Are You Being (Over)-Served?
“Jersey Shore.” Christine O’Donnell. Angelo Cataldi. The forces of infantilization stalk the land! But you don’t have to tune into WIP Sportsradio to get your dose. Instead you can just order dinner from the latest incarnation of the Philadelphia restaurant waiter.
It’s been building for a while — almost any restaurant that’s opened in the past five years holds out the promise of making you feel like a mental midget — but it’s reached a crescendo. You know how it goes. You will be handed a menu, but not because you have been judged capable of reading it. No! First you need a lengthy spiel about the restaurant’s concept and “Chef’s” philosophy. You know the speech I’m talking about. It’s the one that sounds like it’s been memorized from a press release. Then it’s time for a remedial primer on which ingredients are in season and why it’s a good idea to cook with fresh vegetables. Because apparently you can’t be trusted to eschew rotten ones.
Of course, you can’t eat the food until you order it, and you can’t do that until your server explains the procedure, like an overbearing museum docent leading a tour of second-graders. “Have you dined with us before?” you may be asked — even in a pizzeria, as I was recently. The next reading is from the Gospel of Sustainability. This is crucial, even if dessert features chocolate harvested in West Africa by child slaves, for the contemporary Philly waiter knows that nothing numbs the mind — and opens the wallet — like repeating the words sustainable, organic, farm-raised and locally sourced without actually defining them.
In time, you may even be given pointers on the physical act of eating. I’ve lately received instruction on how to apply chili oil to pizza crust, how to spear pickled cauliflower from a mason jar, and how to sequence my bites of particular dishes.
Perhaps this runaway inflation of tableside narrative is inevitable in a land where people spend more time watching food on TV than actually chopping or chewing it. If the meals we TiVo have voice-overs, then why not the ones we actually go out and eat?
But now that Philly’s chefs finally trust us enough to serve us whole fish and bone marrow, can’t servers hold the how-to’s — at least until a question’s actually been asked?
No, because you still need help with the menu. You’ll want this many from that category, that many from this one, and don’t worry, if you don’t manage to get it right, we can fix your mistake later. Or, as I’m increasingly told, there’s the tasting menu. “That way, you don’t even have to worry about anything because we’ll choose for you!”
Thank God. I’m starting to wonder if I’m really capable of doing it for myself