I remember my first taste of a West Coast pale ale and the moment I realized bright Belgian IPAs would quicken my newbie palate’s adaptation to more biting, American versions. I recall awkward servers who’d seat themselves at my table while taking the order in some bizarre gesture of interest. I know the smirk of recognition when a bartender, trying not to encroach, overhears an excruciating admission that only your companion should know, and you hope the secret stays wrapped in the unofficial bartender code of silence. I’ve marked many dining firsts. But I cannot tell you about the first time I noticed that I was part of someone else’s show. I can’t even think of the first time I got angry about it, that’s how insidious the ordeal has been.
A strange logic is at work here. I've seen it too many times, I've written about it before, and I've complained to family and friends more often. I've experienced it in Asheville, N.C., at Cúrate, a tapas bar, when a young white woman overheard that it was my and my now-husband's first time there and presumed that it was also our first time in a place that sold tapas. From a couple seats down she lodged unsolicited recommendations toward us and widened her eyes with empathy at how "overwhelming" the menu could be. After multiple failed attempts at trying to end the interaction, her interjections feeling a bit intrusive during my birthday meal, I finally told her that my partner and I had both been to Barcelona. We'd find our way, I said, and while she appeared bruised and unmoored, she let us be.
It happened at Pujol, the award-winning destination restaurant in Mexico City. As I was being seated for my multicourse solo lunch, an older white woman wrapping up her meal next to my table announced with grand authority that I was “in for quite the tasting.” She didn’t say this as a giddy buddy in cahoots, or even as a star-struck fan exiting the latest Marvel movie while passing anxious ticket holders. She said it like you warn a child to look both ways before crossing the street. My butt had barely grazed the banquette in a Mexican restaurant, in Mexico, led by a Mexican chef, and yet this non-Spanish-speaking white woman was prepping me for what to expect — even though I too had to reserve my table with a credit card far in advance and had approved a temporary hold on my account for the coursed meal to follow. Which is to say, I knew quite well what to expect, and even if I didn’t, why unveil the magic prematurely? Why she felt that I was any less informed than she about the provenance of chef Enrique Olvera and his much-heralded talents is a question I don’t need answered. I already know. I barely glanced her way when I replied, “I’m aware.” I wasn’t surprised when she took her end-of-meal coffee outside on the patio. Adiós, señora.
I’ve perceived this twisted logic at bars in Atlanta when ordering bourbon. Once, at Hartsfield-Jackson airport, an older white man complimented me on ordering Woodford Reserve, which, for the record, is no underground sensation. He wasn’t hitting on me, as some feel compelled to counter. He was bemused and believed I’d feel honored by his observation.
I recognized it in Washington, D.C., at the Kimpton Carlyle in Dupont Circle when I browsed the bottled wine list at the in-house Riggsby while waiting for my takeout order. It was during a ridiculous lapse in scheduling infrastructure, when room service was technically over, but the restaurant said I could order in person and a server would accompany me with my food back to my room. The white bartender came over and name-checked wine varieties, which, if I’m being generous, was maybe to help me manage the list. I gently dismissed her unsolicited recommendation of a pinot grigio for a quirkier roussanne, and two white women seated nearby tried to persuade me to enjoy my meal at the bar rather than in my room, because, now I realize, this was part of their show. They were so fervent in their goading I had to declare that this wasn’t a group decision. I actually said those words and was thankful when a server appeared with my moules frites. “Well excuse me,” one of the women said. Indeed, I thought, and I trailed the tray-toting man to the lobby elevator.
I am made aware of it when I ask a white, often male, bartender to tell me the style of a locally brewed beer that’s referenced on the menu by an esoteric name like Blissful Kittens or some craziness that reveals nothing to even the most seasoned beer drinker. I have rarely had a bartender respond with the name of a beer style such as doppelbock, Berliner Weisse, gose or my favorite, saison. Instead they opt for more “accessible” information like tasting notes (it’s fruity; it’s hoppy; you might like this one instead — “this one” is always a lager). I think about the way white men servers at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco and Chez Panisse in Berkeley interrupted me mid-sentence. I’ve noticed other white male servers pause to allow my white male dining companions to finish a thought before breaking in to explain the provenance of the mushroom dish. I think about the white woman server at GW Fins in New Orleans’ French Quarter who walked me and my husband through elusive menu sections like appetizers, salads and entrees. And while I’m sensitive to the likelihood that in a tourist capital like the Vieux Carré, such a speech is probably part of her job and even helpful to some, I swiftly but politely cut short her intro because I sensed if she explained to me what a “side” dish was, I might take my butter knife (for the butter, maybe!) and jab it up her nostril with years of pent-up frustration.
This is the part where, in retelling such encounters, a few friends, more colleagues and at times, even my husband, jokingly try to help me “understand” what I misunderstood about a particular exchange.
You’re at a bar, people talk to each other! Don’t be so standoffish. She was just trying to be nice.
She was an old lady. Be sweet to old ladies.
The defenses, usually from men and white people, typically wane as I counter with a series of inquiries. My men friends cannot recall the last time a fellow customer — not staffer — walked up to them in a liquor store to help them with their selection. My white men friends often realize they’ve had to explicitly state that they’re first-timers before a bartender gives them the Welcome to This Bar, Surprise, It’s a Bar speech. I reject the idea that I’m colliding with common standards of dining. I reject that I keep finding myself under the thumb of white people who can’t contain their enthusiasm for the food or drink about to be served. I can’t even convince myself that people are weird sometimes and maybe I encounter more weirdos than others. Rather, I now believe that what I experience as a diner is inextricably linked to the racialized and gendered history of eating out in the United States. I believe that too many white people, still figuring out that they are in fact white and not de facto normal, struggle with what to do with themselves when in the vicinity of blackness, when they are neither the authority figure, nor the host or hostess, nor the most important guest in the room.
