A friend of mine told me this story a little while back and it stuck with me, mostly because it accurately depicts the humiliation we often feel when we eat alone. It is heightened because he is visiting France and he is from a small town in Canada.
My friend’s name is Tom. He cooks for a living and going to Paris to eat French Food was the research project themed on extravagance, romance and decadence he always wanted to take.
On the first morning he arrives he waits anxiously to eat lunch. It is 11:30am and although he knows it is a little early, he goes anyway. A bistro in the heart of Paris welcomes him into an empty dining room. Confident that the lunch crowd will be arriving shortly, he asks for a menu. He spots all the dishes on the menu that he came to France to eat. There is an unapologetic abundance of liver, brain, tripe on the menu. It’s the veal kidneys that rouse his appetite. He orders them confidently with seamless French. The waiter nods. But, all of a sudden Tom feels strangely insecure. Did he sense a slight cock in the waiter’s brow? Was that the wrong thing to order? He finds solace in recognizing that he is after all a tourist, and Parisians have been rumoured to be a little cool toward foreigners.
In walk the next two guests. They sit side by side in a banquette and without even a short perusal of the menu they both order the special. The next four people walk in, all working class Parisians on their lunch break. The same pattern occurs. Special. Special. Special. The whole restaurant fills up and everyone orders the special, which is by the way beef bourguignon. There are even people at the door who haven’t even been seated. They all order the special too. Tom was the only one to request a menu
As the lunch traffic passes by his table its like they are slowing down to see an accident on the highway. As much as he tries to enjoy lunch, he recognizes that he has ordered wrong. Without a companion to share the remorse, he keeps one palm glued to his forehead for the rest of the meal. Without dessert or an espresso he pays the bill, gives a half smile to the waiter and boots.
The next day he returns to the same bistro but at noon this time. He marches in and grabs a seat at the bar. After a small hospitable exchange, Tom exclaims proudly to the same waiter, “the special, please”. He waits anxiously for his meal while reading his book (in French). It arrives. “Your veal kidneys,” instructs the waiter. They exchange a knowing smile. Tom exhales deeply and takes the first couple of bites. He looks around the room at everyone eating the same dish as him and with a breath of relief becomes aware of how delicious the veal kidneys are.