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Dining and Diversity


 

When you dine at home with your family, as a rule everyone has the same meal. If you’re having roast, everyone has roast. If it’s chicken, everyone has chicken. And — in my experience — the fact that everyone is eating the same thing is sort of the point. Someone who doesn’t like what’s on offer is welcome to go make their own meal (or leave the table), but there’s a general expectation that the conformity of dining experience is part of the value of dining as a family.

When you go out to a restaurant, it’s a different story. In restaurants, diversity is the norm: often, I’m sitting there as the server goes around the table taking an order, and the person before me orders exactly what I was going to order, and I think — “shoot, that’s what I was going to have.” In my experience, there is an expectation that everyone will have a different meal, or at least a different combination of drinks, appetizers, and entrees.  And it goes beyond the simple fact that left to their own preferences people want different things; because very often people change their order based on what other people have already ordered, to make sure the table has a certain amount of diversity. Collectively sampling a diverse cross-section of the menu seems to be part of the point of going out.

So at home, conformity is the norm, while in dining out, diversity is tacitly, if not strictly, enforced.

Is this your experience? Why do you think this is the case?


 
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Dining and Diversity

  1. Ours is a family of many picky eaters, so while there are several meals on which we can agree for dinner, most nights of the week there usually exists at least one 'special' meal (in which one, two or many family members have a different dinner for themselves, depending on whether they like that night's scheduled meal). So, at least in our household, that half of the argument fails (though your point about restaurants remains quite compelling)

    • depends on how the two of us feel. we dine together say 5/7 nights a week (misses around work schedules, get togethers with friends and work-related dinners). i would say we eat the same thing prob 3 or 4 times of the 5, much like Gene et al above.

      i would say 1/2 the time we eat out we eat sushi, indian or thai and generally share the dishes. so we eat the same out a lot. (the rise of non-european ethic food might be your arguments foil!). of the rest we prob mostly eat differently, although at times that includes explicitly ordering different items and each of us eating half of each dish.

  2. The restaurant dynamic depends on the familiarity with the restaurant. If it is a new restaurant (or new to you) then the members of the group gain the most by collectively sampling the largest cross-section of meals. Once everyone is familiar with all the items on the menu, the need to be different is greatly reduced or lost.

  3. Depends on how you define "diversity" and "conformity". I've been in many dining situations where the assorted diners made "diverse" choices, but all these choices conformed to social and dietary norms. Just yesterday, I was the sole male diner in a group of six, and each of the female diners modified the menu offerings by asking for reduced carb / low fat alternatives, like substituting legumes or salad greens instead of potato-based or rice-based side dishes. I couldn't help but speculate (very diplomatically) whether they might have ordered differently if they had been dining solo. Three of the five admitted that they probably would have gone with the fries if they were alone.

    • that's extraordinary. if you don't mind my asking, where do you live (and if it's a different question, where was the restaurant?) am just interested if this is a downtown toronto/vancouver girl thing. Though `potato or rice based side dishes' are not very TO/van and remind me of the wholesome fare on offer in greek joints in the montreal and winnipeg strip malls of my youth.
      My own blend of obsessive-compulsion and foodieism means I deliberately order what nobody else has done when the orders go around the table. Assuming it's a new restaurant, which it usually is: i feel compelled to try everything out there.

      • "i feel compelled to try everything out there."

        This reminds me of the major kudos one can garner if one orders the most obscure but, as it transpires, the most delicious dish on the menu: "Ah, of course a man of the world like Jack knows about Ginger Octopus" etc.

        • thumbs up to that comment.. it's especially impressive skill if deployed on a) inscrutable Asian menus with 150 numbered items or b) a small menu where the most boringly described dish is the best . `Roast pork with broad beans' or somesuch.

  4. In much of Asia, meals at restaurants are eaten collectively (everyone shares from central dishes), just as they are at home. Tends to make it a more a social event, I find.

  5. My girlfriend likes to copy what I am having when we go out to dinner whereas I hate ordering the same thing as someone else at my table while eating out. So now we have this little game where I refuse to tell her what I am going to order and it all comes down to waiter. If waiter asks me first what I am having, my missus says 'I'll have what he's having', and if she's asked first we have different items.

    And don't get me started on the topic of my girlfriend deciding what I ordered looks more appealing than what she's got and trying to eat my meal.

  6. I agree with Mr. Potter, that is exactly how it works: sampling the menu, as though what you ate were an expression of your personality — "Aha, Stephen is a veal guy, but Diane has affirmed the salad." In my opinion, it would be best if we all not only ate the same thing but ate a single thing: today is potato day, etc.; tomorrow morning the Beet Festival begins — as a way of coming to terms with a specific meat or vegetable (at least as the basis of each dish). But ours is a culture à la carte.

