Do you take the airplane meal?

Breakfast at Kaffebrenneriet The airplane meal service is an unexpected return to school days. Business class passengers are private school kids, receiving chef-approved meals with a heated dessert; eager economy travellers are lucky students from good public schools, getting first pick off a limited menu; back row passengers are students from poorly performing schools, left with other’s rejected dishes. We pretend to ignore this stratification. After all, we’re adults. We’ve bought out seats and chosen our fate in a way the schoolchild eating industrial mash for lunch can only dream about. Yet, whereas in school we were limited to an institutional tray, we forget a plastic airplane meal as it slips into the background of a trip. In the tight economy cabin the meal service occurs according to the deliberately vague mini-menu. If ‘tender chicken in a creamy mustard sauce’ isn’t available, nod politely as a flight attendant assures you that ‘beef chilli con carne’ makes an exceptional substitute. Don’t point out that the menu confusingly bills the former as ‘grilled chicken’ and that including ‘beef chilli’ in the name of the latter makes ‘con carne’ redundant. The juxtaposition of name and description parallels Alain de Botton’s description of airplane food in A Week at the Airport: ‘aeroplane food stands at a point of maximum tension between the man-made and the natural, the technological and the organic.’ This tension arises not only in how the food is processed, but also in how the cabin space and airline influence our interpretation of the meal. ‘Beef chilli con carne’ needs repetition to synthetically reinforce the meat’s taste, which is only a vague notion in the dish itself. We shouldn’t question the disparity between ‘grilled chicken’ with ‘creamy mustard sauce’ because the gap manifests our performance of an ordinary act, eating, in an extraordinary location, thirty seven thousand feet above sea level. Yet the plane, with its collapsible trays and electronic monitors, constructs an environment that ignores the remarkable as it attempts to reproduce the normal. This space, like the school cafeteria, isn’t for discovery but for refuelling as we move from one curiosity to another. Near Seurasaari During my last flight I ate ‘fusilli pasta,’ which was described as: ‘spiral shaped pasta in a tasty woodland mushroom sauce. With Italian shaved cheese.’ I decided this would be tastier than chicken with ‘mashed potatoes, leeks and grilled vegetables.’ Pleasingly ‘tasty woodland sauce’ was really ‘macaroni and cheese,’ which the menu could have described as: ‘pasta baked in a creamy Italian cheese emulsion. Studded with mushrooms and aromatic herbs.’ Just like the pasta meals served in school, the noodles melted on your tongue; the vegetables hinted at wholesomeness; and the cheese was dried out on one side. It wasn’t a ‘tasty’ meal, but rather the idea of one. The unexpected bonuses truly make me feel as if I’ve entered an airborne cafeteria. I’m embarrassed like a school kid by the footnote besides ‘pudding’ that informs me that the term means ‘British for dessert’ and not ‘pot of custard’ as my untrained mind erroneously assumes. After learning my cultural translations, I deserve a reward. Or rather, I deserve ‘pure indulgence’ and to ‘let [myself] go.’ Like earning a gold star, the bequeathing of this good thing follows strict rules: you’ll enjoy, you’ll take what’s give to you, refuse or ask for anything else and you’ll get a punishing stare. When in a building full of adolescents, or on a claustrophobic plane, it’s a wise idea to grin and bear it rather than stand out. Croissant from Papadeli Then there are times when receiving such stares feels like the only option. There are times when the thought of a banana pudding over the north Atlantic makes your stomach turn. The eyebrows of your seatmates raise and, for a moment, the plane has eyes just for you. Because even when we want to participate in the communal ‘yum, yum’ of afternoon tea (‘that great British tradition’) sometimes our personal sanity is more important. Other passengers open that cardboard box like a horde of teens foraging for their afternoon snack, but participating in their community becomes irrelevant as the plane descends slowly and the school day winds down. After your brief vacation from the real world, everything takes on new meaning. All you have to do is remember your industrial meal to realise how good you have it on the ground.

