Monday, July 25, 2005

Decisions of Utmost Importance

If you spend any significant amount of time on the Internet, you cannot have helped noticing the proliferation of quizzes that are intent on putting you into some meaningless category or other. Typically, you will be told that you are most like some character or other from some popular cultural phenomenon or other. A quiz recently told me, for instance, that my Myers Briggs personality type is INFJ, which makes me most like Albus Dumbledore, or at least most like Albus Dumbledore if the universe that you have to choose from is sixteen selected Harry Potter characters. Living, as I do, near Washington, DC, and attending, as I do, a Unitarian Universalist church, I have had many many occasions to hear about the Myers Briggs profile, often from people who feel that it has a great deal more validity than I will ever credit it with. Especially since, depending on when I take the test, I might just as easily be Severus Snape or Remus Lupin.

Anyway, you can find an overwhelming number of such quizzes on the Internet (I forget which emo indie rock singer I am most like, but I am, apparently, most like one). I am not aware of such quizzes that are food related, but I reckon that somewhere out there I could find a "Which Cruciferous Vegetable Are You?" quiz if I were willing to put in the effort, but do I really want to know whether I'm cauliflower or brussels sprouts? I think not.

I was thinking about this last night over dinner at Sol Azteca, one of the few reliably good restaurants in my particular suburb. V.'s schedule is a bit upended at the moment due to his having to readjust to local time after two weeks in Ethiopia. As a result, we had napped in the late afternoon and early evening, and by the time we made it to the restaurant, it was after 8:30, and the restaurant was nearly empty. Sunday nights are not the most happening of times out where I live.

I am not, generally, a big fan of menus, though I certainly have no viable alternative. In a perfect world, the host would greet you and chat with you briefly on the way to your table and then whisper a few words to your waiter and then something that fits your mood and palate perfectly would appear at the table shortly thereafter. Dr. Pangloss notwithstanding, we don't live in a perfect world, so you have to choose and live with the possibility of making the wrong choice.

The sad fact is that you only get so many meals in a lifetime. Let's say that you're going to live eighty years and that twenty of those years are going to be spent in either childhood, when you have little control over what you're served, or in some other situation that seriously impinges your ability to eat what you want. So let's say that you can choose your meals for sixty years. At three meals a day and 365.25 days a year (I don't want the leap years to feel left out), that's a mere 65,745 meals that you get to eat. When you get that few of something that important, you naturally want to make every meal count. (Obviously, this analysis doesn't apply to everyone. If you believe in reincarnation, then you get either an unlimited number of meals or at least a much, much larger number of meals. [My grasp on the particulars of the beliefs of various religions is sketchy.] So if you're in a restaurant, and you see that someone has ordered something that's not very good, you can safely assume that he or she believes in reincarnation. You may want to ask this person whether they're Hindu or some lesser known religion, as a good way to start a conversation.)

So let's say you're me (sorry about that) and you're out at Sol Azteca, and you know that the pork in bitter orange sauce is delightful, probably better than any of the choices at many of the other local restaurants. Then you can safely order that and no that you haven't burned one of your few remaining meals on this mortal coil, right?

Oh that life were ever so simple.

Because, you know, you've got that damned menu in your hand, and a couple of items down is something called something like "Lingua Portuguesa" which is described as something like "tender pieces of beef tongue in a cherry wine sauce." I'm not really sure about the whole concept of beef tongue. I'm almost certain that I've had it before, though I can't recall when. But it seems that if I were going to try beef tongue, then Sol Azteca would be as good a place as any, and cooked in a cherry wine sauce would be as good a preparation as any. It might be so-so, or it might be my next great culinary revelation.

And then still farther down the menu, there's a crispy half-duck roasted in a madeira-based sauce. I like duck; I like crispy; I like wine-based sauces: it's a triple threat!

