Tuesday, January 9, 2007

An Amusing Gastronomic Anecdote

"Nothing would be more tiresome than eating or drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity." - Voltaire

My junior year in college, I traveled north in the spring from the Southland to the Northland to visit my good friend, Hulda,* at Vassar. For the most part, it was quite an enjoyable time (despite the cold).** One of the most memorable bits occurred on a jaunt into "The City" to enjoy a Broadway play and see another high school friend of ours.

After the play, we stayed in Times Square long enough to grab a bite to eat at an Italian fast-food joint. This place was interesting in that you ordered upstairs, but then went downstairs into a caffeteria-like space to eat. I don't remember what I had (and you all are probably not all that interested), but I do remember Hulda ordering pasta.

We ate and chatted for awhile. At some point, Hulda consumed all of the pasta she could, and pushed the plate away. I, happily, kept eating whatever it was that I was eating.*** Out of nowhere, a grizzled, unkempt man appeared, picked up Hulda's half-full plate, growled "Mmm, spaghetti," and was gone before we could register our surprise. It took about 30 seconds for us, and the couple sitting at the next table, to burst out laughing.

This was quite a surreal experience (especially given my lightheadedness due to the previous lack of food), but years later the sociologist in me still finds it interesting. We talk in sociology about subtle cues that people in a particular society understand and outsiders don't - this is what makes it so hard to travel to foreign lands sometimes (more commonly referred to as "culture shock"). The interesting thing is that we're often not aware of such cues unless they are broken, or breached. Thus, my students always get a kick out of my descriptions of sociologists sending students to try to barter for their food at the grocery store, pay too much, or pay too little. Why? Because it's not done. Here's another one: try going to a crowded place and do nothing - don't read a book, don't look like you're waiting for somebody - nothing. It feels incredibly uncomfortable.

Obviously the homeless man in this story breached expectations, causing us to laugh because it's not done. Beyond that, however, that man used his powers of social observation to survive in a world that was likely quite hostile for him. He also helped Hulda to avoid what the following author seems to have most feared:

"Those who forget the pasta are condemned to reheat it." - Author Unknown

*Of course this isn't her real name. Who would name their daughter Hulda in the U.S., unless they were immigrants from Sweden? Hulda's parents are immigrants, but they come from Korea, where they (thankfully) don't name people Hulda.

**The Southland is quite pleasant in the spring, as the Indigo Girls eloquently describe in their song "Southland in the Springtime."

***For those of you who know me, I should premise the word "happily" by saying that I hadn't had the opportunity to eat for about 8 hours. Perhaps the "happily" would then refer more to my friend...


Anonymous said...

I gather things must have taken a bad turn with you and Hulda, for you to call her that...

Practicing Idealist said...

TDEC, yes we unfortunately fell out of favor with eachother for several reasons. I chose Hulda, however, not out of dislike, but because it has the same meaning as her actual name. I know it makes me somewhat of a geek to go looking things up like word meanings, but I was procrastinating yesterday. For the curious, Hulda actually has quite a nice meaning, if you take the time to look it up. -Practicing Idealist