The Paradox of the Hostel Breakfast Buffet

Oslo

In the structuralist’s world ‘Oslo’ is the fixed signifier of ‘expensive.’ Or rather, dining in Oslo makes the budget traveller picture a thick pile of kroner flying out the window. Guidebooks and travel blogs agree: Oslo is nice, but be prepared to eat fast food or starve. The city’s central youth hostel understands the money-conscious traveller’s predicament. To satisfy them the hostel offers a free breakfast buffet. That is, if your idea of a bountiful morning meal is a plate flooded with canned pickled herring, cucumber slices and processed cheese.

If hotel breakfasts are expanses of unbridled abundance, hostel breakfasts show corresponding restraint. Reviews of hotels and hostels can easily be divided into those which praise the breakfast buffet, ‘I need 3 pages to compliment the breakfast buffet .… Waffles, donuts, cereal, toast, bagels, fruit, sausage patties … ’ or those that lament it, ‘the offerings were the same everyday even though it states on the web site that the options change.’ In these reviews, abundance inspires good feelings and lack of variety causes disappointment. Since plenty breeds positivity, hostels provide a similar quantity as hotels at a lower quality. Hotel breakfasts don’t occupy space in our minds because they offer good food, but because they offer choice. Choice transposes marks the food, causing the guest to taste it as superior. As Julian Baggini points out, ‘all-you-can-eat plugs into the primitive hunter-gatherer urge to stock up on calories while we can for tomorrow we might starve’ (Baggini, 161). We’re not eating at the breakfast buffet to taste carefully crafted food, but rather to savor primal abundance. Thus, hostels can give you plenty of food that mirrors what you might normally eat at breakfast. After all, abundance in Oslo is priced beyond the hosteller’s reach.

Oslo

The breakfast buffet is a choose-your-own-adventure game: savoury or sweet? Oslo central suggests savoury. Plates of sliced cucumber, tomato and peppers sit under a cooler next to thick pieces of processed meats and cheese. An overflowing bowl of pickled herring and an unidentified meaty terrine rest on the cooler’s side. For those who want a cooked breakfast, there’s a boiler for eggs and a toaster for an oversized loaf of crumbly bread. Two types of crisp breads mark the transition from savoury to sweet (the crisp bread display seems plentiful until you buy lunch at the supermarket and realise that even the smallest grocery store stocks at least five varieties). There are several jams and a jar of chocolate hazelnut spread filled to the brim as if some people thought to take jam, only to dump it back in jar. The same goes for the faux-nutella, though the few trails of chocolate-stickiness on the counter show that someone ate a sweet meal this morning. If none of this excites you, you could choose a bowl of imitation corn flakes, faux-cocoa pops or banana stuffed muesli topped with UHT milk. It may take a few moments to wrap your head around the foods on offer, but when you do, you’ll likely be left wondering: is this a bountiful breakfast buffet?

The sense of scarcity is the hangover after lavish offerings from previous hotels. Gone are the typical hotel indulgences of pastries and bacon causing Oslo’s version of plenty to appear as nothing. Your motivation at previous breakfasts was different from your motivation in overpriced Oslo. In Italy, hostellers and hotel dwellers opt for breakfast to avoid the perpetually sugar coated options at the local cafe. In English hotels, they have the luxury of a cooked breakfast. In America, the hotel breakfast helps them avoid the sausage-egg-pancake diner breakfast. The decision to capitalise upon Oslo’ expensive reputation presents the budget traveller as a figure destined for suffering.

