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Dining with Joe? Please check your opinions at the door

By Joe Queenan

The last time I broke bread with my former college roommate Chris, we dined in a nondescript Italian restaurant on the outskirts of Philadelphia. A few months later, Chris would succumb to kidney failure, heart failure, and a bevy of other illnesses. 

Also in attendance that evening were two of my childhood friends, Joe and Richie, and Richie’s wife, Mary. Mary had been taught to cook by Richie’s mother, and each time I ate at her house it was like going back 50 years to the glorious era when Mrs. Giardinelli held sway over the kitchen. Chris had met Richie and Mary only that morning when they unexpectedly showed up with mops and buckets and volunteered to clean his house from top to bottom, taking eight hours to do so. Because of his illness, his house was a wreck. 

We are raised to believe that honesty is the best policy. This is not true. If I offer you tickets to the theater or the opera or to see the Knicks play the 76ers, you had better enjoy the play, the opera, or the ballgame. Otherwise, you’re not getting any more tickets.

Illustration by Richard Mia

“You don’t even know Chris,” I told Richie, marveling at their generosity.

“We know you,” he replied.

The mood at the table that evening was actually quite upbeat. The food, however, did not match the occasion. The food was generic and uninspiring. The food was blah. It was just this side of crummy. Joe and Richie are food aficionados, and Mary could have seized control of the kitchen that night and whipped up a meal a thousand times more pleasing than the mush we were being served. Yet nobody said that the breadsticks were stale, that the tomatoes were tasteless, that the lasagna was soggy, that the tiramisu was beyond redemption. And nobody criticized me, a hapless, gastronomically benighted Irish-American, for selecting such a dreary venue.

A year or so later, when Chris was gone, I harked back to that day, again marveling at Richie and Mary’s generosity in scouring the house of a complete stranger. Then I mentioned the forgettable food that we had shared that evening. I told Richie and Mary how touched I was that no one breathed a word of criticism about the meal. 

“It was a social occasion,” Richie said. “We’d just met Chris. And it was a special moment for you and your friend. The food was beside the point.”

I wish more people would adopt this attitude, and not just when dining with the sickly or infirm. I can’t tell you how many times friends have ruined an otherwise joyous occasion by complaining about the carrots, or saying the sole needed more lemon, or sending the steak back to the kitchen. For me, as soon as a person gets shirty with the waiter or waitress, or grumbles about some piddling issue with the check, the evening is kaput. Once a person has sabotaged an outing by pulling that phony gourmand routine, I never dine with them again. 

People like that can’t get it through their heads that on a social occasion, the food is secondary, if that. So don’t wreck the evening just because the cassoulet wasn’t as good as the cassoulet you once had in the Montagne Noire district of southern France, a region between Toulouse and Carcassonne that is renowned for its cuisine. Shut your pie hole and eat your haricots. 

It isn’t only in restaurants that people can torpedo an otherwise festive evening by getting up on their high horses. I once had a pretentious friend who would invite me to a concert, wait until I had said how much I enjoyed the Messiah, and then contemptuously remark, “Oh, you like Handel, do you?” He would also do this with Chopin, Debussy, Dvořák, Brahms, Puccini, and Donizetti. Accepting an invitation from him was like accepting an invitation to my own beheading. 

I’m not sure what purpose is served by this kind of choreographed snootiness. It’s the sort of thing you do in college when you’ve just learned the difference between Aristotle and Archimedes and you’re trying to impress girls with your wit and sophistication. But you should outgrow this kind of behavior by the time you get your BA. A steady diet of condescending barbs will ultimately make your company undesirable, if not unbearable. Oscar Wilde was famous for making derisive remarks about plays or books or paintings that the people around him were obviously enjoying. If you enjoy being the death of the party, then by all means register your disdain toward Handel, Ravel, Renoir, or El Greco in the manner of Oscar Wilde. But keep in mind that Oscar Wilde died friendless and alone. 

I have always found something classist and elitist about getting into it with the wait staff. I am shocked when I invite people to eat in a restaurant I obviously enjoy and then they bellyache about the pastrami or the soup or the service. Do they have no sense of occasion? Do they have no sense of proportion? Do they not realize that if you mess with the manager in a diner I’ve been patronizing since 1987, you are never getting invited back? And I mean never.

We are raised to believe that honesty is the best policy. This is not true. If I offer you tickets to the theater or the opera or to see the Knicks play the 76ers, you had better enjoy the play, the opera, or the ballgame. Otherwise, you’re not getting any more tickets. My father was invited to an Eagles game in 1948 by his brother-in-law, who had season tickets. He spent the entire afternoon complaining that pro athletes were bums, that they were all on the take, that the fix was in, that college football was far superior. 

The Eagles won their first NFL championship that year. My father was never invited back to see them or anybody else. Because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut, I had to wait until I was 16 before my uncle took me to my first game. It was a dud contest against the lowly St. Louis Cardinals, and the Eagles were awful.

“Great game,” I told my uncle afterward. “Wish the Eagles had come out on top, but golly, I bet we’ll get them next week.”

My uncle took me to football games for the remainder of my youth.

Throughout my lifetime, I have learned to keep my mouth shut when my companions are obviously thrilled by a performance I find less than outstanding. Recently, I attended a piano recital at Carnegie Hall. The Debussy was great, the Beethoven not so great. My companion said she had never heard anything more breathtaking than that particular performance of the Appassionata sonata. I thought the performance was heavy going, with the pianist playing wrong notes all over the place and seeming to be ever so slightly out of his depth. But I didn’t say a word about my feelings. I said the concert was fabulous. I said the pianist was a force of nature. What possible point would there be, as the legendary Julia Stiles once put it, in “harshing somebody else’s mellow”?

I was not always so diplomatic. A close but deeply misguided friend has spent the past 20 years trying to get me to embrace contemporary country music, a genre I despise. Lured to a Kenny Chesney concert at Madison Square Garden, I spent most of the evening chatting with the ushers or making phone calls or sending texts, anything to avoid listening to a performer I find criminally hokey. 

In retrospect, I realized that this was not a very nice thing to do. Having been offered a ticket to see Mr. Chesney, and knowing full well that nothing he sang or did that evening could have changed my opinion about him, I should have either said, “Thanks, but I’m re-soldering some loose electrical wires that evening,” or at least camouflaged my disdain by saying something like, “I thought he did a very nice job on ‘She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.’” 

The next time Jimmy invited me out, we went to see a singer-songwriter most famous for writing “Take This Job and Shove It.” The mood was ugly in the club that evening. The room was filled with young men who looked as if they had taken quite a few jobs and shoved them. Halfway through the show, some drunk threw beer all over the lead singer, who left the stage and never came back. A fistfight broke out, and a young man ended up on the floor and the EMS people had to come and take him to the hospital. Oblivious to all this mayhem, Jimmy thoroughly enjoyed the concert, regretting only that it was a bit too short.

“His voice is a little shaky, but he’s a great songwriter, isn’t he?” Jimmy said as we were leaving. And I, mindful that Jimmy had driven my wife and me to the hospital the morning my son was born, replied, “Absolutely fantastic. I particularly enjoyed ‘Longhaired Redneck.’ A classic.”

“So we’ll do it again?” he asked, hoping that the punch-up had not soured me on the genre.

“Can’t wait,” I replied. I know he didn’t believe me. But that was OK. He was happy that when push came to shove, I had opted for friendship over a dreary commitment to the facts. And the truth is, I really did enjoy watching those young guys slugging each other. It was worth the price of admission.

• Joe Queenan is a freelance writer based in Tarrytown, New York. Read more stories from The Rotarian