Drinks at a smart hotel after work. Two glasses of something chilled. And two bowls: one piled high with fat green olives, the other teeming with something roasted and nutty. After a few sips I want both and go in for the olives. My guest, a chic woman with less fat on her body than a gazelle, touches neither. Not wanting to look greedy, I leave them alone too. After 30 minutes an aproned waiter switches the bowls for fresh ones – despite them only being one olive down on their original haul.
Breakfast at one of those London restaurants where trade is brisk even at 8am. This time I have been invited along to talk about a new publishing venture. I order – eggs, scrambled, and, yes, toast, please too. And coffee? Of course. My host slides the menu to one side and says, “just an orange juice for me”.
Dinner with friends. It’s pudding time. The first person demures, “I’d better not”. And then it’s a cascading dominoes effect as person after person says, “no thanks”. Do I want to be the only person insisting on pie? Of course not. “I’m fine thanks,” I hear myself stuttering with inner annoyance. I wonder if I am the only person who cracks open the fridge door when they get home in search of something sweet.
Eating in public can be a menu of denial and one-upmanship. Restaurants become less places to eat and more amphitheatres for gladiatorial battles of calorific denial. No wonder some – serious – business books suggest that you eat before you go to a key lunch so that you don’t look greedy and certainly never risk getting spinach tooth.
Alcohol is particularly tricky. When your lunchtime date asks if you’d like a glass you have to be cautious it’s not a trick question. You say, yes, and they reveal a long history of alcoholism (it’s happened to me more than once). I tend to press on but the message is clear – you have a job where you don’t have to be as sharp as your dining companion – or is that “opponent”?
Even the bread basket promises both tasty temptations and carbohydrate remorse. I recently tore off a piece of something perfectly plump and just out of an oven and one of the people at my table gasped. And a real gasp. “Do you eat bread?” he wondered. Then half-joking: “obviously no beach holiday for you then.”
Not all the people I know are lean and mean. There’s something delicious about going to dinner with someone who likes food and wants to try everything. This restaurant restraint would never last in say Beirut. I was in Greece a couple of years ago with a Lebanese friend and we headed to a beach restaurant where the cook was celebrated in a very local way. Soon we were in the kitchen lifting pan lids, tasting bits of this and that. Our lunch table should have buckled but we sat there in the sun for two hours eating and picking, drinking and gossiping. I still remember that afternoon. But the abstinence sessions in some of London’s better restaurants? They soon fade.
So in the future pile me up. Give me a second pudding. I want wine. Well, after my beach holiday. And maybe not when anyone is looking.