Chicken sandwich

Rather than help them, Oslo’s youth hostel exploits budget travellers and their desire to save a few kroner. From the plate of pizza at reception that’s discreetly advertised for 5 euro to the ban on eating outside the kitchen the hostel insists that Oslo prohibits a frugal traveller from exploring the city through food. The fact that money-conscious tourists continue to arrive and spend indicates that Oslo’s signification oscillates between ‘expensive’ and ‘experience.’ A cheap hostel breakfast is acceptable both because it exploits the traveller’s lack of kroner and because it says: ‘let me give you an experience that you’ll keep talking about.’ It’s true. The bleak pickled herring, inedible muesli and depressing faux-tella made the worst meal I ate in Scandinavia, while Oslo was my favorite city. Yet maybe we ought to be thanking Oslo and their perplexing hostel breakfast. As Tom Haines comments while describing the rise of America’s one-size-fits-all hotel breakfasts, ‘… as individuals, we miss the discovery that can come with the unexpected.’ Looking at a breakfast buffet that challenges our expectations forces us to encounter and become comfortable with plurality and new meanings. Oslo doesn’t exist in a structuralist world, but rather one in which it can mean several things at once.

Max Burger, Sweden and Midsummer Dining

Dinner at Max Burger

If the rules are suspended when travelling, they disappear when travelling during a foreign holiday. Although I knew the Swedes celebrated Midsummer primarily at their country homes, I didn’t anticipate their exodus from Stockholm. Without any residents, every store — from the Coop supermarket on Odenplan to the H&M on Drottninggatan — closes for the holiday. The remaining residents and visitors queue up at Skansen to celebrate in a simulated rural environment.

My mother and I didn’t join the others at Skansen and we didn’t join them at the only open restaurant on Birger Jarlsgatan. We slummed at Max Burger, Sweden’s answer fast food of choice since 1968, and, for 138 SEK (about $20), shared two sparkling waters in soda cans; a grilled chicken burger of dubious origin; a fish burger crusted in rice krispies; french fries that resembled potato stix; and a side salad with a single cherry tomato. Included in the price was also a table bolted to the floor, a solid plastic booth and a window with a scenic view over a grey, empty Stockholm. It wasn’t what either of us had in mind for midsummer dinner, but came to symbolise travel’s topsy-turvy nature for us.

Fast food in the 21st century exists on society’s fringes. Although McDonalds has traversed the globe, enter into any restaurant — as McDonald’s prefers to call them — and you enter an ‘other’ space. The rules as they exist outside the sliding door are suspended. From the smell and the music to the furniture and the lingo everything within the fast food outpost is a carefully crafted mirror of reality. If you glance quickly, Max Burger’s plastic chairs could pass for an IKEA-cheap take on Scandinavian style. They’re white with clean lines and none of McDonald’s misguided modern clown colours. If you ignore the pervasive fried aroma, the large windows could indicate a nicer-than-average dining experience. At a distance, Max Burger resembles a 60’s space age fantasy. The white is too shiny; the blue is metallic; and the orange similar to a rocket from a child’s drawing. The tall, slight domed ‘A’ in the logo looks like a rocket, suggesting that a meal at Max Burger will propel you into another universe. Order your meal at the computerised express counter and you transform into a denizen of the Max Burger galaxy. Order you meal at the counter and you enter the traditional fast food realm, complete with photos of your meal and a dizzying number of options.

Södermalm

Eating midsummer dinner at Max Burger was an alternate reality. For a few moments you imagine that you don’t have a ticket to Oslo the next morning. Like the other diners, you’re a Swede, enjoying a nostalgic meal on a special day. Max Burger’s insistence on their Swedish heritage ensures the generic details retain a thrilling exoticism. This isn’t just a fast food burger; it’s a Swedish fast food burger. It’s the burger advertisements declare ‘astonishingly utsökt’ — that is to say it’s Sweden’s tastiest burger. Max Burger’s all-Swedish radio station rattles off songs you’ve never heard of outside of Eurovision. The people around you aren’t chomping down on ridiculed fast food because they chose to, they’re enjoying an ironic meal made acceptable by Max Burger’s image as an alternative: it’s the Swedish answer to McDonalds and the response to the Swedish problem of midsummer dinner.

