In decades of writing about travel and food, I’ve experienced some foodie moments to beat the band. Some were hilarious, some infuriating, some downright touching, but all of them were notable in some way. Some of these experiences were so memorable that friends and I still laugh, or groan, about them years later. From the meanest waiter in the history of waiters, to innocent but hysterical foreign language glitches, to some servers that really know how to do it right, here are some of my favorite food stories from over the years.
CAREFUL WHAT YOU ASK FOR
This one actually happened to my friend Jackie, but it’s so funny I had to lead off with it. Here she is in a Paris restaurant, where she insists on doing her ordering totally in French, shrugging off any translations because she is determined to do it “right.” Now, normally I approve of immersing yourself in your host country’s culture and language, but it can have some unforeseen results, to say the least. Jackie places her order, the waiter asks her some version of “are you sure, Madame?” She replies that of course she is sure. So he gives a big Gallic shrug, places the order, and a few minutes later returns to the table with exactly what she’d ordered: a single stalk of asparagus. Busted at this point, what could she do but smile, dig in, and pretend like it’s exactly what she wanted?
SAY IT RIGHT
This story also involves a language barrier of sorts, or maybe more accurately a dialect barrier. I’m with my friend Larry in a fast-food place in Brooklyn (remember the location, as that’s essential to the story). He likes tartar sauce on his French fries, so, not unreasonably, he says, “Do you have tartar sauce?” The young woman behind the counter (who must be all of 16) looks at him in bafflement and says, Brooklyn-style, “Huh?” He says “You know, tartar sauce.” She replies, “Huh?” Well, we go back and forth with the “Tartar sauce/huh?” for several minutes till finally, I see the figurative lightbulb illuminating above his head. He looks her right in the eye and asks, politely, “Well, do you by any chance have Taw-tuh sawce?” “Ohhhhhh,” she replies in delight, “Taw-tuh sawce!” and throws an extra packet or two into his bag. Sometimes you just have to speak the language!
WHERE GOOD INTENTIONS LEAD
I had my own funny translation problem, though it worked the other way. I was in the lovely Voorbij Het Einde in Amsterdam. They knew me there because I was among the first writers to include them in an article, so they were happy to see me again. As I’m led to a seat, the host asks, “You’re not vegetarian or anything, are you?” I reply that I don’t eat red meat, and he gives me a menu and disappears. A few minutes later, as my server comes to take my order (fish and vegetarian tasting menu), he presents an amuse-bouche whose main ingredient is—ready for this?—elk. Seeing the look on my face, and given my order, he asks if this will be a problem. Honestly, I reply, it kinda is. A few minutes later my original guy comes to the table and says, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know the phrase ‘I don’t eat red meat,’ so I translated it literally into Dutch and I thought it meant you like your meat well done.” Oops! This would have been fine, and the end of the story, except that now the chef is determined to dazzle this “important” journalist with an elaborate vegetarian tower as an amuse bouche, which is great except that at this I’m point dying of hunger. He insists, though, and soon he places on the stand an absolutely gorgeous little stack. The waiter picks it up, turns around, and promptly crashes into another waiter! My tower goes sprawling all over the place. It’s fine, I assure them, I’ve seen it, it’s gorgeous, it’s all still on the plate, but no: the chef must re-make it. End of story: it arrives just in time to avoid me collapsing from hunger, the fish and vegetarian menu is amazing, and I’ve learned a lesson about how language is not always our friend.
SIGNS OF THE TIMES
I love the crazy signs you sometimes see, always unintentionally hilarious (at least, I assume they’re unintentional). There’s the packet of lettuce seeds in a Sonoma County establishment that proudly proclaims “Heat-resistant crop” before adding, as if apologetically, “(for lettuce),” which pretty much negates the previous statement. There’s the (late and not-so-great) 7th Avenue Gristede’s in New York that tried to jump on the bandwagon with the trend of mesclun (i.e., baby mixed greens), but for literally months had a sign above the greens proclaiming, “Mescaline $5.99 a pound.” (My first thought: where do I sign up)? My all-time favorite, though, is when I go to get dessert at a casino buffet in St. Louis, and find, among the gooey butter cake and banana pudding, a sign that offers what might be the most disgusting and hilarious mishap all at once. For I find that this buffet is offering “Chocolate Moose Cups.” I try for a minute to think about what chocolate moose might taste like till I finally figure I’m best off not going there. Well, at least I got a good laugh in exchange for all the money I lost in the casino.