    • I had a girlfriend once who said she only ate monochromatic snacks as a child. I.e. if she was eating cheesies, she'd have to have a glass of orange juice with it.

      • That's cool, I should try it. FWIW I had coffee and brown bread for breakfast and now I'm feeling fairly brown.

  7. That's stupid. Have whatever you want!

    Next time, say I want exactly what that guy is having (before s/he orders), then excuse yourself and go to the bathroom.
    It'll be a great sociology experiment.

  8. I always order a Big Mac if my date is having the Double Quarter Pounder

  9. I have a guess that Andrew Potter actually didn`t intent to talk about food, but diversity itself, like people from diferent races living together and building a stronger nation. It`s about accepting the fact that the world – and by world it`s implicit the city we`re living in – is diversified as much as Mother Nature. We should be more tolerant and inclusive.

  10. Hmm. Dining at home, it depends- there are vegetarians and picky eaters in our family, so if, say, everyone is having rice and chicken and salad one person may eat only rice and chicken, whereas another might eat a piece of cheese along with rice and salad. It also depends on if we are dining together- if there are conflicting schedules of work, school commitments and sports, even though there may be a pot of something on the stove- spaghetti, say- more often than not, we all end up eating different things. Dining out, we like to order all different things and then spend the night picking off of each others plate- the secret is, you have to order a different thing every time you go to a restaurant. We only eat out once or twice a year, so eventually we will all have tried all of the dishes in our favourite restaurant and can try somewhere else.

  11. "At home, conformity is the norm." Yes, because everyone knows the cook in question. And if you're a kid, the cook is also sitting, right at the table, most likely within earshot of a well-aimed nag. And any request for diversity is not likely to be received very well.

  12. I would think for most families – diversity at home would be really too expensive and time consuming. Working mothers having time to cook different meals for members of the family in one evening?____When I was a kid, my mom always cooked more than one veggie, meat, potatoes, or, macaroni, ie. same for all – except when it was liver. My dad loved liver – we hated it. That was hot dog night for the kids. Friday's, to give my mom a break (she was a working mom), my dad would pick up fish and chips.____So, when the family went out for dinner, of course, you picked what you wanted. It was a treat to have whatever you chose.

    • "diversity at home would be really too expensive and time consuming"

      Exactly. Nothing more complicated than that.

      • I disagree that it's this simple — see Catelli's excellent comment below.

        • I don't know. I think diversity possibly occurs in domestic food where it's viable from a cost and time standpoint. Snacks, for example, are often more of an individual choice (yogurt, apple, popcorn, etc.). Also, you often find some personalization of common meals via condiments, beverages, salt/pepper, etc. But the reality is that it would be pragmatically difficult to cook multiple meals for the same sitting.

          I also admit that I was unaware of the degree to which people engage in game theory at restaurants! I guess that underlies the notion that 'taste' and preference are really cultural signals more than personal desires. From reading the comments here, my quick take would be that restaurants are an exemplar of striking the balance between demonstating personal uniqueness in the face of limited, mass produced options, that permeates much of life in a society like our own.

          But if you come to dinner at my house, you bloody well eat what I'm making for dinner. Or you go hungry. :)

        • I don't know. I think diversity possibly occurs in domestic food where it's viable from a cost and time standpoint. Snacks, for example, are often more of an individual choice (yogurt, apple, popcorn, etc.). Also, you often find some personalization of common meals via condiments, beverages, salt/pepper, etc. But the reality is that it would be pragmatically difficult to cook multiple meals for the same sitting. So I'm not convinced that it demonstrates socially enforced conformity.

          I also admit that I was unaware of the degree to which people engage in game theory at restaurants! I guess that underlies the notion that 'taste' and preference are really cultural signals more than personal desires. From reading the comments here, my quick take would be that restaurants are an exemplar of striking the balance between demonstating personal uniqueness in the face of limited, mass produced options, that permeates much of life in a society like our own.

          But if you come to dinner at my house, you bloody well eat what I'm making for dinner. Or you go hungry. :)

  13. I think the home dinner thing is about spending time together and eating together and being together – I don't think it's about eating the same thing. I think it just takes too much time and effort to prepare different dishes for everyone.

    On the other hand, when you are dining out, and you are paying them to have the capacity to prepare different things for everybody, that is the point. Normally when I eat out there is an effort made to ensure we are ordering different things so you can try a bit of everything.

  14. I agree with OT. The more diverse the home meal, the greater the waste, which affects cost and budget. Factor in time, effort and availability of cooking surfaces for diverse meals and diversity at home is just short of nightmarish to arrange.

    The easiest way to achieve diversity is to go out. Dining out is a treat and you can eat whatever you want. (Sameness is somewhat determined by the restaurant. True diversity would allow everyone to go to separate restaurants of choice.) Since diversity is one of the unspoken goals, I guess each of us feels pressure to eat something different. The degree of this desire wars with your desire for a particular dish, and many times the palate wins and we get the same meal.

