THEY WORK together every day--the boss, the assistant and the secretary--walking the same carpet, breathing the same carpet, breathing the same stale office air for eight hours or more. Whatever their desks, the comings and goings of the job mean that they probably look out the same windows or stare at the same windowless walls for almost the same length of time.
Certainly they cannot help seeing each other's plants and family snapshots. Paintings and signed photographs of the mighty register on the same retinas as the cartoon with the caption "You want it when?" and the framed statement about having a nervous breakdown as soon as the crisis is over.
The mutuality stops at lunchtime. It's not as simple a matter as the secretary heading for the cafeteria and the boss for the executive dining room while the assistant goes to fun restaurants featuring big salads, tiny tables, cheap quiche and iffy house wines.
That happens, of course. Also, that great leveler, the vending machine sandwich, with its sidekick, the Styrofoam-sheathed coffee, sometimes gets into the picture, providing separate but equal sustenance to a workaholic boss, an upwardly mobile assistant and a secretary who wants to slip out to the sales for an hour.
More often, though, it's easy to tell which is which. Just check who's where between noon and 2:45.
There are bosses who are not interested in what they call fancy stuff -- a category in which they unwittingly include freshly squeezed orange juice and toasted homemade bread. Some make a point of their freedom from effete food fetishes. Some don't know any better.
Either way, they tend to eat at beef or seafood houses where the dining rooms and the portions are large. Baked potato with sour cream and chives for the steak, french fries and cole slaw with the crab imperial.
Otherwise, such people are to be found in private clubs at lunchtime. Places where the distinction is in the membership, not the menu. The presence of Nobel Prize winners, cliff dwellers and tiger politicos would make up for the sauce if they noticed the sauce.
Those without pride of palate are probably outnumbered by the gourmets, though. The gourmets are the ones who keep up the cash flow for the expensive French and Italian restaurants. Their wine comes from the wine list and their beer from an extensive knowledge of Canadian, Danish, German and American brewing. Their mineral water is as likely to be Ramlosa or Pellegrino as Perrier.
Like their assistants and secretaries, they may lunch on soup and salad, but there's no flour in the soup and there is arugula in the salad. Their low-calorie strategies seldom have anything to do with cottage cheese.
We all know there's a lot more to the mid-day meal than noon-time stirrings in the alimentary canal. There's romance, which may bring together any combination of bosses, assistants and secretaries.
The choice of restaurants for a courtship lunch will vary according to the self-confidence, as well as the income, of the person doing the inviting. Self-doubters have been known to spend far beyond their means in the hope of impressing the potential valentine.
Decisions about where to eat in such cases will also be affected by the visibility factor. Those who would just as soon not attract attention know that many of the beef houses and some of the seafood ones can be as dark as 1930s movie haciendas. They are aware that certain of the little places with the ferns, the blond wood and the broccoli benedict are discreetly located.
But hopes of money and career advancement probably inspire at least as many lunches as yearnings of flesh or spirit. The lunch that just may get one of the lunchers a job, a promotion or a contract whets appetites as sharp as those that could lead to marriage, divorce, remarriage, a change of address or simply an agreeable few hours.
Either way, except in the rare case of a free-load where there is nothing more to be gained or lost than fun and calories, the person who is paying sets the tone in food as well as in realpolitik. The more highly charged the interview, the more likely there will be a certain amount of either showing off or lying low on the part of the one who has most at stake.
Both showing off and lying low can take many forms. Conspicuous discernment about the claims of rival muscadets is one-upping. So is conspicuous, if not always convincing, indifference to liquor and dessert. Ordering the $8.50 trout when you really want the $12.50 venison with chestnut pure'e may show prudence or it may signal a failure of nerve. Not eating the bread, even after a 20-minute wait for the first course, may indicate either good habits or the desire to take credit for them.
Secretaries and assistants are highly vulnerable to such self-conscious gestures when invited to lunch with those above them on the status ladder. Left to themselves and the mid-day companionship of their peers, they have only their diets and budgets to worry about.
Neither budgets nor diets ever did much to inhibit anybody's ordering. In fact, once a luncher announces that lasagna or pecan pie are calorically unthinkable, the waiter might as well write it down and move on to the customer who has just uttered a scream over what they're charging for veal parmigiana these days.
One veal parmigiana . . . We hardly ever do this . . . Besides, we can go to McDonald's every day for the rest of the week . . . And we never eat dinner after a big lunch.
It's at about this point that the mutuality resumes. The boss, pushing back from the table covered by the crisp white cloth, the assistant picking up the check from an oak surface and the secretary sliding out from behind the laminated plastic one, all sigh the same sigh and say they ate too much.
Here are recipes for some of the most popular dishes served at restaurants frequented by the people we've been talking about.
LE BAGATELLE CONFIT DE LAPIN A LA COMPOTE DE POMMES AUX RAISINS (Rabbit with Apples and Raisins) (4 servings) 1 cup sea salt 1 clove 1 bay leaf 2 cloves garlic 1 teaspoon herbs de provence 1/2 teaspoon allspice 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1 rabbit, cut in serving pieces 4 pounds lard 1/2 cup cognac 4 apples 1 teaspoon butter 2 tablespoons raisins 5 medium-sized red potatoes
Mix sea salt with clove, bay leaf, garlic and spices. Distribute over rabbit in a glass bowl, cover and refrigerate 12 hours. Wipe off salt from rabbit pieces. Melt lard in a deep pan and cook rabbit in it over low heat 1 1/2 to 2 hours. When rabbit is tender, remove from lard, drain and set aside, reserving lard. Marinate raisins in cognac 10 minutes. Peel, core and dice apples and cook with butter, raisins and cognac until apple is very soft. Peel and slice potatoes and saute' in lard. Drain. Arrange potatoes on serving platter, top with rabbit and place under broiler to brown for a minute or two. Arrange apple pure'e around rabbit.
AMERICAN CAFE SHRIMP BISQUE (4 servings) 2 1/2 cups fish stock 1/4 pound butter 3 tablespoons flour 1 pound fresh tomatoes 1/2 teaspoon dried basil 1/4 pound mushrooms 1/2 cup tomato sauce Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 cup sherry 1/2 cup heavy cream 1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
Bring fish stock to a boil. In a separate pan, make a roux by melting butter and stirring flour into it until flour begins to brown. Whisk fish stock into roux. Chop tomatoes coarsely and add to fish stock. Whiz mushrooms, basil and tomato sauce in blender and add to fish stock. Simmer 6 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper to correct seasoning. Add sherry, cream and shrimp and simmer 6 minutes more.
ROMEO AND JULIET VITELLO ALLA FINANZIERE (Piedmontese Veal) (3 servings) 3 veal scallops 3 chicken livers 1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced 2 shallots, minced 4 tablespoons butter 1/4 cup marsala wine 3 small gherkins, chopped 3 thin slices prosciutto
Saute' veal, minced chicken livers, mushrooms and shallots in butter 6 to 8 minutes. Add wine and cook 2 minutes more. Place on serving platter and garnish with gherkins and prosciutto slices.