You begin to see the insidiousness of menus. (Is "insidiousness" even a word? It seems like it should be, and I reckon I could look it up, but what if the actual noun form is something awful like "insiduity"? I regularly deplore the suffix creep that seems to infect English these days. At the same time, I'm occasionally guilty of the same transgression, and I have half a mind to just delete this parenthetical and go back and write "insidiousnessosityification," but I'm pretty sure that the spell checker would chastise me.) If there are two good choices on the menu, it's hard enough to decide whether you're going to dance with the one what brought you or take comfort in the arms of another. Once you get to three, four, or more choices, balancing the options requires some sort of combinatorial mathematics that I never learned (I got through differential equations and stopped; I have always been a slacker), and had I learned it, I would long since have forgotten it, as a matter of principle.

There are ways of attacking this problem, of course. You can limit your choices by eliminating certain entree ingredients or by setting a price level. If I'm at a restaurant like Sol Azteca, way out in the 'burbs, I don't want to go over $12 or $13 for the entree. I could certainly afford to spend an extra few dollars on the entree, so it seems likely that this particular criterion comes from a simple desire not to have to consider too many menu options. I also tend to eliminate all of the standard Tex-Mex fare (almost all of which meets the budgetary criterion) because I can get that sort of food in other places, including a couple of places near the office.

But the decision of what to order is as much a reflection of a diner's personality as it is an irresolvable tactical dilemma. I recall a time some months ago when V. and I were on our way to a concert at the Kennedy Center, and we decided to stop at a Greek restaurant somewhere in Northeast DC. The waiter gave us our menus and told us that the day's special was braised lamb shanks served in an avgolemono sauce. Thank God for specials. When you hear a good one, you don't even have to look at the menu. Or at least you don't have to look at the menu with the threat of having to make a decision hanging over your head; having already made your decision, you can enjoy the menu as a combination instructional guide, advertisement, and graphic novel. Having ordered my lamb shanks with avgolemono sauce (and they turned out to be most unusually yummy, I must say, especially in winter), I was relaxed and enjoying the ambience, and I noticed a woman at a nearby table who was telling the waiter what she was going to have and that she always had that when she ate there.

There are, of course, many contexts in which "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" is a perfectly acceptable guideline for behavior, but I'm not sure that eating in a restaurant is one of them. I certainly don't want to proscribe this sort of behavior. The woman in question was perhaps fifteen or twenty years my senior (and not, evidently, Hindu), and it had likely occurred to her that she had perhaps as few as 20,000 chances to have a good meal left, and she didn't want to waste a meal when there was something she knew she liked on the menu.

But in her situation, it would have occurred to me that I had only 20,000 chances (or perhaps fewer; life is an uncertain thing) left to try something new and that you could never tell whether and when the lamb shanks in avgolemono sauce would be on the menu again. "Carpe diem!" I called across the restaurant to her. "You clearly think that you only live once!"

It occurs to me (actually, it occurred to me some paragraphs back, but I was otherwise occupied) that I'm being even more circumspect than usual here. When you're trying to figure out your culinary or dining type, however, several of the questions are going to hone in on your behavior when faced with a menu. Do you always order the same thing? Do you order the first thing that looks good? Do you consider the specials first? How long do you typically linger over the menu before reaching a decision? Do you converse during the menu perusal process or do you take some dedicated time to study the menu in silence, providing the same opportunity to your companion(s)?

I must confess that last night, having taken a significant amount of time to consider both the menu and these weighty questions, I ordered the pork in bitter orange sauce. This behavior is atypical for me, but I had recently woken from a late afternoon/early evening nap, and I was still feeling a bit disoriented, as I am wont to do in that situation. Consequently, I went with the familiar, and I enjoyed it very much. I took comfort in the fact that I had eaten another very good meal and decided not to concern myself too much with the knowledge that I'd passed up a chance for adventure. There will, after all, be other opportunities, and there is nothing wrong with taking refuge in the familiar, so long as you don't do it too frequently. And now I have already done the heavy lifting for my next visit. Having pre-obsessed over my choices this time, next time, I have only to decide between the tongue and the duck. That is, of course, no small task, but it is a good deal smaller than choosing from the entire menu, and if push comes to shove, I can always flip a coin. That's what Dumbledore would do.


Post a Comment

<< Home