The numerous jokes my mother and I have made about Max Burger aren’t comments about the food, but about the ridiculous, uncomfortable and ‘other’ situations you encounter when travelling and travel’s ability to excuse judgement lapses. At home you have the knowledge and ability to pick a fast food alternative, when travelling it’s an acceptable first choice. After all, without a childhood spent at Max Burger, it’s unlikely you’ll believe you’re eating Sweden’s tastiest burger. Travel allows you to bypass these questions. Max Burger remains an exotic mistake and an opportunity to indulge in a tantalising what if: if you were born Swedish, Max Burger might be your midsummer tradition the way Chinese food is the American Jew’s supposed Christmas ritual.

DSC03119

Flickr via lin Judy

Whether or not you encounter fish patties coated in rice krispies when travelling, being in a new space allows the ‘other’ to pass from overlooked to thrilling. Bolted down tables and plastic space age chairs are no longer strange reminders that you are in a time-free area where a kid’s play den coexists with 60’s nostalgia. Meanings as you know them cease to exist. Bad meals become cherished memories; mistakes become delightful adventures and a wasted day provides entertainment for weeks to come.

We should all be eating more salt cod. Here’s why:

Salt Cod with tomatoes, chickpeas and potatoes Salt cod: two words that sound pleasingly incongruous. ‘Salt’ is a noun turned into an adjective signifying the process of salting rather than saltiness. Through slowly drying out a food, salting transforms a highly perishable product — like fish, meat or cabbage — into a durable commodity. ‘Cod’ is simple: it’s white fish with relatively little flavour, gently chewy texture and, when cooked, easily flaked apart with a fork. Together ‘salt’ and ‘cod’ become so specific that the term’s meaning has mutated significantly. Salt cod is fish that’s been dried through contact with salt. This contact used to be natural — the fish was left to hang in the sun and the wind delicately blew salty sea water onto the fish — but nowadays it’s forced— the fillet hangs in a large room while fans and heaters throw salty air onto it. Once dried, the fish can last for years and must be soaked before cooking and eating. With its newfound durability, salt cod attains money-like value. The value this process gave to common fish allowed Bergen’s outpost of the Hanseatic League to use the fish as currency. The Hanseatic League was a complex trade organization that operated across Northern European from the thirteenth to seventeenth century. Members of Bergen’s Hanse dealt in salted fish. Nowadays, salt cod is better known as baccalà and gains an exotic aura through its association with Italian, Spanish and Caribbean cuisines. Though salt cod was once common in the US (in New England it was commonly cooked into fish pie) its lengthy prep time discourages its frequent use. Hanseatic museum I first had salt cod at Pingvinen in Bergen. I’d just visited the Hanseatic museum and gawked at the stockfish (salt cod made from generic white fish) hanging from the ceiling. Out front, the harbor side market capitalised on the tourist’s new interest in preserved fish, selling miniature pieces for outsized prices. Thus, when presented with the choice between whale steak and salt cod, I chose the latter. My meal was served with traditional potatoes and butter as well as untraditional tomatoes and chickpeas. Combined the effect was familiar and exotic, intriguing both the contemporary and historic palate. While salt cod might be an easy taste to adopt, it’s not about to become an easy weeknight meal. The long process of de-salting salt cod intimidates the modern attitude toward ‘convenience’ foods. After all, ‘[de-salting] is done by soaking the fish in a pot of cold water for 2 days or so — changing the water 2 to 3 times per day.’ This changes the texture changes from thick and unyielding to dense and chewy. Every mouthful feels like a historical relic, requiring one to chomp slowly through. In the modern culinary lexicon, salt cod’s gnaw-able texture finds comparison only comparison in the form of stale gummy candy. While salt cod’s flavor is slightly brine-y, it tastes more like yester-year’s fish stick than today’s Maldon salt garnish. Salt cod is a challenge for the home chef not only because of its required soaking, but also because of its unfamiliar texture and outdated utility. Fish market Salt cod. The words are strange, the consistency is unique, the process is daunting. Although it may seem outdated as a preserved product, it’s worthy of being kept around as it illustrates food’s changing meaning. Chewing on, thinking about and cooking salt cod reminds us what convenience or processed foods once were. While spending two days prepping fish for cooking may now be a foodie’s weekend project, salt cod was once a handy way of ensuring food was available. Convenience didn’t mean ready at will but ready when needed. Processed meant conditioned through several steps before consumed, not machine generated in a factory. Salt cod. Two strange little words with centuries of meaning that are still relevant today.

