>>> Bang for Your Buck
By staff writer David Nelson
November 27, 2005

The holidays are upon us, and unless sitcoms have been lying to me, it’s a time for family togetherness. That’s all well and good if you’re in college and have a nice buffer zone for parental contact. But there comes a time when the visits become more frequent, and it may not be entirely out of fear of being cut out of the will. You’re more mature, you start seeing the sacrifices your parents made for you, and you become a little more forthcoming with your precious time. But if you think the Freudian power struggle stops just because you have your own place, complete with your own shower curtain and your own microwave, you have got another thing coming. I hate to break it to you, but even though they love you, your parents secretly resent you as well. You’ve grown up with opportunities and advantages they never had. And that resentment will manifest itself in the form of humiliation. And my parents’ humiliation of choice? The forced restaurant outing. Prepare to be horrified.

Unless you’re a middle-aged Jewish couple, you’ve probably never dined out with my parents. That said, if you’ve ever been to a restaurant, chances are pretty good that you’ve sat next to them, because, at their age, visiting restaurants is their sole source of pleasure in the world. If my calculations are correct, they’ve been to every restaurant in the world at least twice, probably in disguise the second time. I’ll try to convey to you just what a painful, excruciating ordeal it is to go out with my folks. It won’t be easy. Some of you may have similar stories to tell. My condolences.

“My dad will ask, ‘The steamed broccoli, does that come with any corn?' And then the waiter will confirm what any sane person knows: there’s no corn in broccoli.”

(Parental quotes in italics)

Now, I’m fully independent, and I do appreciate my folks, but as soon as they step through the doors of a restaurant, it’s like they become different people. I don’t think they lead particularly difficult lives, but they are clearly determined to punish the wait staff for any setbacks they’ve ever suffered. Sometimes they dine out with their long-time friends, who are actually worse. I follow along like a dutiful son, knowing full well that my dignity is forfeit. In my mind, I’m trying to distance myself from it all, as though I’m Jane Goodall living among the chimps in order to study them. Of course, the damn monkeys never had to find the perfect table, which is usually the first in a series of painful encounters with the hostess.

Lord help me, why do all hostesses have to be hot girls around my age? What are these restaurants trying to prove? In any case, I’ll usually try to remain out of sight while my dad pretends to forget how many people there are in our party. Um, party of….five…is it six…maybe it’s seven…better make it a table for eight. Now, more often than not, the entire dinner party is standing right there with him, so I assume he does this to make our party seem important. We know millions of people in this neighborhood who might just see us off the street and pop in to catch up on old times! Who knows how big our party could get? You couldn’t leave a few extra chairs for all our potential guests, could you?

After this complicated math problem is resolved, it’s time to actually find the physical table. Now, as an expert in cross-country poontanging and binge drinking, I don’t know much about tables, but I do know this: the hostess could show my parents the world’s most perfect table, with perfect dimensions, in a perfect location, that even massages your legs and sings you your favorite song, but if it’s the first table they’re shown, they will find multiple faults with it. This table’s too close to the wall, too far from a window, not facing the kitchen, under a fan, above an Indian burial ground, there’s a stain on the tablecloth, it’s too small, etc… This is what usually tips the wait staff off that it’s gonna be a long night for them. After a few more tries, we’ll get seated with many a grumble about how disappointed we are in the lack of table diversity and then the fun really begins.

Before any food is discussed, there’s usually quite a bit of what I call waiter banter. This drives me batshit crazy. The waitress will introduce herself, and my parents will pry into her life like she’s on Maury Pauvich. Plus, they’ll get her name wrong, repeatedly. And hilariously, if the name is ethnic in any way. But if she’s around my age, you can bet that they’ll drop hints that I’m single, and what waitress wouldn’t want to date a nice Jewish boy who could support her. If the menu’s big enough, I will literally hide behind it. Then, they’ll verbally catalogue every waiter, waitress, hostess, and chef that they’ve ever known or even heard of, and ask if she knows them. The humiliation for me is tripled if the waitress happens to be a member of a visible minority. They’re not prejudiced at all, it’s just that my parents grew up in a world of unshakeable stereotypes. And so, years later, I’m hiding behind my menu, hearing gems like Do you play basketball? Or: This restaurant doesn’t have dog on the menu, does it? Heh heh.

Menus. They’re not written by Chaucer; they’re meant to be perfectly comprehensible lists of food that you can get in the restaurant. I don’t know why my parents choose to eschew the menu in favor of verbally quizzing the waiter, but it sure is entertaining to see that waiter settle in for a ten minute recitation, while other tables are waiting for their food. I know my dad’s eyesight isn’t that great, but the information he wants is usually printed in big bold letters six inches away from him. Sometimes he does read the menu, but that won’t stop him from getting the spoken-word version anyhow. Maybe he thinks the menu might be lying and wants confirmation, like there’s some kind of menu espionage conspiracy afoot.

