Thursday, August 25, 2011


There's a scene in the movie Shakespeare in Love in which a character wanders through a marketplace where a waiter for an outdoor eating venue is reciting daily specials. I've heard that moviemakers making historical films employ historians as fact checkers, but in this case someone wasn't doing his job. The practice of giving diners a choice of what to eat actually evolved hundreds of years after Shakespeare's time, in Paris around the time of the French Revolution.

Innkeepers had sold meals to hungry, paying guests for millenia, but choices were limited to what that innkeeper happened to be offering on that particular day. Eating establishments in Paris before modern restaurants came into vogue were usually locations where a proprietor served the same thing to all of his guests, at designated times rather than whenever they happened to wander in the door.

The tradition of a "restaurant," where diners come on their own schedules and order off of a list of choices, caught on in Paris around the same time that the Industrial Revolution was getting into gear across the channel in England. Rural homesteaders forced off their land began moving to the cities, taking jobs in factories, and working for wages. They became the earliest modern consumers, spending their hard-earned income on afforable luxuries that helped them unwind after long, grueling work days.

Today we take for granted the act of visiting a store and choosing from hundreds or thousands of options. We craft identities based on whether we choose organic or exotic food products, or whether we're partial to high end chocolate. We tend to think of ourselves as individuals first, and then members of a tribe, country, or community and, for better or worse, much of our identity as individuals is tied up in what we buy and how we eat.

As a business owner, I struggle with this. Vending at farmers' markets, my livelihood depends on feeding as many customers as possible as quickly as possible. The more choices you offer, the longer it takes folks to make up their minds. Limiting the number of options also cuts way down on waste. I'm aware that I sometimes lose customers because I don't offer the option of choosing different types of tortillas or different types of cheese, but this business model mostly works for me so I stick with it.

As I was serving this month's Humble Feast Dinner, it occurred to me that this type of dining event is actually more like the pre-industrial common table than a modern restaurant setup. There's a buffet with multiple courses, but they're the same offerings for everyone, and we serve at a set time. This month we came up with a novel approach: we set up a taco bar. Rice, beans, beef, seitan, salsa, hot sauce, cheese, marinated cabbage, pickled carrots and jalapenos. I doubt any two tacos were the same.

1 comment:

Arielle said...

Don't try too hard to give people so many choices! It's not what we really want anyway, just what we think we want. Do you know about Barry Schwartz' book The Parado of Choice? He has an awesome TED talk about the matter: