I don’t like to brag, but I am really good at going to restaurants. For example, I can figure out where the bathroom is without even asking. I know to choose the side of the table that puts my back to the wall so I can immediately spot assassination attempts. If I am sitting at the bar, I order a drink that complements my outfit. I’ll stop with all these great specifics because I don’t want you to feel sad about your own inferior restaurant skills. Okay…one more. My BEST restaurant skill is that I always order the special. I’ll even order fish on a Monday because I’m brave like that. I LIKE SALMON AND I GIVE ZERO FUCKS.
Restauranting (a real verb that I just made up) is something that I’ve dedicated hours and hours to perfecting, primarily because at restaurants they cook stuff for you when you ask and then they take way your dishes so you don’t have to wash them and that always seems like a good idea to me. It took a while to get good at it, and I made some training mistakes. Lucky for me I picked the right mentor, someone I looked up to, someone I wanted to be. Someone who was not just good at restaurants, but good at life-M.F.K. Fisher.
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher’s body of work chronicles an American woman’s coming of age in the first half of the 20th century: childhood in rural California, falling in love, experiencing life through two world wars, three marriages, and extensive travel. The Notorious MFK lived on her own terms. She is categorized as a food writer, and that’s (maybe) fair, because she published cookbooks, translated Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology Of Taste, and riddled her writing with recipes. For me, though, her work is a bold, sensual exploration of human desires – food, love, sex, curiosity – through the prism of eating.
I was browsing in a bookstore when I came across a collection of M.F.K. Fisher’s works, The Art Of Eating. I have the same problem in bookstores that I have in libraries, in that I’m incapable of editing the stack. If I put it on the stack, I already own it. That’s made for some regrettable, er, interesting purchases, as well as some truly startling credit card balances. I’d never heard of M.F.K. Fisher but the book was on a shelf at the end of the aisle and books merchandised on endcaps are my Kryptonite. The Art Of Eating (1954) is a compilation of essays previously published in five other books (Serve it Forth, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, The Gastronomical Me and An Alphabet for Gourmets.) I tore through it and my hands-down, runaway favorite was the radical, slightly perverse, and rivetingly humorous essay “Define This Word” from The Gastronomical Me (1947). It is my jam. (YAY FOOD JOKE) In “Define This Word”, M.F.K. Fisher describes a meal that she had in 1936 in rural France while on a hot, tiring, day-long country walk. Stopping for lunch at a highly rated but deserted restaurant in the spring off-season, she is the object of the full, unsettling attention of the restaurant’s sole waitress. The waitress, recognizing in her customer a rarefied palate, colludes with the unseen but talented chef to launch a full-out gourmet assault with an endless parade of French deliciousness that almost puts M.F.K. under. The story is a battle of wills between two strong-minded and like-minded women and in it M.F.K. demonstrates the very essence of Restaurant Confidence.
Restaurant anxiety is a real thing. All of the primary hungers intersect there, magnified by the virtue of being on display. Just ask anyone navigating a first dinner date. Who doesn’t relate to Melissa McCarthy eating the hand towels in front of Jude Law in Spy? Ok, I don’t, I’ve never eaten a hand towel in a restaurant or even in the privacy of my own home. The point is, restaurant behavior and etiquette expectations can be a trap, waiting to spring and make you look like a rube with an uncontrollable fabric fetish. I loved “Define This Word”, but it made me cringe, because there was some painful truth in there about self-possession. I saw a lot of opportunity to improve how I was going about my business. Let’s just say I had substituted confidence with narcissism, I had a PhD in self-centered hyperawareness, and had done my thesis on Me In Restaurants. It took dedication to make the food ordering process all about me but I had succeeded admirably. “How can I, too, make this otherwise neutral business transaction all about me?”, you ask? It’s simple. Through magical thinking, assign social acceptance rankings to all of the dishes on the menu. Then, obsessively try to choose the dish that aligns with your waiter’s values so that he/she LIKES YOU. Remember, if you get it wrong, you’re a bad person.
Menu: I gots some killer groceries tonight
Me: omg omg omg freaking out
Me: What projects supreme likability, chicken or lamb?
Menu: Seriously? Weirdo.
Me: Not helping, menu
Menu: Order some Nobody Cares
Wanting to be liked isn’t the worst thing to want. Wanting to be liked so much you use a menu as a Magic 8 ball? Time for a get-over-yourself bat upside the head. My reaction when reading “Define This Word” was “SHE WALKED INTO A RESTAURANT ALONE TO EAT ALONE BY HERSELF ALONE IN A RESTAURANT ALONE?” It was a novel idea that there was a level of emotional maturity that elevated beyond ME being at the center of everything. Walk into a restaurant alone to eat by myself on purpose? Why not just walk naked into a math test that I forgot to study for and have to borrow a pencil from a guy I have a crush on?
Menu: Crazy, party of one, your table is ready
Me: Shut up
Menu: You know self-absorption makes you a dick, right?
Me: Does my hair look ok?
Menu: I give up
The Notorious M.F.K. did not have time for navel-gazing. She was too busy being an authentic badass to strive for inoffensive perfection. Confidence, yo. Confidence is so weird in that it makes you generous. If you aren’t busy reapplying your lipstick in the bathroom, you have time to observe your world. And you know what you are are going to see? Some weird shit. M.F.K. walked across France (alone), sat in a deserted restaurant (alone), and went toe-to-toe with a waitress whose laser focus on her customer’s dining experience made French food culture seem like a carnival funnel cake truck by comparison.
Reading “Define This Word” was a double dog dare challenge. The world around me wants to show me what it can do, not manage my neuroses. It was time to get the fuck over myself. I’m not perfect at this (yeah for example “I” is used in this post at least 15 times, so there’s some work to be done on self-focus, WHATEVER) When I am at a restaurant, I ask myself, What would M.F.K. do? And do you know what she would do? She wouldn’t worry about where her table was. She would not care if the waiter liked her. And she would order the damn special. The chefperson spent time going above and beyond to show off a particular ingredient or dish or technique and that is good enough for me. Show off, Chefperson! I’m going to be a great audience.
Menu: So there’s chicken and—
Me: Gonna have the special
Menu: I wouldn’t for real
Me: Not about me! I said the SPECIAL! Done
Menu: It’s wild boar aspic. We left the bristles on! BWAHAHAHAHAHA
Me: well played, menu
I stand corrected-I do like to brag. I am good at restauranting. While we wait for my artisanal slice of hairy boar jello, let’s sip these fresh cocktails and talk about you for a bit.
To discover your own Notorious M.F.K. work, start here, here, or head to your local library
See Melissa McCarthy in Spy
3 thoughts on “The Reason To Order The Special”
OK you have inspired me to discover MFK Fisher. I also had to think back on your drink choices to confirm that they do indeed coordinate with your outfits! LOL
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Your posts have inspired me to explore authors that are new to me. Thank you for that! Will definitely check out MFK Fisher. Her bio says she owned a house on Oak Street in St. Helena so she must be cool. Road trip anyone?
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Isn’t it so perfect that she lived in wine country? (Her book Among Friends is about growing up in Whittier—it’s a wonderful book.)