My parents don’t just order food. No, sir. They have to explain their order, as though their choice will be met with a raised eyebrow and gossip back in the kitchen. I’ll have the steak. A steak is just meat. No carbs. I’m doing the Atkins now. Not allowed carbs. Steak’s got no carbs. I can have steak. I used to do Weight Watchers, but that didn’t work for me. Ever try those Slim Fast things? They should be called Fart Fast. I got so gassy on those, like you wouldn’t believe. At this point, the waiter is either looking horrified, or trying to suppress a laugh. So am I for that matter.

Whoever invented side dishes can kiss my ass. You’ve been to restaurants; every meal comes with something or other, and sometimes you can choose from a list. With my folks, this is a painful, drawn-out siege of a decision. After having the waiter run down the list a few times, my dad will need to set his mind at ease regarding the side dishes. The steamed broccoli, does that come with any corn? At this point, the waiter will confirm what any sane person knows: there’s no corn in broccoli. Because I can’t have corn. Not a diet thing, I just don’t like it. Cow bananas, I call it. Ha ha. But no, corn, alright? The waiter will now reiterate, perhaps a bit more forcefully, but not so as to endanger his tip, that the broccoli only comes with broccoli. And it’s steamed, you say? I don’t know if I like that. Could I have a second, smaller steak as my side dish?

They try to take even more liberties with side dishes. Now, when I’m at a restaurant, I accept that there are some things that I can request, and some things I can’t. Portions, for example. The restaurant has to make a profit on the food they sell, so portions are, presumably, fixed at a certain size. My parents will try to get around this, however. And I want lots of French fries. Heaps. I’ll split them with the entire table, and maybe that table over there. The flummoxed waiter will usually try to hedge the situation, promising to see what he can do, and (obviously) planning to do nothing, but my folks will be undeterred. Maybe you could bring them out right in that giant basket you cook ‘em in. That should be enough.

I will say that they’re usually pretty good about not sending food back, but every now and then, a meal will miss the mark on so many counts that they’ll be forced to. And when that happens, watch out, waiters of the world. For one thing, my mom likes food to be served mind-numblingly hot. If she orders soup, it better be hot enough to scald anyone attempting to climb over the walls of a medieval castle. Otherwise, she’s as likely to force a waiter to fetch a thermometer just to prove her point. And you better believe that once the food is on the table and has been deemed acceptable, my folks are going to ask for anything and everything food-related that they feel might be coming to them. Butter, salt, pepper, vinegar, shrimp fork, mustard, ketchup, extra napkins…maybe you should write this down. The crazy thing is, my dad won’t even use verbs when he’s requesting this stuff, as in, “Please bring me such-and-such,” or, “Could I get some so-and-so.” No, he’ll just dictate a list of items and expect the waiter to fill in any missing parts of speech.

We eat, we are satisfied, and here comes the bill. I’m not expected to pay anything, but I still make it a point to try and duck out at this point. There will always, always be something on the bill for my dad to challenge. And he will always be wrong about it, god bless him. Hey, what’s going on here? The menu said refills are free. Why are there five Cokes on the bill? Here, I’ll try to point out that five people at the table ordered a Coke, and hopefully I can cut him off before he launches into a rant about the price of Coke syrup and carbonated water.

I will say this about my parents, though. Despite all the hell they put a waiter or waitress through, they are very generous tippers. That’s really the only thing that can get me through a meal with them. I want to telepathically communicate to waiters, “Just stick it out…it’s all worth it in the end. Trust me!” I sometimes wonder if waiters see us coming and quickly try to calculate whether or not it’s worth the aggravation to serve us.

The last stage of the evening is the review. My folks will tell the waiter, the chef, the management, and pretty much anyone who’ll listen what they thought of the place. My mom is a walking book of restaurant reviews. Except, whereas Zagat rates places out of five stars and gives detailed descriptions, my mom has a simpler, two-tiered review system. Any place she’s ever been is either “Fabulous!” or “Poison!” But “poison” is pronounced with a “p” that’s so aspirated, it’s like she’s spitting out actual poison as she gives her one-word review. Over the years, we’ve been to many restaurants, and there have been a handful of “Poison!” reviews. We don’t talk about those places.

In spite of the repeated humiliations, I sometimes do enjoy going out to dinner with my parents. The way I figure it, someday I’m going to be genetically predisposed to behaving weirdly in restaurants. If that’s the case, I want to learn from the masters.

Essential New Word of the Day:
dextile \‘dEkstajl\ adj: This week’s word is a blend of dexterous and agile. The astute among you will notice that those two words are synonyms. You might think that renders a meaning of “really, astoundingly nimble,” but no. “Dextile” warrants entry here because it was used, entirely seriously, by a drunken friend, causing much laughter at his semi-literate ass. Accordingly, “dextile” has come to mean “agile, for someone who's drunk.” You know what I’m talking about. You’ve got the shambles, one eye is closed, and yet you still manage to navigate your way into the bathroom well enough to get all your vomit into the toilet. Congratulations, you’re dextile.