Chow Bella

Five Things That Can Instantly Ruin a Meal

Last month, I joined two girlfriends in a not-often-enough lady dinner. All three of us work pretty much seven days a week, Louise as the dean of an honors college and Marjorie as a retired psychology professor who has opened up her own boutique, and me, doing whatever it is I do.

Which means we don't get out a lot. Which means when we do, we want to have a nice dinner and enjoy one another's company and conversation. Which means it takes a lot to ruin our night, and, much like any catastrophe, requires a snowball effect of small disasters taking effect in rapid succession to accomplish that.

Within five seconds of sitting down, that snowball rocked a bit, then started down the hill with a very nice push from the restaurant owner/server/mascot/in-house snob.

1. V8 is always in season.

I had barely taken off my coat when our server, whom I recognized as the owner with his Rasputin beard and plaid cowboy shirt, asked politely for my drink of choice. They have a full bar with special little cocktails they concoct with items that are supposed to impress people, like Pine-Sol and bark. I'm not impressed with yard waste, so I thought for a moment and said, "A Bloody Mary, please," because I will order any drink that comes with snacks as an ingredient.

He paused, looked toward the floor, and then up again at me, as if he was going to tell me that my Aunt Yola died. In July. (True, by the way. And I would rather have heard it from him than having my sister find it on the internet. Thanks, New York family! We live in Arizona. Not on Pluto. You can call here. Or send a message by stagecoach.)

He shook his head before delivering the unbearable news.

"We––" (this was clearly painful for him) "–do not have that available at this time. We only work with seasonal ingredients, and tomatoes are out of season."

"So is that why my tomato plant died in September?" I wanted to ask him.


But they are not out of season in Guatemala!

"Safeway would beg to differ," I said with a smile.

He said nothing.

"If grapes are still in season, I'll take wine," I said, which he approved of.

Yeah, it was snotty of me to say, but if they are even using ice cubes in their drinks, they are lying. COME ON. Who expects a Bloody Mary picked right off the vine? Are you serious? If you have a bar, BE A BAR. If you aren't going to be a bar, let me know and I'll bring my own tomatoes. I know for a fact that the fresh pineapple and mint I see listed in one your drinks wasn't picked today unless you have a biodome out back in the same alley that hobos pee in.

My wine arrives in a huge glass. The amount is not enough to put an in-season goldfish in.

I am now annoyed.

2. Familiarity breeds contempt.

Louise is the last to arrive, having just gotten off the bus after a very long day. The owner/server/in-house snob rushes over to her as she sets settled and takes a seat.

"So nice to see you again!" he exclaims joyously.

"Oh, thank you," Louise replies. She is very polite.

"We haven't seen you in...14 months," he adds.

"Oh, it may have been a while, but not over a year," Louise jousts back, pleasantly. Like I said, she is very polite.

"No. No. It's definitely been about 14 months," he volleys. "Maybe even 15."

"Uh..." Louise says before I interrupt.

"Be safe and order wine," I advise. "Grapes are 'in season.'"

And yes, I do use air quotes.

"I will stab him for you," I offer politely. "I have a shiv ready underneath the table. It's in my hand right now."

Now, if you are counting off the months on your fingers that you haven't seen my face like you were expecting a child support check from me, grow some more hands. You're going to need a lot of them. Might as well start numbering the hair thread count in that friggin disgusting peasant beard growing out of your face. I'm going to eat some of it before the night is over, I know, I know it. It's not even a variable. It's going to be hidden in something and I'm going to have to use my strongest mind brainwash powers I can summon to make me believe it's my own beard hair.

Just be happy that I came back, okay? We don't need to label how much I like you or your in-season food. This is not a relationship. I'm here now. It will probably be longer than 15 months before you see me again, and I bet that will take place in the produce department of Safeway, where you are buying tomatoes from Guatemala.

I am now mad.

3. Don't give me skin, man.

There is nothing sadder than a menu that you can't find one thing on to order. What do I want? Smoked oyster and French onion dip, or a kale Caesar? When the thought of my room-temperature Atkins protein shake seems more appealing than either of those and a serving of bread is five dollars, I surrender. The chestnut ravioli that looks good is $25. Which is more expensive per ounce than gas in the '70s. I won't order it. I am not going to win this fight. I have a little bit of hope when the owner/server/in-house snob comes over to tell us the specials. Cod cakes. No. Trout cakes. No.

