Hello, and welcome back to Off The Menu, where we explore the craziest stories about food from my email inbox. This week, we have one of the last issues of Off The Menu (though there are still a few more). If you’re sad about that, well, maybe you should’ve submitted more stories so I didn’t run out. As always, these are real stories from real readers.
Back in 2001, I was working for a ShopRite in south Jersey which was located immediately around the corner from a very large and affluent retirement community. One of the services that this community provided to its residents was shuttle service to and from the Shoprite. If you worked at this store you quickly developed intense feelings of dread at the sight of a dark blue shuttle bus.
Imagine looking out over the counter of the deli to see that hell wagon pull up and vomit forth a steady line of cane-wielding curmudgeons. I had no issue with seniors as a group, and no issue with someone on a fixed income shopping for the best deals, but this particular community didn’t attract your standard issue sweet old ladies and gentlemen. These were former captains of industry, and the good lord help you if you didn’t bow to their every entitled whim.
There were many memorable encounters over the two years that I worked at this store, but the most baffling was Liverwurst Lady.
Liverwurst lady was a “Runner”. One of those charming people who as soon as they entered the store made a beeline for the deli at top speed. It wasn’t a very impressive top speed in her case, but she had all the dedication of an octogenarian Olympian. This particular day she had just huffed her way up to the counter when she made eye contact with me and imperiously demanded a “One pound chunk of liverwurst, cut thin.” I was nodding along normally until that last part, when the nod became a spasm. A one pound chunk of liverwurst wasn’t an uncommon request. Gross, but simple enough. Many people when ordering from the deli had the habit of ordering their lunch meat “sliced thin.” So okay, chalked it up to habit on her part and asked her for clarification.
“Excuse me, mam. Would you like a single one-pound piece of liverwurst, or would you like a pound cut up into thin pieces?”
The look I got back was one part shock and two parts “don’t cross the streams.”
“Excuse YOU. It’s not my job to tell you how to cut liverwurst!”
“No mam. I just need to know if you want a single piece or several.”
“ONE piece, cut THIN! How hard is that?!”
“….It’s not really hard so much as impossible, mam. A single piece is going to a one pound chunk. There’s no way to cut it thin.”
“I order my liverwurst this way every week! Now do it or I will speak with your manager!”
So I proceeded to cut a single one pound piece of liverwurst and plop it up on the scale in front of her. She eyes it disdainfully for a moment before huffing and saying, “I don’t know why you made that so difficult. Any idiot could do your job.”
“Would you like anything else, mam?”
“Yes! I need half a pound of IMPORTED provolone.”
Gesturing to the liverwurst still on the scale…”Would you like that cut thin as well?”
I joined my roommate and his friends at Barcelona Wine Bar in Washington, DC one summery Saturday afternoon. For those unfamiliar with this mostly east-coast chain, it’s an upscale Spanish/Mediterranean restaurant mainly catering to Gen X-ers that think they found a hip place to dine, and millennials getting so drunk off wine there’s no point in ordering food. They had been there for a few hours, so while I was eager to try the food and drink selection for the first time, I knew there was no catching up.
So by the time the checks came, and people put down cards to split it, they were all very drunk. No one seemed ready to leave, so I’m not sure if one person had asked for them or the staff was just tired of us. People got their cards back, and to make things easy, my roommate completed everyone’s bills. A minute after picking them up, I noticed our main server grumbling to two others and occasionally looking at us. I got up to ask him if everything was ok, and he waved me off. I asked if he was sure, and after a second he showed me the checks. My roommate had tipped $2 on each $17 bill (~12%, including tax). I paused for a second, and after doing some quick math, handed him a $20, made sure he was happy, and went back to our table.
By the time I got back, they had ordered another carafe. Fortunately, they managed to keep the drink in glasses rather flowing through the air. After another 30 minutes or so, people were finally ready to leave. Our server had already put the check for the final carafe on our table. I pointed it out to my roommate, who tried to hide it under the table. I picked up the black bill book, put my last two $20s in it, and handed it to our server who stood stoically waiting by the exit and who thanked me without even checking the book. We moved onto to our apartment to continue the crawl, which ended abruptly when my roommate’s friends got there first and left after waiting five minutes for us to get more booze.
P.S. I later called out my roommate when he was sober, and he paid me back for all of it.
I’m a new(ish) mother, and the one food I’d really missed since becoming pregnant was sushi. What with nursing an infant, a stressful full-time job and a husband who hates the very concept of raw /anything/, it was nearly two years – and my very first child-free day – before I could get to a sushi restaurant.
As a single diner, the manager found me a spot at the bar overlooking the open kitchen area, apologising for both the location and the wait as they were slammed. I reassured him that watching someone else prepare a meal and having a good excuse to do nothing at all was my idea of perfection.
Shortly after my first plate came, a married, older couple were seated next to me, and it was clear from the outset that NOTHING was going to please the lady of the party. She hated where they’d been sat. She hated the wait time. She hated the bar stool, etc. Hubbie was clearly well used to the routine and was making just enough “uh-huh” noises to rankle her still further, so as her bar-neighbour she started trying to draw me into her conversation. I wanted no part of it so straight-up ignored her. After a while, she ran out of things to grumble about and shut up. Or so I thought.
