Cafeteria Nightmare

The November Challenge caught me unawares, just as I was thinking I found a community that wouldn’t ostracize me for eating by myself or suggest that I have meals in company... :)

Still, it looked like it could make for an interesting experiment. I considered ways to get through it: visiting people, inviting friends over, chatting up strangers in cafes, Skyping in the kitchen…but I found the thought of eating ONLY in company really disturbing. It wasn’t about being around people more than I usually do, it was about having no alternative, and it reminded me of the experience that had shaped my inclination for eating in solitude.

So here it is: not a report on the challenge, but the story of why it is so challenging for me.

The Origins of a Loneeater...

There was a time in my life when I never ate alone. I worked in a large company and lived quite far away from the office; getting up early and returning home late in the evening left little time for anything more substantial than a cup of tea, so the only proper meal I had on weekdays was in the corporate cafeteria with my colleagues.

As workplace cafeterias go, it wasn't a bad one at all: the food was alright, the prices low, and it was located in the same building, so it was very popular with the employees. Every day from noon to three, as various departments had their scheduled lunch breaks, there was a steady flow of people picking up trays, loading them with plates of food, sitting down at the long tables to empty the plates and putting the trays on the conveyor belt that took them back to the kitchen. It was a simple, predictable and highly efficient system that made one feel like a little gear in a huge machine.

Of course, lunching wasn’t that mechanical and soulless, with all the friendly chats, laughing and gossiping at the tables, but the atmosphere in the cafeteria didn’t dispose one to linger there too long after eating.

I usually had lunch with several girls from my department. We would discuss work and family matters, fashion and movies, travelling and food – but not the food on our plates, unless it was bad. It rarely was, because the menu changed little from one week to another. Once in a while a new dish cautiously made its way to the menu and then either disappeared or became a staple piece.

There would be meat pies every Monday, fish casserole every Thursday and borsch every Friday. And as much as I enjoyed my colleagues’ company and appreciated not having to go outside in bad weather, deep inside I was dissatisfied with cafeteria lunches.

To me, it didn’t qualify as eating in the fullest sense of the word. There is more to eating than just appeasing hunger, more than a social function. To make the experience complete, sensorial impressions are required as well: the aroma of the dish, admiring the way it is served, savouring the taste, enjoying the environment or simply being excited to try something unfamiliar.

I once asked a colleague, “Don’t you find it depressing that every Friday without exception they serve borsch?” She looked at me oddly and said, “But I like borsch”.

Several times a month I would go out to have lunch in some café nearby, with my coworkers if I could persuade them, or by myself. And every weekend, to compensate for the five days of dutifully consuming nutrients, I would cook something special or go to a restaurant; it didn’t matter whether I had company or not. The important thing was to have positive emotions provoked by the food, to feel like saying, “Hey, this is really good!” – to a friend, to the waiter, or just to myself.

I quit that job eventually, since I’m remarkably bad at coping with routine. Now that I’m self-employed, I may not have a plate of hot soup anytime I want, but at least I know it doesn’t have to be borsch – it can be whatever I make it.