Unpleasantness about the seabass

 

DINE in Dublin week ends today, not a minute too soon. The intention was to encourage us to spend our way out of recession, or eat our way out of recession, or pretend-to-know-something-about-wine our way out of recession, or calculate 12.5% of our way out of recession, or whatever.

The very idea is a penance. What if you loathe eating out, and passionately dread those occasions that make it necessary – a first communion, or a work thing, or someone having yet another sodding birthday? (Didn’t you have a birthday just last year? I could swear you did. I remember distinctly that  unpleasantness about the seabass.)

The first thing that happens, when you get seated behind a restaurant table on one of these obligatory occasions, is that you realise at once, with a sickening lurch of the stomach, that you’re not going to be able to leave until everyone has finished their main course – and that’s at the earliest, assuming nobody fancies the tiramisu. You’re immobilised, stuck there, a prisoner. Instant panic attack.

Then they bring the menus and, to your dismay, someone begins contemplating a starter. Starters are going to add at least 20 minutes to this ordeal. “Garlic mussels might be nice,” they muse happily. “I wonder are they local. Ow. Why are you kicking me?”

The waiter comes with the wine list, and some thoughtful person thinks it necessary to canvass the opinions of the entire group on medium- versus full-bodied. Everyone duly tries to remember which grape variety is fashionable at the moment, and dredges up the few oenological buzzwords they carry around for these occasions. “Oh I don’t mind at all,” you say, when it’s your turn. “Whatever way it comes, ha ha.”

Perhaps for that very reason, the waiter chooses you, above anyone else, to enact the ludicrous dumb show of examining and sniffing the wine. “It’s fine, it’s lovely, ha ha,” you say, hoping no one will suspect the truth, which is that the sommelier could have urinated in it for all you care.

The worst part, though, is when the food arrives. Someone (usually the starter person – they’re a type) has to send theirs back for some reason. Everyone is obliged to wait while they carefully explain to the waiter, using many hand gestures, the subtle difference between what they wanted and what they got.

Meanwhile, you have somehow accidentally ordered the entire carcass of a fish, complete with flaccid tail and cold, staring eyes. But as you would rather swallow a whole live jellyfish, in public, wearing a pink tutu, than spend a minute longer than necessary in this private hell, you say nothing. You pick around the eyes.

Being someone who hates restaurants has several obvious drawbacks. For one thing, people tend to assume you’re a little odd. They couple it with the fact that you also don’t enjoy shoe-and-handbag shopping and realise that you’re hopelessly excluded from the modern, urban feminine fantasy. You’re a bit agricultural on the whole, aren’t you, poor thing.

Then there’s the fact that, should you happen to be single, you can never have a first date with anyone, ever. You can’t countenance the prospect of going out to dinner with a stranger, so you have to say no, but obviously you can’t tell them why you’re saying no or they’ll think you’re a fruitbasket and be thankful for their escape. And even agricultural types hate to be thought less of, especially unjustly.

Because what could be worse than eating with someone you don’t know? You’re supposed to look elegant while trying not to spill food on yourself. You’re supposed to make conversation while not talking with your mouth full. And if your date turns out to be that most self-satisfied of bores, the food bore, you’re supposed to feign interest in the exhaustive details of his prandial preferences, while trying to quash mutinous, old-fashioned thoughts about the starving children in Africa.

But those problems are nothing – nothing – compared to the danger of discovering that your companion eats with his mouth open. The horror. It’s enough to make you commit yourself to solitary basins of thin gruel in your own kitchen for the rest of your days.

You try to concentrate on what he’s saying but the sensory assault is overwhelming. You can see nothing but the boggy contents of his mouth. You can hear nothing but the wet, slapping sound of his chewing. Your fight-or-flight response kicks in. You toy with the condiments under a cloud of imminent violence. You find yourself blaming the parents.

To distract yourself, you count his fillings. “Hmm, mercury,” you notice with relief. “With any luck he’ll be dead before they bring the dessert menu.”

 

Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 1 April 2012

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