There are things that happen to us at various points in our lives on a consistent basis, simple and apparently inconsequential things, that we never give a second thought to. On reflection, however, and with the passage of time, these little happenings begin to acquire a somewhat deeper, philosophical tinge. Things that are sent to try us. In case you are wondering what this orotund introduction is all about, let me quickly cut to the chase. Take for instance, an everyday matter of ordering food at a restaurant. There you are, seated comfortably, along with your wife (or partner) and another couple, oblivious to some gormless fusion music playing in the background. A happy foursome, enjoying the liberty of post-pandemia, to coin a term. While you are still giving the menu the once-over, the waiter hoves into view with a cheery, ‘And how can I help you with the menu this evening, Sir? Some wine to start with, perhaps? I could recommend the Burgundy red. Or the Sauvignon blanc, if white is your preferred tipple.’ A vintner in the making, our waiter. Fact of the matter is while you’ve been intently studying the menu, you haven’t actually been paying any attention to the items. It is possible that the obscene amounts mentioned on the right-hand column, particularly the wine section, have distracted your attention from the actual offerings on the menu. You then turn to the waiter with a ‘We are still studying the menu, please come back in ten minutes, thanks.’ And the waiter vanishes, like he was never there.
Before I get to the actual ordering, a quick word about the menu itself. Barring a few sensible eateries, most restaurants have now decided they will not waste good money designing and printing lavish menus, where frequent, blotchy redactions have to be made for items currently unavailable for some reason or the other, as well as to incorporate frequent price changes owing to cost escalations, GST and unbridled greed. ‘Sorry Madam, we are fresh out of avocado, but might I recommend the Waldorf salad?’ Shades of Basil Fawlty!
Instead, what they do now is to digitize the menu. So, when you ask for the outsize printed thing, the waiter points to a glass-encased card prominently displaying a squiggly design, like a QR Scan. In fact, I am informed it is a QR Scan, silly old me. Then you go through the elaborate and embarrassing process of holding your mobile phone in front of the display. When nothing happens, the ubiquitous waiter, reappears miraculously. He obligingly takes the mobile from you, ever so gently, turns the phone round the other way and says in an unctuously superior tone, ‘This way, Sir.’ You are tempted to tell him tersely that you were not dropped on the head as a child, but hey presto, the menu, all 125 pages of it, is in the palm of your hands in a type font and size that is barely readable. Let me rephrase that, it is completely unreadable. You now enter the rarefied world of scrolling – up and down. The process is repeated for all the four of us, and we are now ready to order, our mobile phones just a click away. Sadly, the establishment does not provide a magnifying glass to enable easier reading. One can, of course, expand the type by the simple expedient of the employment of your thumb and forefinger, but then half the text goes out of the screen and you are back to square one!
Given that we are not enjoying the first flush of youth, the digital menu is the cause for much squinting and removal and replacement of spectacles. If you ask me, we end up making quite a spectacle of ourselves. The waiter is still hovering obsequiously.
I clear my throat and announce, ‘I think I will have the Stricken Born Poop for starters,’ thus setting the ball rolling for the others to follow.
The waiter, looking puzzled, says that there is no such item on the menu. I give him a stern look. ‘Look, my friend, it clearly says Stricken Born Poop on your digital menu. Under Soups and Starters. I have no idea what it is but I am feeling adventurous, so let’s have some steaming hot poop, pronto.’
‘Sir, what you have ordered is Chicken Corn Soup. Perhaps the lettering was not very clear on your mobile. Try increasing the brightness, Sir.’ Tactful chap.
‘Ah, I see. Right then, Chicken Corn Soup it is. Pity. I was so looking forward to some stricken poop, just born.’ The waiter smiles patronizingly and turns to the others, who he hopes would be blessed with keener eyesight.
‘No starters for me,’ declares my wife. ‘I’ll go straight to the mains. Chicken a la Kiev sounds good, if I’ve read that right. And by the way, should that not be spelt Kyiv, or are my eyes also deceiving me? I read about Kyiv every day in the papers.’
‘Sorry Madam, that item is banned ever since war broke out between Russia and Ukraine. The management is sensitive to the feelings of our Russian and Ukrainian clients. Never mind how you spell Kiev. Or Kyiv.’ And cheeky, as they come.
My friend pipes up, ‘That’s taken care of my Molotov cocktail, I guess. And my Russian salad goes up the spout as well. Why did we choose this place, anyway? How is it you haven’t banned falafel, shawarma, hummus and all those Middle Eastern dishes? They are forever at war in that part of the world, aren’t they?’
Before the harried waiter could frame a suitable response, my wife rejoins the discussion with a curt ‘I take it you can manage the Shepherd’s Pie on digital page 79? Please place the order immediately before Britain declares war on Russia. And don’t spare the mashed potatoes.’
The waiter scribbles something on his pad and looks expectantly at my friend’s wife, who has remained silent thus far. She, fortunately, does not seem unduly fussed about the political ramifications on the restaurant’s food menu. Easy come, easy go was her motto in life. She then places the mobile phone very close to her eyes, adjusts her spectacles and pronounces gaily, “I’ll settle for, to start with, Honey Chirri Flied Potatoes followed by that old-time classic, Chicken Flied Lice.’ Let me quickly add that it was a multi-cuisine eatery.
The waiter then gets into the spirit of things and responds with a smart ‘I am afraid we are fresh out of lice madam, flied or otherwise, but I can get the chef to do you a plate of delicious Chicken Fried Rice. But if you insist on lice, there’s that louse of a street dog sitting outside the gates that might be willing to delouse himself in exchange for a marrow bone. ’And we all have a good chuckle, though I felt he was overstepping the limits for a waiter. I told myself I should tip him handsomely for the unsolicited entertainment. One rarely comes across hotel waiters with an ironic sense of humour.
That said, cuisine life in a touchy-feely-menu-less world is nothing to write home about. It has its uses if you are ordering food from home online. Seductive photographs of various dishes in all their lip-smacking splendour serve a purpose, enabling us to tap our fingers on the chosen item. Notwithstanding the fact that more often than not, the pictures flatter the actual items that arrive an hour later, often cold and unappetizing. However, when you are seated comfortably in a restaurant, the last thing you want is to bury your head in your mobile phone, squinting tightly, asking the waiter if Camel Custard under ‘Just Desserts’ on digital page 124 is veg or non-veg, not counting the eggs. Even the poor waiter stops seeing the funny side of things.
Thus, I return to my original premise. Apparently insignificant things in life happen for a purpose. It may not be immediately clear what that purpose is, but some unseen power that directs our destiny, moves in a mysterious way its wonders to perform. Today it is menu cards in restaurants that gradually disappear from our lives. The anticipated death of the newspaper has been greatly exaggerated, though environmentalists may ensure that eventuality in the not-too-distant future. Thanks to the internet of things, the ominous signs are already there. Cassette tapes, vinyl records and CDs are fast becoming one with the dinosaur, the rarity only adding to their false snob value. Hullo Spotify. In the meanwhile, menu or no menu, I am making a beeline for quality restaurants in the company of close friends, before food as we know it and conviviality, disappear altogether. We could be swallowing ‘food pills’ three times a day that provide all the vitamins and nutrients our bodies need. Like our astronauts in space. Convenience foods will acquire a completely new meaning. I hope by then, I will be one with the dinosaur.