    Its when dining with peers, that this phenomena becomes strange. Myself and my co-workers will often change an order because someone else ordered it first. Sometimes the desire for individual expression of food choice outweighs the desire for a particular item. We acknowledge this and laugh over it. Even tease each other when a change of order is noticed (don't want to be associated with me huh?) Which highlights the sheer oddity of this behavior. Within my peer group, you're more likely to be mocked for changing an order than for ordering the same dish. To escape comment, you're better off just ordering the dish you intended (or don't broadcast your intentions).

    But we continue to broadcast intentions and then change them to enforce diversity, and take the heat as a result. Damned weird behaviour now that I think about it.

  15. At home, we dine in uniformity (mostly) because it's more efficient. There's a moral aspect, too. Our young children would prefer special meals that cater to a child's palate, but we require them to eat what we've prepared in order to cultivate certain virtues (adventure-by trying new things; gratitude/espect–by accepting and not rejecting what's been graciously provided for them.

    At restaurants, people dine in diversity because they don't want to be seen as unoriginal losers. There's a perception that my ordering what someone else has already ordered is an indication of a lack of originality and creativity. In the meals-ordering-as-social-type event, there are acts of honor and shame. Picking an original menu item that actually delivers (looks and tastes great) brings honor. Expressing longwinded indecision about what to order, copycat ordering by default, etc., bring shame. Why? Because they're seen to be evidence of lack of creativity and an inability to determine one's own preferred future.

    • Plebe is on to something here. But when I juxtipose the idea of creativity with the cookie cutter restaurants my group visits for lunch (Crabby Joes, Casey's, Applebee's, etc.) it starts to fall flat. There isn't much creativity (or honour gained) in changing from the Buffalo Chicken Sandwich to a Bacon Cheese Burger just because someone else got the BCS first.

      It seems that being unique as an individual is enough of an impetus on its own. In a way, its related to the mocking that arises when two peple arrive dressed the same (and this affects men as well as women, though women do seem to care more).

      What happens if the first person to order, gets the most risky item on the menu? Whose honour is satisfied if the rest of the diners play it safe with foods they recognize? They can still be unique, but now the "risk" of the unknown has been satisfied by another diner, though arguably, they get the highest honours.

      I'm leaning towards the desire for uniqueness is the sole driver. Oppourtunities to gain honour, or express creativity are bonuses that may add to the desire to be unique. Added points if you will.

    • Plebe is on to something here. But when I juxtipose the idea of creativity with the cookie cutter restaurants my group visits for lunch (Crabby Joes, Casey's, Applebee's, etc.) it starts to fall flat. There isn't much creativity (or honour gained) in changing from the Buffalo Chicken Sandwich to a Bacon Cheese Burger just because someone else got the BCS first.

      It seems that being unique as an individual is enough of an impetus on its own. In a way, its related to the mocking that arises when two peple arrive dressed the same (and this affects men as well as women, though women do seem to care more).

      What happens if the first person to order, gets the most risky item on the menu? Whose honour is satisfied if the rest of the diners play it safe with foods they recognize? They can still be unique, but now the "risk" of the unknown has been satisfied by another diner, though arguably, they get the highest honours.

      I'm leaning towards the desire for uniqueness is the sole driver. Oppourtunities to gain honour, or express creativity are bonuses that may add to the desire to be unique. Added points if you will.

      • the serious gambit, of course, is not to even look at the menu and order something extremely baroque. I have a friend who goes out basically to try to one-up the restaurant.

        • Well that takes b@lls. I'd be worried about the chef slipping something into my meal in retaliation for the unfamiliar order. Its is conceivable that the chef could see it as a challenge and try to perfect the dish.

          But I'm weirdly paranoid about that kind of thing.

        • So I think the overarching question is: "What do the ways that individuals (as part of a group of diners) typically order food in restaurants tell us about who we are and what we value?" This sub-divides into two further questions–one empirical and one philosophical. The empircal question: how do individuals typically order food in restaurants (with respect to the diversity question)–i.e., how do they make decisions in certain circumstances relevant to diversity (e.g. as the first-orderer, following someone who chooses their meal of choice, etc.). The philosophical questions: what do these decision making patterns tell us about the things we value? Are our expressed values in these decision making contexts consistent with our considered view of the good life and what constitutes a good person?

          • Someone should write a book about this kind of stuff.

          • There's a huge body of anthropological writings on the subject of restaurants. Most of what I've read focusses more on 'ethnic' estabishments, but I'll poke around a bit and see if I can't find you something credible that looks at ordering as a form of cultural performance. I'm sure there is – it's just not an area I'm very familiar with.

            I hope Mitchell doesn't catch me plugging this, but if you haven't read any of Pierre Bourdieu's work on aesthetics and class (short version: he argues that our likes are really products of class distinction and perpetuation) I think you'd find it resonates with this discussion nicely (in a semi-dense French academic kind of way!)