Energy Bars from Civil War Soldiers to Contemporary Business Warriors

energy bar If energy bars are a polarising food, this is a consequence of their modern manifestation. Today’s bars provide an energy jolt, but this energy relies upon sugar and chemically formulated protein sources. Historically, energy-dense food provided nutrition but required hunger to be palatable. Regardless of their alienating nature, energy bars now own prime real estate in every drugstore, deli and vending machine; they’ve created a niche in the processed food market. This niche improved upon the foods people previously turned to for energy. Energy dense fuels have always existed, but the industrialised world altered how they’re used and who they’re used by. No longer do Union and Confederate soldiers dunk hardtack in their coffee to soften the cement-like cracker. Pemmican and Hudson Bay Bread are no longer boy-scout projects. Instead, on-the-go business people, teenagers and athletes chew on protein bars while running for the bus. Energy dense foods have transformed from second-rate fuel to an elite proclamation of a hectic schedule. Fittingly, the modern bar began in an epicentre of alternative America: Berkeley, California. Brian Maxwell, former marathoner, created the Powerbar to fuel the fitness and bicycle aficionados who raced around the city. The original customers’ reactions are irrelevant; Powerbar quickly gained popularity. Berkeley’s culinary tradition helped Maxwell’s product. The granola bar had gained popularity meaning that customers already understood how a packaged snack fit into their lives and diets. Pemmican, hardtack and the like provided context for enjoying a granola bar.

Civil War hardtack pieces and wrapper

Flickr via Minnesota Historical Society

Yet the class difference between fitness junkies with their Powerbars and the Civil War soldiers with their hardtack means that a cultural shift needed to occur for such foodstuffs to enter the modern culinary lexicon.  The process of eating energy bars, hardtack and similar products unifies the people who eat them. If food is a shared gastronomic language, then participating in a taste experience can bridge the gap between rich and poor, past and modern, serving and served.[1] There’s little difference between chewing on hardtack mush and chewing on a soy-sugar-vitamin paste. When eating either product, pleasure gives way to utility as the individual munches through a food with little textural contrast. Just as monks wanted to avoid thinking about food to liberate themselves from earthly thoughts and desire, these energy foodstuffs remove reflection and contemplation from our interaction with food.[2] They allow the individual to focus their mind on the duty facing them: battle. Hardtack ensured the nineteenth-century soldier stayed focused on war. Energy bars let their consumers concentrate on their battle with contemporary society. In a world that prizes a crazy schedule, a food product that allows us to remove our mind from distracting thoughts about food fits in seamlessly. Both the ultra-marathon runner and the CEO (and CEO wannabe) need a food that allows them to remain in perpetual motion, while keeping their running kit or white shirt nice for the tasks ahead of them. Society’s changing battles have turned the soldier into the business warrior and change hardtack into an expensive, high profile product.