"Are you sure?" the owner/server/in-house snob asks when I say no. "They are locally sourced. I'd also like to suggest the squash skins accented with cremeux de bourgogne and topped with chicken skin."

I do my best not to vomit on my friends. Wow, we are there, huh? We are there. We have come to the entirely inedible portion of the menu. This is the part where the chef gets to fuck with you, and puts something unacceptable on the menu then takes bets on how many suckers order it. Squash skins. Since my zucchini plant was the first to croak, I am assuming we're talking fall squash, of which the skins are a little, um, unchewable. It would be like scraping the cremeux de bourgogne off the tongue of a shoe and paying 18 dollars for the pleasure of it. And then that brings me to chicken skin, which is actually tempting me to ask him to just deliver their trash can to the table and I can forage for myself.

But it's all local, his eyes say.

"Maybe you should bring food in from places that are more delicious, like GUATEMALA, because all you are serving here is compost," I want to say, but I don't.

"You guys decide," I say, throwing the responsibility to my friends. And then I cry, just a little.
They order a cauliflower salad, quince curry and the chestnut ravioli.

"Excellent choices!" the little in-house snob says with a jump in his step.

I would really like him to just stop talking. I loathe him. And yes, out of spite, tomorrow I'm going to eat a tomato and an avocado when it is apparently out of moral season because I am an animal who will eat food from another country, which was clearly akin to denouncing my country and robbing a local farmer out of six cents.


I am furious.

4. Everything is bite-sized but the bill.

It has been a long day. I am tired. I am hungry. And when our entree appears, my stomach drops because I am clearly going to have to fight my friends for food as if we were in a North Korean prison camp. I don't want to pepper spray my companions. But I may have to.

The cauliflower salad, promised to spin us into another universe with its mint dressing and exotic balsamics and some sort of pine nut, contains no more than a cup of raw vegetables and flecky things. We delicately pick out a small cauliflower bulb or two, careful not to appear too brazen and selfish. In three seconds, there is nothing but one little pine nut left, and I notice we are all eyeing it. I let it go to the thinnest of my friends. My endocrinologist told me that the good thing about having no metabolism is that I would indeed survive a prison camp if I was in there for less than a decade.

I watch the pine nut pass through her lips. I am jealous.

The same goes for the quince curry and the ravioli. There are literally six raviolis, and we have ordered the large portion. The whole 25 bucks. At least we didn't have to wrestle for the odd-numbered one. The quince curry — remember I didn't order this — is also petite in portion, the net weight is equal to that of what assisted living homes feed their residents who have given up the zest to live. We each scoop out a third of a cup, approximately. One of us got a little more. I'm not saying who.

Then the bill comes. It's $120. IT'S A HUNDRED AND TWENTY DOLLARS. For three cups of food. That's more than Jenny Craig. That's more than the vintage purse I saw on Etsy that I told myself I couldn't afford. That's more than what I spend on groceries a week.

I am on the verge of hysteria.

5. Don't let me leave hungry.

Hey owner/server/in-house snob:

You have one job. ONE. That is to feed me. I am at the end of my day. In a few  hours you, too, will be at the end of your day, and like me, you will be hungry, tired, and ready to eat something. Something more than a cup of food.

Because that is what you feed a dog or a very large cat. A cup of food. I don't charge my dog $40 for it. So when you open your mouth to ask the table how our meal was, I am quite tempted to tell you. You want me to tell how how inventive and courageous it was. How I have never had another meal like it and how talented you are to stretch one head of cauliflower onto 15 different plates and end up grossing $300 from it. I am not here to congratulate you as a chef, owner, inventor of the squash skins. I seriously am not. I came here to have a nice meal and not feel obligated to tell you how perfect that mint was in the cauliflower salad. That is not my job. My only job is to pay you for the services you've rendered, and if you need additional support, may I suggest a 20 mg daily dose of Celexa and an exercise program. That's what I do.

So don't ask me to rate this meal, this meal you actually had to go out of your way to ruin. Because when you do, I will say nothing but stare at you, your beard, and your cowboy shirt with the gaping buttonholes for a very, very long time. And when you come back with my Visa card and ask if the cute dog on it is mine, I will not answer as I put the card back into my wallet, put on my coat, and go home to finally have dinner.

Because I am still hungry.