It’s summer, it’s lunchtime, and I have a minor problem: I don’t know whether to have portobello mushrooms or watermelon in my salad. The meaty portobello’s strong taste can overwhelm, but the watermelon must be ripe — though not overripe — or the whole meal is ruined. I stand on my side of the clear shield, eyeing sweet and savory.
I am definitely not alone in my desire for this type of meal. From Chipotle to Sweetgreen, from Cava to Buredo, you can join a line of fellow diners standing at the glass to watch as your grain bowl, your salad or your burrito is constructed. You are both the audience for, and the director of, this food play, which can be cast with seemingly any ingredient under the sun. Non-GMO basmati rice and quinoa, roasted chicken and simmered tofu, raisins and umami walnuts — it’s like someone decided that Thanksgiving didn’t happen often enough and that we needed a daily, not yearly, reminder of the American cornucopia.
I have come to view this situation as lunch-assembly theater, and I have been considering what I get out of it, because I have a hunch it’s more than food. After all, eating, like seeing, is a primary way human beings take the outside world in, and the outside world has lately presented me with more than I am happy to swallow, thank you very much. It was only three months ago that Americans were told to avoid romaine lettuce because of E. coli , and in late August, federal health officials determined that more than 500 people had been sickened by salad at McDonald’s — an eatery, it must be noted, that has yet to adopt the assembly-as-theater model.
How comforting it is, then, to stand and watch as seemingly hyper-clean food is handled by plastic-gloved workers who are merely adding ingredients together using simple math — one cup of rice, half a cup of beans, more guacamole than seems reasonable, but only if you pay extra — not combining them behind closed doors via some complicated chemistry involving restaurant-grade Bunsen burners. This kind of helicopter-y observation offers the solace of seeing with one’s own eyes, and as such, it’s a surveillance that is more intimate than the one made constantly and anonymously by our ubiquitous urban security cameras. The control this offers is illusory, of course: We’re generally not privy to the workings of the supply lines that feed these restaurants, as we learned last summer when Chipotle was hit with a norovirus outbreak.
Nonetheless, the allure of this approach beckons. At Sweetgreen, at least, more glass often reveals the workers who are prepping the food that then will go to the assemblers. It’s as if the entire place is a living portrait of food prep as styled by M.C. Escher.
There is a certain flagrant rejection of any chef/diner trust here. To take flour, butter and sugar, for instance, and transform them into a cupcake — how quaint the cupcake seems now, as a food fad — is nothing less than a kind of alchemy, and to consume that magic involves a faith not unlike that of an audience member who feasts her eyes on a magician’s sleight of hand. Sure, you know that what you are seeing is a calculated feat requiring hours of laborious practice, but allowing yourself to consume it is still to be vulnerable, in a way — to be “tricked.” And many of us, given the problems with food of late, let alone politics, don’t have much of an appetite for that.
The problem with assuming control, however, is that it’s easy to screw it up. There should be a hashtag for the failure I have caused more than once: of ambitiously mixing too many things in my bowl, only to end up with a muck of sauces, proteins, grains and greens. #failbowl? #justtoomuchsalad? #crapucopia?
Ah, well, there are worse coping behaviors than poorly micromanaging your lunch. After all, eating, as any therapist can tell you, is a potent locus of human control, and for those like myself who are watching this presidency unfold in horror, it is important to hold onto some sense of stability in a world that seems to have truly gone insane. What better way to subjugate feelings of helplessness than by never letting your lunch out of your sight? And for those cheering on a leader who they see as at last representing them and their interests, well, I am not sure what to say. Let’s have lunch, maybe?
My favorite lunch place this summer has been Sweetgreen, the wildly popular salad and bowl emporium started by three Georgetown grads. I find one moment of culinary choreography particularly instructive: when the assembler takes the plastic bottle of dressing, squeezes your desired amount onto your gathered ingredients, and then introduces the dressing to the ingredients by banging tongs against the bowl while twirling it. This flourish — one that the chain is, alas, abandoning — is a bit like watching salad and dressing being forcibly introduced like two families at a boozy shotgun wedding. The party, having been cacophonously joined, is then poured calmly into your takeout bowl.
I see something of our current condition in this routine, where separate foods are carefully mixed under clinical lighting. Ours is not the moment to sit and wait while someone blends ingredients together sight unseen, presenting them to us only after they have undergone their transformation. We want to know how it all happens, and we want to see it all ourselves. That is the secret ingredient, I think, that makes the theater of the assembled lunch so appealing. What we are hungry for most, in 2018, is transparency.
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