A Land of Plenty

Flickr via brixton

Old manias have given way to modern ones, encouraging the continued consumption of energy-dense fuels. The current obsession for decoding the energy bar’s true health value can be seen as revising outdated survival instincts. Whereas people once ate pemmican and hardtack when fresh food was unavailable, energy bars help us endure the contemporary equivalent. The customer without time for proper food reaches for an energy bar to persevere until they find themselves at the table once again. Since consumers are constantly presented with high-sugar foods that are devoid of nutrients, the modern survival food must not only fill you up, it must also support good health, helping you survive in a world where fast-food is the opposing army. As the battles society faces changes, so does the position of the energy-rich food. The energy bar’s future success seems assured. As Powerbar, Balance Bar and those new ones keep on marketing themselves to time-pressed warriors, they’ll continue on in good health, developing products that help us survive contemporary society’s battles. But to what end? At some point there will be another shift in which the energy bar no longer reflects the concerns and desires of the contemporary soldier. Just as available ingredients have changed from flour and water to soy crispies and brown rice syrup, what we have at our disposal will change once again. There are already signs this is occurring. Recently protein bars boasting crickets, bison and chia have been released. Customers possess a growing awareness about the processed ingredients that go into these bars and are demonstrating desire for an alternative. Yet this new bar will not be able to gain a stronghold until it discovers its own warrior. Will the starving entrepreneur be the next target? Or will it be the people living in food deserts? Until companies uncover the next group fighting for survival, the energy bar will reign as the twenty-first century’s answer to hardtack. Only this time, you probably won’t break your teeth. — [1] Montanari, M., (2006). Food Is Culture. New York: Columbia University Press. [2] Montanari, M., (2012). Let the Meatballs Rest and Other Stories about Food and Culture. Translated by Brombert, B.A. New York: Columbia University Press.

On Swedish pea soup and Thursday traditions

Soup for dinner in Copenhagen

Pea soup on Thursday is a Swedish tradition I support enthusiastically. During the past year, I’ve integrated the habit into my routine. Not precisely pea soup — nor the crepes and strawberry preserves that usually accompany it — but any soup is my go-to Thursday dinner. Although the Swedish (and Finnish) custom has religious roots dating to the middle ages — or so goes one version of the story — my routine has roots relating to lectures on 13th century Italian poetry. Just as the tradition has stuck around in for a few centuries in Sweden, it’s stuck around in my meal plan too.

There are various stories floating about regarding the roots of the Swedish/Finnish tradition, but most attribute it to all classes looking for a meal that would fill them up for Church-imposed fasting on Friday. Yet it doesn’t matter precisely why the habit formed or why it’s stuck around. The tradition takes the questions out: we eat pea soup on Thursday because we’ve always done so and why should we stop now. University cafeterias and school canteens serve it. Home cooks make it and restaurants serve it. It’s a common dish in the Swedish and Finnish military. Whether you choose to eat Chinese food and pizza every other night of the week, coming back to tradition of Thursday grounds a Swedish identity. While not everyone is going to eat the soup all the time, the knowledge that it’s there establishes a connection between individual, region and history.

In the future Swedes may favor a different Thursday meal and I may shun soup Thursdays. But the option will remain as a default, a choice that requires little thought while cooking up a big pot of comforting nostalgia. With pancakes if you like.

Here are 5 soup recipes (including one for the classic Swedish pea version) to get you started:

  1.  Ärtsoppa – Swedish pea soup is classic, warming and perfect for Thursdays. Just do yourself a favor and don’t buy it in a pre-packaged tube.
  2. Soup au pistou – This light soup comes from the south of France and is filled with vegetables cooked in an herb-rich broth. Pistou is the French version of pesto made without pine nuts and cheese.
  3. Tuscan bread soup – You could keep this for a winter meal, but you’d be missing out. Stale bread turns to delicious, chewy pieces smothered in tomato sauce with sage and cheese. It’s like pizza in a bowl, but way better. 
  4. Leek and potato soup – This soup keeps appearing on menus for a reason. Extremely simple and extremely satisfying, Clotilde’s version manages to be earthy, rich and light all in one bite.
  5. Broccoli soup – Broccoli soup may sound uninspiring, but this version from Orangette is anything but. Simmered with a rind of cheese, herbs and lemon this dish is simultaneously sophisticated and comforting. The ‘sour cream’ topping is nice, but unnecessary in my view. 

