For a simple dish, a sandwich sure can cause a lot of trouble. Such it was on Tuesday when the Internet took apart every layer of a piece from New York Times columnist David Brooks about privilege, which included an anecdote about an awkward trip to a fancy sandwich shop with a friend who turned out to be more comfortable with Mexican food. As an eater, I think Brooks made one very important mistake, and it wasn’t in treating deli meats like they’re exotic.
It’s not only wealthy people, or urban elites, who share food they love with people who are unfamiliar with it. And the generosity and care involved in introducing people to new food in a new environment are not the special provenance of a highly educated few. Depending on the setting and the circumstances, anyone can be an expert and anyone can be uncomfortably out of their depth, as Rod Dreher points out in a long post on the Brooks Sandwich Affair.
Whenever you’re eating with someone, you should think about what the other person would like to eat and can eat. And if you’re going to introduce someone to something new, whether it’s a new restaurant, a new dining price point or an entirely new cuisine, you should make sure they’ll feel safe and comfortable before they walk in the door.
This doesn’t require an elaborate interrogation or taking anyone you don’t know very well to Chili’s just to be safe. But it does call for the level of thinking involved in not taking a devout Jew or Muslim to a pig roast, or not suggesting a Thai restaurant to someone with a peanut sensitivity. Asking your dining partner if there’s a cuisine they particularly like or a place they’ve been eager to try is good manners, even if you’re not focused on class politics. And manners are a good guide if you sense, or your guest mentions, that what you’re eating is new or challenging to someone at the table: Without calling attention to that fact, you can impart a lot of information simply by explaining what you like, what you don’t and why.
I haven’t always been the most adventuresome eater, though my reasons are biological: I have a severe allergy to tree nuts, and before restaurants and waiters became as sensitive to restrictions such as mine as most are today, eating out could be not merely socially uncomfortable but dangerous. I’ve walked out of restaurants, my heart thudding and my face flushed with embarrassment, when a server told me that allergies such as mine were a liability. And I’ve avoided altogether places where the menu suggests that I’ll have few options or spend my whole evening asking to be accommodated.
I don’t mean to suggest that coming from a certain class background is the same thing as having an allergy: That’s like comparing soup to, well, nuts. But my life as an eater has given me some appreciation for what it’s like to approach a dining situation where I might face condescension or rejection, or be presented with something I literally can’t eat. As I’ve tried to be more audacious when eating out, I’ve benefited enormously from the attentiveness and patience of people who took the time to help me navigate new settings and new experiences.
When my husband and I visited Vietnam earlier this year, for example, one stop on our itinerary was a street food tour in the city of Hoi An. As someone with a food allergy, this was perilous territory: tastes of more than 40 dishes, cooked under circumstances I couldn’t control, with ingredients I didn’t necessarily recognize. Beyond that, the tour also meant eating food made in conditions different from the ones I was used to, which was part of the point. Our tour guide took both things into account. She asked carefully about what would make me sick and translated at every stop along the way, warning me in advance when I wouldn’t be able to partake. And she encouraged us to look closely at the stands that held meat and produce in the local market, to note how the counters gleamed and how the meat was so fresh and sold so quickly that it didn’t sit long enough to attract flies.
This wasn’t my first time grabbing a plastic stool and digging in to a bowl of soup or a plate of char siu pork on my own initiative. But I couldn’t have handled my allergy in this environment, with this many dishes, without help. I remain grateful for the assistance that meant I could try, among other things, xi ma, a black sesame pudding served straight out of a large roadside pot, without spending the whole morning terrified that I was about to become dangerously ill.
In a lower-stakes environment, I remain grateful to my friend and occasional Act Four contributor Betsy Phillips, for her guidance during a trip to Nashville I took earlier this spring. Because Nashville hot chicken has become a food craze, I was curious to eat the real thing. While I might have found my way to Hattie B’s by myself, I wouldn’t have known much about the dish’s history without Betsy’s guidance. And I almost certainly would have completely embarrassed myself by trying to be macho and ordering the hottest option on the menu: As it was, Betsy was wise enough to encourage me to try a single chicken tender at the second hottest level, while making sure to order something more reasonable. I only ended up with a running nose and eyes through my first few bites; without her, I might have had to ditch my lunch and sneak out the door, lightly humiliated.
The world is full of remarkable food, and rich, highly educated elites in the Amtrak corridor don’t have a monopoly on the best of it. Cultural exchange goes in many directions, and the same good manners and attention to others’ comfort will help us through that transaction, no matter which side of it we’re on.