SO WHAT WILL it be? Dim sum? Greek? Mexican? Thai? Ethiopian? Punjab? Decisions, decisions. New York Pizza? Chicago Pizza? California Pizza? A person could starve to death in the time it takes to decide where to go to dinner.
It's not just a matter of having a lot of choices. Food has become everyone's 3-D Rorschach test, an edible tool for self-definition and social judgment.
Take my friend Katie's latest warning bell. "I never thought a man's eating habits would affect the way I perceived him as a potential partner," says Katie, a vegetarian. But recently she accepted an invitation to the Hollywood Bowl. "I was doing the picnic," she says. "But when I asked what he liked, he said, 'There's something you better know. I don't eat vegetables or fruit.' I asked about pasta salad. He said no. Coleslaw, no. Potato salad, no. Finally, I asked, 'Well what do you eat?' And he said, 'Meat. Just meat.' "
What is he, a crocodile?
There's always something objectionable about another person's diet. If it's not animal fat, it's Milano cookies, or too much garlic. Or worse, it's some politically incorrect foodstuff that anybody with half a social conscience is boycotting. (Why do they always boycott tasty products such as tuna and grapes instead of things I'd never miss--such as turnips?)
Personally, I'm hoping for ecological sanctions against the fryer, my sworn food enemy, which follows me wherever I go. On a recent trip to the Southwest, it seemed that kitchens had thrown away the broiler and the conventional oven and replaced them with giant vats of bubbling lard. "All I want is a baked potato," I feebly insisted as the waitress recited the specials: deep-fried chicken, chicken-fried steak, French fries, hush puppies, fritters, doughnuts. "Have you tried the Indian fry bread?" she asked.
I'd also like a moratorium on restaurants that flaunt live originals of what you're about to eat. I've learned to avert my eyes when I walk into Chinese seafood restaurants and see the doomed fish swimming around the tank. But does the management have to put a guy in a chicken suit beckoning outside California Chicken Burger? Of course, it's better than in Spain, where animal legs with hair are an essential part of the decor. I don't eat meat, but I still have nightmares about the place in Asturias where my husband scarfed a huge plate of cold cuts under a ceiling full of dangling carcasses.
"Do you have a baked potato?" I asked meekly.
Actually, I'm not a finicky eater compared to a lot of folks. I wouldn't dream of issuing verbal or written instructions to prospective hosts before I go out to lunch or dinner. I'm not kosher, hypoglycemic, an ova-lacto vegetarian, or doing Pritikin or Optifast. And I'm not a food snob either, unlike my husband, Duke.
He views eating as an grand adventure, whereas I just see it as a way to stay alive. We could land in a foreign country late at night, after not having eaten for 12 hours, and still Duke would troll the streets scrutinizing restaurant menus, seeking out the peak gastronomical experience. I wouldn't dare suggest a coffee shop.
"For the same price, you can have something awful or you can have something really good," Duke says. Of course, his idea of really good is more evolved than mine.
I learned this early on in our relationship. One morning, I found him standing in my kitchen, scowling at the contents of my refrigerator. There were apples, a pitcher of Good Earth iced tea, a tub of yogurt--my usual food staples--plus bagels and cream cheese that I'd bought because I knew he was coming over. "Don't you have a red onion?" Duke asked accusingly.
In an effort to score gourmet points, I went to a designer produce store and asked for the best onion God ever made. Five dollars bought a Maui onion the size of a grapefruit, packaged in a net sheath with everything but a biography and a diploma. Duke was mollified--briefly. Then he started looking for the capers.
These days, you can't be too much of a culinary sophisticate. "It's gotten into regions now," my sister Laurie complains. "People who can't find Florida on a map know the difference between Sichuan, Hunan and Mandarin."
Frankly, I've never awakened in the middle of the night with a hankering for Middle Altitude Andean food. If I have to pick a restaurant, a modern day act of courage, I automatically head for my favorite sushi or salad bar. Needless to say, I'm not asked to pick very often.
"You're lucky," Laurie says. "There's nothing worse than being responsible for a bad meal. You sit there all evening muttering lame excuses like 'I swear there were more specials the last time.' "
Doesn't bother me. Just give me a baked potato.