I know. It bothers many of varied ethnicity to think that people’s behavior today in the early 21st century has roots in the genocide and displacement of indigenous people on this continent and the enslavement of Africans and their descendants in the Americas. That annoyance doesn’t make the fact any less true. I can empathize, to a point. Nobody wants to cede that much power to history, to admit so little self-determination in the land of actualizing dreams. It’s frustrating — disempowering even — to realize how much of our lives this country yields to tradition. Americans in particular have a tendency to believe we’re governed only by the Now, that we’re a forward-thinking culture with our gaze on the horizon. But that’s a myth.
Many of us avoid the truth, maybe for different reasons. Facing the devastating missteps of this country can feel like admitting too much wrongness, or it can feel like absorbing too much pain. But those who are willing — or have been forced — to confront our racial reality know we live in the imprint of vicious ideals. Parts of the etching linger.
I think of it like this: In order to manage the forced labor of a mass of people at once resistant, vigilant, terrified and traumatized, all hailing from their own distinguished and varied cultures, jumbled together in grotesque and inhumane ways, then subjected to violence-induced work in a new land that was inspired and governed by the rights of man and individual liberties, white male property owners required the creation and enforcement of unique and particular laws.
Those laws criminalized blackness. Those laws were the legal foundation for using race as a divider and as a determining factor in how people got to live. Those laws created the framework to police the bodies, movement, education and treatment of anyone visibly identifiable as African or of African descent.
Such laws created social tiers of existence tied to the rightness of whiteness and the wrongness of blackness. Any black person who appeared misplaced in a white person’s view required their intervention. It was the law! While these legalized social stratifications buckled under the weight of Lincoln’s proclamation, we never emerged from the cultural mind-set they inscribed.
Proximity of people of African and European heritage was always dangerous for black people, but you could argue, not precisely the issue. The status of black people, however, was. It was one thing, for example, for an enslaved black person to prepare food and serve it to a white person, even while the domestic enslaved lived at great risk in their closeness to white people. Still, it was another thing entirely for a newly freed servant and an ex-owner of humans to find themselves stripped of labels from the preceding 200-plus years, but still burdened with the legacy of their skin color. Need it be said, this shift in power was only problematic to those accustomed to unchecked authority?
This is the social climate in which the country saw the introduction of restaurants. Be they called coffee houses, oyster houses, boardinghouses, dining rooms or dining halls — the terminology and nuances changing with region, locality, industry and proprietor preference — dining establishments in name and number thrived in urban centers in the mid- to late 19th century, an outcome of an evolving middle class. These places often hired black workers and catered to white men — and, only occasionally, white women, who typically required white male accompaniment to enter. Even through the early 1900s, unescorted white women were often identified as prostitutes and outwardly dismissed from respectable establishments, with select restaurants permitting solo white women or white ladies’ groups to dine in private rooms, usually only during the day, and always out of men’s sight.
There is more I’d like to say on the subject of women’s history of dining out in America, on the pervasive inconsistencies in how black and white women engaged in that pursuit of pleasure, especially during so-called “women’s” suffrage. For now, let’s understand that the cultural space allotted for dining out, the social practice of eating at ease in public, was not created for the enjoyment of black people or other people of color. But the practice was often expected to be upheld by the service of black people and nonwhite immigrants. And while white women advocated politically and socially to be afforded a seat at the table and handed the same menu as white men (with published prices, thank you), it was predominantly black people’s courage in the face of mob violence, sit-ins, litigation, civil unrest and relentless protest that granted me, an African American woman, the confidence to walk through any restaurant door with the expectation of service.
We are many decades departed from images of young, black college students being hauled off by white police officers for protesting, for daring to ask for a cola float and tuna melt in whites-only diners. But then, in the spring of 2018, 25-year-old Chikesia Clemons was wrestled to the ground and detained by three white police officers in a Waffle House for questioning the charge of plastic flatware with a take-out order. Her bare chest is exposed in a recording widely circulated on the Internet; the indecency shown her and countless others like her in recent days eerily similar to Jim Crow-era conflict — white patrons continued their meals and appeared unflustered by the ordeal.
This is the thing that unnerves me most about unwittingly becoming part of the performance of going out to eat, of being dragged into somebody’s showtime. You’re only part of the act when the white viewer summons you — if they don’t want to bear witness, they don’t have to. Being white means you can engage if you so choose, or you can leave well enough alone. Being white means you can watch an outnumbered, unarmed black woman be manhandled by law enforcement and stripped of basic dignity while enjoying your waffle and hash browns; it means you can harass a young black woman seated at the bar for no other reason than that you can’t quite account for how she got there, same as you.
I do what I can. My involuntary appearance in the dining performance tends to occur in places where I am in the minority, but patronizing restaurants owned and frequented by people of color is no fail-safe, either. And although it's not my intention to eat meals in public purely as an act of protest, I'm starting to embrace that, for a black woman in America, that might be the way it is. At least for now.
The white gaze is constant. I can’t control it. But I have noticed something about the gaze — it’s not necessarily a one-way act. I don’t know if it will ever truly matter, but sometimes I respond to the intruder with a silent, steady look. In that quiet moment, even if the show goes on, I sense we are both clear — the whole thing is their own futile masquerade.
Endolyn is a James Beard Award-winning writer whose work often reflects on food, dining spaces and cultural identity.