Writing

What’s in a Meal?

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This is an opinion piece that was published in the mX For What It’s Worth section on 2 October 2013. mX was a commuter magazine that had a readership of 671,000 people around Australia, discontinued in June 2015. 

I don’t really get what the big deal about food is. Sure, we need it for the energy and sustenance that keeps us alive and healthy, but when did it become such a ridiculously pretentious art form?

Coffee orders that take longer to say than to make. Menus so convoluted that Shakespeare is easier to decipher. Dishes that are harder to understand than Rudd’s detailed programmatic specificity.

Society takes food so seriously these days. Call me uncultured if you will (actually, please don’t) but if being cultured means a cup of coffee, a few toasted crumbs, a few pieces of mesclun and a seizure-inducing price tag then I’ll just stay home with my tinned tuna thanks (PS they’re on special at the supermarket, like, eight times a week).

Some menus are so complex that dictionaries should be put on the table along with the saltshakers and napkins. You have meals that are ____ with a hint of ____. Well ‘hint’ is precisely the right word because I can never taste the ingredient that’s being ‘hinted’ at. I mean, did I accidentally pick up the script of a striptease show? If not, please just kindly tell me what you’ve put in the meal without the doublespeak.

But what really disturbs me is how powerful Urbanspoon, an online restaurant review service, has become. If the hospitality industry are Big Brother contestants, then the food critics and users on Urbanspoon are the judges and audience. Except no one really reads the critic reviews on the site, and instead jump straight to the user reviews. But how many of the glowing reviews are potentially written by the owner? And how many of the negative reviews are left by rivals or nasty people that open up a million different accounts so they can bring a restaurant’s approval rating down to 0%? I find a lot of these user reviews questionable. For instance, this unreasonable review written by a customer at a fine dining restaurant in Melbourne:

“The waiter came over and told us that we would have to keep a closer eye on our son. So he may have been rearranging cutlery on some tables and talking to some of the other diners, but what child isn’t cheeky? I was just trying to have a nice family dinner with my husband and the staff rudely told us to control our son. What is this, the Dark Ages?”

No ma’am, it’s the 21st century and human beings still, as they have since the dawn of time, want to eat their meals without being poked and prodded by other people’s children. If that’s the kind of dining experience I’d wanted I would have ordered takeaway and eaten at a McDonald’s playground.

I must confess that I used to spend hours and hours on Urbanspoon ‘exploring’ Melbourne’s food culture. It’s a great repository (suppository?) of every single food outlet in Melbourne, and the app is useful if you’re not sure where to go and want to know what’s around. It’s great for restaurant owners to get feedback and recommendations on their businesses and on how they could improve their service.

But like everything else on the internet, it’s changing the way we communicate and not necessarily for the better. Wouldn’t it be better for everybody if a dissatisfied customer raised their concerns at the table? Then any issues could be resolved straight away, the staff have a chance to defend themselves and the customer can go home and spend the rest of the night looking at the latest cat memes rather than becoming an Urbanspoon spambot.

As for the pretentious diners, admit it. The beautifully presented meal that you sold your house for may look like a picturesque postcard of the Swiss Alps, but it probably also tastes like said postcard too. Just chillax and get a 30 cent cone from Maccas, people. It’s worth every cent.

Fan mail

There was a mini “letter to the editor” in the paper the next day, which read:

I’ve been waiting a long time for someone who shares my “unlike” of “foodporn” or “foodstagram”, and more so of eating out fancy just to look cool. I’m a presentable girl with simple tastes, minus the fake attitude of those kind of folk. The only meals I know how to make are toasted cheese sandwiches and two-minute noodles and I’m not ashamed.

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