “I don’t know, can you go to the bathroom??”)
No, what drives me bonkers is that when a diner asks this question—Can I eat that?—she is ultimately attempting to place the responsibility for what crosses her lips onto somebody other than her-self. The diner is effectively saying: I am capable of advanced human actions such as working with complicated tools, perpetuating the species and participating in democratic political elections, but I am not capable of determining what enters my body; as a result, can somebody else please be responsible for me?
And since the somebody else who’s being asked to make this decision is our kind server, I’d like to pause and remind all diners of the reality of your server’s situation—she is first, foremost and forever only your server. That is, she is the bridge between you and the kitchen, the one who answers the questions outlined in the previous post.
If for some reason this definition is unclear, let’s look at her role from the opposite perspective—your server is not a doctor (or at least not yours), not a nutritionist, not a neonatal nourishment advisor, not an ethicist…, the list goes on but can be summed up simply as: your server is not your mother, and you and you alone are solely responsible for what gets put into your mouth.
The corollary of this stretches further—not only can your server not determine what you should or should not put in your face, your server does not care what you do or do not consume. To be clear, she doesn’t want you to get sick from a spoiled oyster or crack a tooth on a misplaced bottle cap. But if you’re pregnant and choose to eat tuna that is potentially high in mercury, extensive exposure to which might damage your fetus…, well that’s your choice, and any thoughts on the situation your server may have are categorically irrelevant.
This question—Can I eat that?—is consistently the stupidist thing I’m asked. Each time I hear it I’m reminded of the old trope: There are no stupid questions, only stupid people who ask questions (many of whom apparently are intent upon procreating).
As a server, I don’t know if you “can” eat something, and ultimately I don’t care if you do in fact eat it. There are food items I think are awfully nasty, for a variety of reasons (White Castle), but those opinions are not applicable to our dining interaction. (Unless of course we’re at White Castle, in which case those opinions are extremely relevant. As an act of Bush-like pre-emption, allow me to put this in writing should such a situation ever arises: Please, please don’t eat at the White Castle.)
The long-and-short here is that you’re a grown-ass person, so act like one. If you’re allergic to shellfish and the bisque has shellfish in it, don’t eat the damned bisque. Further, don’t involve your server in the decision-making process as she isn’t the one to determine if you “can” eat something. You’ve got a mass of neurons wedged between your head bones—if they were up to the complicated endeavors involved in locating your body in the confines of a restaurant, surely they’re sufficient to guide your subsequent dining choices.