Years ago, one of my mentors wrote something that has stuck in my brain like little else. “A best friend,” he wrote, “is someone you can’t stand to be around more than once a year.”
It’s hyperbole, but it’s basically true. Every close friendship arrives at a point when the other person knows you so well, you don’t have a prayer of fooling her about anything. You tell her over pizza that this is a “cheat day.” You are working to take off that 15 pounds by eating healthy the rest of the week. “Oh really?” she says. “So I shouldn’t mention I saw you eating in the front window of Zesto yesterday?” You cringe. When will you learn? Oh wait. You do the same thing to her.
Dinner is a frequent venue for such interactions. Sitting at a table, although supposedly restrained by etiquette, we allow our brains and tongues to become loose, aggressive, reactive—especially when alcohol is present (Think of family dinners.). A deadly form of this behavior developed with my ex-partner. Dinner out, the only time we ever attempted to talk, became a stage for resentment, craziness, denial and anger. Refusing to eat with him—walking out of a restaurant—signaled the end.
Maybe we need to be more mindful that dining together increases intimacy, which can feel good but also puts us at risk of hurt feelings. Here are some simple suggestions, directed especially at other foodies, mostly inspired by my own ever-flowering defects.
1.) Consider ordering food to share, and not only in Chinese restaurants. Sharing is the whole point of small plates. Sharing enhances friendship. You compare, you contrast, you learn your different tastes. Be curious. Don’t be scaldingly critical (like me) before even trying a dish. (Sharing does complicate the bill. Work it out.)
2.) Especially share the sweet finale. I’m the worst at this. Nobody else orders dessert and I hoard it. My spoon flies like a ninja’s sword. Anyone attempting a taste will lose two fingers. Greed is unsavory; share the sweetness. Don’t reinforce the impression that you’re bitter.
3.) Generally, instead of biting your friend’s head off about something they said, no matter how provocative, bite your tongue. Oh, I know, it really does taste bitter. You can barely resist darting it out of your mouth like a snake’s, but don’t act like you’re at the Colonnade with your partner of 30 years. Take a swig of sweet tea and change the subject.
4.) Don’t commit my most common offense—carping about someone’s taste and order. Why, I often wonder, is anyone asking for kung pao chicken at an exotic Chinese restaurant on Buford Highway? Hey, they’re paying. It’s their choice. And it might actually taste good – exactly my embarrassed experience on many occasions.
5.) When friends have fallen away, don’t dis them in their absence. It makes everyone uneasy. In fact, they probably should not be mentioned at all unless they have literally died. (Yeah, we know he’s already dead to you.)
6.) Make a pact. Dinner is about enjoying company over good food. Don’t be afraid to discuss differences of opinion—the flavor of your favorite condom, the 10-year-old terrorists invading our southern border—but be mindful of language. You can see that my first language is sarcasm. It can often be misunderstood, since I intend nothing mean. So help me out and ask for clarification. At least understand that everyone speaks a different “dialect.”
7.) The latter said, it’s still appropriate to request respect for personal boundaries. Discussion of my age—the very mention of the number—is taboo for me. Another friend doesn’t want to hear explicit tales of sexual exploits while eating in public. Rationality is not always the reason for our boundaries, but can be innocuous anyway.
In summary, have a sense of humor and at least a tiny willingness to experiment. Otherwise eat alone and order from the children’s menu. But don’t be intimidated by radical foodies, who have become fanatical way beyond even their capacity to appreciate Popeye’s and Flaming Hot Cheetos.
Cliff Bostock, PhD, besides being a longtime Atlanta dining critic, is a psychotherapist-turned-life coach, specializing in creativity, midlife transition and gay issues. He offers individual sessions and group workshops. www.cliffbostock.com