Paid Reservations and the Spectacle of the Restaurant

Mission Chinese Food is the new theatre. Look at people vying to get into the hot restaurants like the hot Broadway shows or concerts. Think about the rise of the chef’s table and the allure of the perfectly plated dish. The celebrity chef has become a cultural icon and advertisers have begun to use fetishisized food images like fashion photography to induce desire. Perhaps the most indicative sign of this phenomenon is the rise of reservation scalping, or apps that sell reservations to the restaurant of the moment. In light of Priceline’s recent acquisition of Open Table — and this article published in The New York Times on 13 June 2014 — the restaurant’s space in society can be perceived as in flux. Restaurants are no longer limited to being either an exclusive French dining experience or a cheap neighbourhood locale that welcomes everyone. They’ve become an amalgamation of the two: everyone can come, as long are you’re willing to sacrifice for entry. Until recently you relinquished several hours of your time to the phone or computer in the name of the dining Gods. Now, it’s knowing your way around the reservation black market. Some restaurants are understandably upset at these companies as they limit access. If you’re willing to pay even more than an already pricey meal, you can get in. If not, wait on the street or stay at home. The restaurant is no longer accessible; it’s reserved for those who want a rock-concert meal experience. As diners resort to inflated techniques for getting the perfect table we need to ask ourselves: why do we dine out? Are we going out for good food, to try something new, or to say we’ve been to the popular spot and tick off a box on society’s cool checklist? Frighteningly, the signs suggest the latter. A particular table and the vantage point it gives us shouldn’t impact our enjoyment of the restaurant, but apparently it does. Waiting for a hot reservation should be thought of as a shared experience and using our quickest fingers to dial the restaurant a rite of passage, but they’re not. Add to this our ever-increasing bond with indispensable iPhones and these new apps reveal how getting a reservation at an ‘in’ restaurant asserts your participation in foodie-aware, tech-savvy culture. While it’s understandable that people would give into the temptation to simplify the reservation process, the process is unfair to restaurants and other diners. The dream restaurant isn’t the one that Pete Wells wrote about glowingly last week. Nor is it the one with hipster cheap food. Instead the perfect restaurant is an abstract space where unique food, stimulating company and a pleasant atmosphere merge. Allowing apps and paid reservations to dictate where we dine threatens to destabilize this trinity, change the restaurant’s social meaning from meeting place to untouchable theatre. Some argue that these apps make getting a good table at an interesting restaurant more democratic. Anyone who has tried to dine at the now-closed Mission Chinese knows you’re out of luck, unless you go as soon as they open or for lunch. Goodness knows getting a seat at Blanca isn’t be easy. These reservation systems allow people who may not otherwise be able to get a table to finagle their way into the hottest restaurants, theoretically making the dining world a more democratic space. Unfortunately, the need to pay, download an app and hoodwink a restaurant negates the benefits. Rather than interacting with the restaurant and negotiating with potential fellow diners, pressing a few buttons on our phone further divorces diners from the restaurant’s participatory atmosphere. If we’re not willing to accept a wait or not getting in, why are we dining out at all? A hard-to-get reservation doesn’t indicate quality. It merely tells us that lots of people are interested in a place. As the restaurant becomes an increasingly theatrical space the food quality will suffer. Paying excess attention to the perfect reservation diverts our focus from the meal. Do we want to foster an environment where it’s more important to consume hype than to appreciate thoughtful food? Eating at a top restaurant at 8 pm —the prime seating according to Open Table  — says nothing about the meal. Restaurants shouldn’t be reduced to spectacle, but should be lauded as a participatory experience. When we’re eating at a new restaurant we’re in dialogue with the space, with the chef, with the individual cooks, with our fellow diners and with the people who grew the food on our plate. Streamlining the process through an app threatens to remove and reduce this dialogue to a one-sided, money-driven observation.