25 June 2007

There are things that you just don't want to find in your food.

I am going to refrain from naming the restaurant at which MJ and I and two of our friends were dining. In fact, I won't even name the neighborhood in which the joint resides. The purpose of this blog is not to pass judgment or to embarrass people, let alone get some weak sort of 'revenge' for a poor dining experience; that is not the purpose in telling this story. Rather, I'd like to tell this story because it's a story about discovery. In this case, one of the worst discoveries one could make while eating a burrito.

In 1997, I moved to Washington, DC for what would be a three-year tenure in the nation's capitol. Baltimore and DC have a long standing history of one-up-man-ship probably dating back to the War of 1812 but certainly including the fortunes of our respective ballclubs and music scenes. It's a silly thing, but the relationship in some ways mirrors that of siblings close in age. Anyway, here I was -- a Baltimoron in DC -- and I really wanted to make something of it; the city itself is one of the most fantastic places and I wanted to find a niche I could call home.

Probably the greatest value DC has to offer is the free admission to such grand and inspiring public institutions as the National Gallery, the Hirshhorn, the Botanical Gardens, and the National Archives. I worked for a time as a dog walker. The job required me to meet the dogs in the morning and again around suppertime, which gave me the majority of the afternoon to explore the town. I spent countless hours in the art museums and galleries -- including the marvelous and under-acknowledged Phillips Collection in Dupont Circle. The second greatest thing about DC is the plethora of restaurants. I ate on the cheap, finding the best lunch deals throughout the city. If careful in one's research, it was possible to fill one's belly with the finest Indian, Ethiopian, and Mexican lunches for a little more than a roundtrip ticket on the subway.

In all my jaunts around town, one little restaurant became my favorite. This place served what I esteemed to be hands-down the finest burrito in town. And this was in a city where there were at least a dozen places that could legitimately vie for that title. So, as was our custom, MJ and I took friends of ours -- a couple from Baltimore whom we have known for many years -- to this place of eating for the purpose of demonstrating to them what we considered the best in neighborhood dining.

Now, I digress. In the practice of restaurant eating, there is always a matter of trust the patron puts in the kitchen and in the waiter. I am sure that you have heard all of the urban legends and perhaps some true stories about breaches in that trust. And the reason we often react so harshly to that breach is two-fold. On the one hand, as a paying customer one expects a certain level of professionalism and consistency in the handling of food. This is not unlike the professionalism and consistency of service one hopes to receive when paying for auto-repairs or having a broken leg set. However, in the food game, it goes a step beyond that. No one really loves having his or her car towed into a body-shop. No one hurls himself or herself down a mountainside with the intention of landing in a doctor's office. But when we go out to eat, we are usually doing so because we WANT to. Food therefore, and the bond of trust between restaurant and patron, therefore becomes something more sacred -- something that at least the patron sees as a more personal act.

When we tell a waiter what we want to eat, we tell them something about us; we let them know something about what it is that we like. Eating at its core is a very intimate act and when we order food, we are offering up secrets about ourselves.

Perhaps that is why, more than any other breach of trust, people take a breach surrounding food as such an affront to civil society. Consider the example of Atreus and Thyestes... or later in Shakespeare's version of Titus Andronicus. Both tales contain a breach involving food that cuts closest to the core of what it means to be betrayed and abused.

And thus, many passions were to arise of this dinner with friends.

We were seated at a table of four nearest the kitchen. While some people are annoyed by a seat near the bustle of the kitchen door, I've always liked it. I worked in kitchens from the age of 16 to 21, and while many of those experiences will certainly comprise the topics of future blog posts, needless to say I've never really given up my sense of camaraderie with kitchen and wait staff. This is why I always tip well -- even when service is seemingly poor-- and why I always either wipe down or straighten my table before leaving.

We ordered off the menu and our meals arrived sufficiently late to let us imbibe for a bit on the house sangria and local beers. Conversation was lively and the mood of the evening seemed to me to be enhanced by this crowded little neighborhood dive. That is the best thing a restaurant can do: enhance one's experience. Even now, I can remember the smell and sound and bustle and feel of enjoyment more than I can remember anything we discussed that evening.

Dinner having been served, we were some ten minutes into our main dishes when I made the discovery. I felt something out-of-place between my tongue and teeth; as though something burnt were caught in my bite of burrito. Trying not to call attention to myself, I leaned back and wiped my mouth with a napkin. Surreptitiously, I spat out the foul particle.

In this moment there are two things one can do. Should I look in the napkin or should I let in pass?

I looked in the napkin.

And almost vomited.

My friend Matt who was sitting to my right shot me a funny look. "You alright?"

I gulped air trying to regain my composure. "Yeah. I'm fine."

"You look pale," he replied as leaning forward to put a hand on my shoulder.

My wife offered me a glass of water which I hastily drank down to the ice.

"What's the matter," she asked.

"Nothing."

"No," she implored, "what's the matter?"

Perhaps I should have made up a story. Something about the sangria getting to my head or just feeling dizzy and dehydrated after a long summer's day. But looking at the three of them, I could not bring myself to falsify information. A breach had been made and I owed it to my fellow patrons to let them know lest they suffer the same shock. Without speaking, I handed my soiled napkin to Matt. He opened it. And saw the round, soiled Band-Aid.

His dry-heaving caused the rest of the table consternation. I stood to confront the host while my fellow diners tried to rid themselves of the local delicacies.

Finding the host, I took him by the arm and struggled to speak the following words: "I found this in my burrito." I handed him the soiled napkin and he looked inside.

Without so much as blinking, the host looked me straight in the eye and stated: "Sir, I will go right in the kitchen and find out who has a cut on their finger!"

I remember this story today as though it were happening right in front of me. I offer it to you, again, not out of a desire to embarrass an eating establishment, but to bring up this notion of trust and the level of relativity with which we the patrons and they the kitchen and waiters treat one another. I didn't get mad at the host. In a way, I reflect, his response was totally sobering. Rather, my party and I just calmly walked out of the restaurant never to return again. And I still miss those burritos and I still wish I would have straightened up that table before we split.

4 comments:

MJ said...

This is true. I was there and it still gives a gag reaction.

mamiesb said...

That is shudderingly disgusting.

Sav said...

i heard a story once, that a woman was eating a burrito at taco bell. she had a progressively worse sore throat each day, and finally went to the doctor only to find that some bug that was in the meat had laid eggs in her throat. a bit of an urban myth, but it was enough to stop me from eating taco bell again.

Elizabeth said...

Good thing the cook wasn't wearing this type of band-aid:
http://www.mcphee.com/items/11476.html

You would nave never noticed.