By Marina Wolf
ONLY CATS and face-twitching sociopaths openly watch other people eat. I know this. But much as listening to someone else's conversation is considered an etiquette violation only if you get caught, so is watching other people while they eat a problem only if the watching is noticed.
And it's so much more fun than eavesdropping. The psychology of eating goes beyond etiquette, though etiquette is often the first observable quality about a person's dining habits. Does he push the food carefully apart or mash it together? Does she stir the coffee incessantly or cut the lettuce in the salad? There are no right or wrong answers, no chart to match up manners with personality type. The most interesting part of the process is whether any of it matches up with what you might have guessed just from looking at the person, and that says more about the observer than the observee.
You see how amusing it can be to check out someone else chowing down. Nonetheless I usually avert my eyes. People in restaurants are already hypersensitive to the presence of others--like wild animals in the Serengeti, we are, eying each other around the watering hole--and I hate adding pressure. But sometimes I simply can't help but watch.
The other day I was entranced by a fellow who sat across the aisle from me. He sat alone, turned slightly away from me, in perfect alignment for discreet observation: our eyes could never meet, yet I could see most of his profile, a rough face with broad cheekbones, deep outdoor tan. As I coupled his well-worn jacket with his scuffed work boots planted firmly on the floor, the signs in my head read: construction worker. Manly man. Meat and potatoes. Light beer.
Manly Man held the menu carefully in his sturdy calloused hands and read each page from top to bottom. He gave his order to the waiter with quiet firmness: New York steak, baked potato, salad with two containers of Thousand Island dressing, yes, bread, please. Anything to drink, sir? Strawberry daiquiri, with extra whipped cream.
I stifled a giggle, but resisted looking up until the waiter brought the drink out, a goblet full of rosy pink froth with a cloud of whipped cream on top. In the same matter-of-fact way, this diner licked off a bite of the cream. He then drenched his salad with dressing--more pink!--he just dumped it in, one cup after another. Even from inside his closed mouth, the bites of lettuce made brisk, crisp noises that cheered me up in a strange sort of visceral way. He ripped a roll with calloused fingers and spread margarine thickly on the pieces. He obviously did not know or care about dietary guidelines, not in that moment, at least.
When his skillet arrived, Manly Man slathered the potato with both margarine and sour cream and let it all melt in a puddle while he tore into his steak. The pieces of meat were savagely large chunks, but he speared them neatly on his fork and into his mouth, and managed to keep his mouth closed while chewing meditatively on the mouthfuls of meat. When the potato had been thoroughly soaked in dairy product, he shoveled it in, his fingers grasping the fork over the top.
Meanwhile the daiquiri had disappeared, and Manly Man sipped delicately at another one while he cleaned his plate with an intensity of focus that knocked the breath out of me. He had no newspaper or book or laptop to distract him, the way many solo diners do. It was just him and the dinner and his appetite at that table, with enough room for all three. And two daiquiris, besides.
From the March 1-8, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.