          • There's a huge body of anthropological writings on the subject of restaurants (and food more generally). Most of what I've read focusses more on 'ethnic' estabishments, but I'll poke around a bit and see if I can't find you something credible that looks at ordering as a form of cultural performance. I'm sure there is – it's just not an area I'm very familiar with.

            I hope Mitchell doesn't catch me plugging this, but if you haven't read any of Pierre Bourdieu's work on aesthetics and class (short version: he argues that our likes are really products of class distinction and perpetuation) I think you'd find it resonates with this discussion nicely (in a semi-dense French academic kind of way!)

          • There's a huge body of anthropological writings on the subject of restaurants. Most of what I've read focusses more on 'ethnic' establishments, but I'll poke around a bit and see if I can't find you something credible that looks at ordering as a form of cultural performance. I'm sure there is – it's just not an area I'm very familiar with.

            I hope Mitchell doesn't catch me plugging this, but if you haven't read any of Pierre Bourdieu's work on aesthetics and class (short version: he argues that our likes are really products of class distinction and perpetuation) I think you'd find it resonates with this discussion nicely (in a semi-dense French academic kind of way!)

          • I think you're just the person for the job. Feel free to use any of the above–no charge :)

        • As an aside, not all instances of conformity in dining-out contexts is negative. Bob and I are dining out. Bob says, "Have you ever had the X?" I truthfully say, "No." Bob says, "The X is fantastic!!! You've got to try it!" We each order the X–no shame there. Conversely, a deep need to always make the uber-order (a la your one-upping friend) precludes this kind of shared experience.

  16. Does this really require a whole lot of sociological inquiry?

    At home, if you want something different, you gotta cook it yourself, offend the person who slaved in the kitchen, and get weird looks from everyone else at the table. These stumbling blocks are overcome at the restaurant, where someone else does the work. You pay for that ability to have what you really want with the increased price.

    Dining out, you and your SO can negotiate a sampling of each other's choice for a convenient two-mini-meals-in-one that would be impractical at home.

    Or is there some other level of complication I am missing?

    • Just that it's nicer, selon moi, to all eat the same thing. Choice in food is highly overrated. Ye gods, our ancestors used to clasp hands and thank the Lord for providing thin gruel; the ideal modern grace would sound something like, "Dear Lord, thank you for providing Jeannie with her filet mignon, medium, and a half-bottle of that new Malbec; and for providing Frank with his escargots du bourgogne, for which he is humbly thankful; and for providint little Tommy with the two-fisted banquetburger hold the pickle. Amen."

      Also, not ordering separately avoids the bone-crackingly dull conversation topic of "What does your salad taste like?"

    • Just that it's nicer, selon moi, to all eat the same thing. Choice in food is highly overrated. Ye gods, our ancestors used to clasp hands and thank the Lord for providing; the ideal modern grace would sound something like, "Dear Lord, thank you for providing Jeannie with her filet mignon, medium, and a half-bottle of that new Malbec; and for providing Frank with his escargots du bourgogne, for which he is humbly thankful; and for providint little Tommy with the two-fisted banquetburger hold the pickle. Amen."

      Also, not ordering separately avoids the bone-crackingly dull conversation topic of "What does your salad taste like?"

    • Just that it's nicer, selon moi, to all eat the same thing. Choice in food is highly overrated. Ye gods, our ancestors used to clasp hands and thank the Lord for providing thin gruel; the ideal modern grace would sound something like, "Dear Lord, thank you for providing Jeannie with her filet mignon, medium, and a half-bottle of that new Malbec; and for providing Frank with his escargots du bourgogne, for which he is humbly thankful; and for providint little Tommy with the two-fisted banquetburger (hold the pickle), curly fries, and refillable Coke Zero. Amen."

      Also, not ordering separately avoids the bone-crackingly dull conversation topic of "What does your salad taste like?"

    • Just that it's nicer, selon moi, to all eat the same thing. Choice in food is highly overrated. Ye gods, our ancestors used to clasp hands and thank the Lord for providing thin gruel; the ideal modern grace would sound something like, "Dear Lord, we thank Thee for providing Jeannie with her filet mignon, medium, and a half-bottle of that new Malbec; and for providing Frank with his escargots du bourgogne, for which he is humbly grateful; and for providint little Tommy with the two-fisted banquetburger (hold the pickle), curly fries, and refillable Coke Zero. Amen."

      Also, not ordering separately avoids the bone-crackingly dull conversation topic of "What does your salad taste like?"

      • Whatcha got against refillable Coke Zero?

        And if choice in food is so overrated, fine for you: order what someone else is having. But the away-from-home eating world seems to have you beat.

          • So then, you really are a left-winger after all…

            ;)

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