I was just finishing my final plate when the couple were served their first. I’d been fully expecting a hissy fit when Mrs. Grumble saw her sashimi, but was initially disappointed that she didn’t seem too put out. Of course it didn’t last. Two minutes later, she was calling for the manager. “Our food. If we don’t start soon, it will be ruined.” The manager looked to the husband for some clue as to what was stopping her, but he had the resigned look of someone who already knew there was no recovery. She tried again, in a hissing stage-whisper intended to embarrass the staff. “Where. Is. Our. CUTLERY!?!” The manager politely gestured to the piles of chopsticks available in pots all along the bar. “I am NOT eating MY meal with those THINGS! I was raised better!” Suddenly the whole restaurant had become deadly quiet as every head swings in our direction.
The manager gently explains that, as a sushi restaurant, these are in fact the only eating implements available. [Editor’s Note: This didn’t make sense to me until I asked Heather about it and she explained this was in the UK. Apparently, this is common there, which as someone who cannot use chopsticks but loves sushi, means I’m now sad because I can never eat at a Japanese place in that country.] “You can’t be SERIOUS! Are you REALLY expecting me to believe that there is not ONE fork available for customers?” She swept an arm across half the room, taking in me and the nearest tables and nodding her head to us in an attempt to bring us in as her Greek chorus. “WE! JUST! WANT! FORKS!”
Most people began ignoring her and I turned my attention to the waiter who’d just brought me my bill. I wasn’t really listening to her background rantings as I fumbled in my handbag for my credit card. The handbag I use every day, full of mummy things like wipes, kiddie snacks and… A child’s knife and fork.
She swooped in on it like an eagle that had spotted line rabbit on the hillside. Mr. Grumble put a hand over his face. Somehow she managed to grab the fork from my bag, waved it in the air triumphantly and shouted loud enough to attract the entire restaurant once more.
“She’s got them! She’s taken all the cutlery! Make her give it back!” The waiter and I were open-mouthed and frozen in shock that anyone would even dare go into a stranger’s bag. The manager gathered himself a little more quickly. “I, err, I think what you have there is, in fact…” He trailed off, unable to bring himself to point out the bloody obvious. And then for the first time in the entire evening, Mr. Grumble spoke. “Helena. Put down the fork. It is green. It is plastic. It is the size of my finger. It belongs to a child. We are leaving.” He stood up, threw down more than enough cash to cover the whole meal plus tip (well done, Mr. G), and started ushering her to the exit. Just before he got the door open, she wheeled round again, pointed an accusatory finger at the stunned manager and announced loudly “… and THIS is why you have no customers!!!”. As the door swung shut, every guest looked around themselves at their fellow diners in the 50-seat, full-to-capacity restaurant struggling to see where they could possibly shoehorn in even one extra seat.
It was only when I got home that I realised that, as a responsible parent, I’d missed out on my only opportunity to tell a toddler that I really, really couldn’t give a fork.
In the central business district of Melbourne, Australia, there is a mini-Chinatown of a couple of city blocks. There was a Chinese restaurant that I first went to when I was about 20 (I’m now 42), and frequented ever since basically on a fortnightly basis. The reasons were (1) The service was good., (2) The food was fine (3) They had a policy of BYO any drink or drinks you wanted: You could walk in with a six-pack of beer or a bottle of scotch and they would just add $2.00 to your bill per person (Here in Australia, it is usually BYO wine or nothing). Let’s call it Mao Dining.
My wife and I had our first date there in 2004. As we got married and had children, it was particularly noticeable how great the waitstaff were with our kids – always talking to them, complimentary ice cream, helping with food, cutlery etc etc. Fairly small things in themselves, but really solidified the place as a good venue for a meal or Yum Cha. One waiter/manager (let’s call him Dave) was always particularly sweet. His English wasn’t fantastic, but he always made us feel very welcome, either when I was out with friends, or there with the wife and kids. It would get so we’d be glad to see him working when we were there, because we know we’d get looked after. He’d often comp parts of the bill, chat with the family and so forth.
One fine uneventful day, after I had been to Mao Dining TWO DAYS BEFORE, I’m starting dinner at home with the children when I broke rule number 683 (out of several million) of how to be a good parent – I’ve left the news on. My darling five-year-old (bless her cotton socks) pipes up with “Look daddy, the nice man from the Chinese Restaurant.” I look up to see Dave being paraded from the street in front of Mao Dining in handcuffs.
I then see THE FACT THAT HIS WHITE SHIRT-SLEEVES ARE COVERED IN BLOOD. Seriously, he looked like Macbeth after giving King Duncan the once-over.
The newsreader chirpily goes on to state that Dave has been ARRESTED FOR MURDER for STABBING an associate/crime boss /innocent bystander/I don’t know after meeting him at Mao’s Dining and strolling a couple of buildings down for a chat.
You have never seen a remote control off-button get pressed more quickly in your life.
Funnily, the place closed shortly thereafter, giving us a convenient response to the persistent questions of “Why don’t we go to the Chinese restaurant anymore, Daddy?”
Do you have any food-related stories you’d like to see included in Off The Menu? Feel free to submit them to WilyUbertrout@gmail.com. New submissions are always welcome! (Seriously, you don’t need to ask if I want you to send them in, the answer is always yes). If you’d like to stay up to date with OTM news, my Twitter handle is @EyePatchGuy.