Post #294

Retro: Ordering food in America

23rd March 2004, early evening | Comments (34)

Tucson, Arizona, USA ~ April, 2002.


A table with breakfast food on it
My breakfast

Ordering food is always an event in America, or so it seems to me. I’ve always tripped through life on the understanding that menus indicate the food combinations and prices that an establishment offers. In the States however a menu seems to just be a starting point — a list of words and letters which can be combined into any mix of dishes that the customer desires.

Yeah, gimmie the Eggs Benedict, but I wanna swap the actual eggs for a plate of tacos with a side of sage and olive sauce. Actually, gimmie the sauce on the tacos and put some meatballs on the side instead of the english muffin. What kinda dairy products do you have? Are they low in phospho-plurocryptonite? That gives me phlegm…

And it’s not just the customers. This morning, at Frank’s, our waitress haggled with Molly, because she hated making toast:

I’ll do you a side of bacon instead of the toast, and I’ll waive the 25 cents charge.
Yeah? I don’t know if I want bacon, it’s got a lot of salt in it. Do you have low-sodium bacon?
We have low sodium bacon but it has a higher than average Serlium content for this time of year, at this height above sea-level.
Hmm, no. How about extra mushrooms instead of the bacon?
How many extra mushrooms? Equivalent by volume or weight?
You’re on. God I hate makin’ toast.

My meal came with two eggs. I asked for one fried and one poached. The waitress said no.


We rang up for pizza tonight. I wanted a plain old Meat Pizza, but because I’m allergic to a few things I needed to ask for it without the tomato puree on. Molly wasn’t sure the pizza place could cope with that:

Well, I’ll try, but don’t hold your breath… Yeah, hello? Captain America’s Pizzas? Right I wanna order two small pizzas. On the first one… let’s see, hmm no, I don’t really like anything on the menu, so I’ll tell you what, can you make me one with a slightly puffy base, but I want it done with wholemeal low-fat yiddish flour and unsalted beaver-butter, then gimme 4 cheeses… What? Which ones? Um, Japanese Sage Darby, Pol le Veq, Czech sheep’s milk, and Norweigan Jarlsburg. Then I want salami, how do you serve that? Diced? OK give me shredded salami, some mushrooms from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and some baked guava halves as well… Oh yeah and ’erbs. Got that? Right, and for the second one… Well, ha, I don’t know if you’re gonna be able to do this, but this is what he wants…

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Comments (34)

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  1. Mike P.:

    Man that picture makes me drool. Hasbrowns, eggs, toast, Tobasco, Coffee, and charred round of UM. Yum.

    Posted 17 minutes after the fact
    Inspired: ↓ Chris
  2. Rahul:

    The 'erbs thing freaks me out too, man...

    Posted 31 minutes after the fact
  3. Nicole:

    My diet Sunkist nearly went out my nose. Thanks for the laugh.

    Posted 36 minutes after the fact
  4. Todd:

    "some mushrooms from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and some baked guava halves as well"

    Dunstan...write a screenplay about your travels. I would pay good money to see that on screen. Hilarious!

    Posted 44 minutes after the fact
    Inspired: ↓ Phil Baines
  5. Zelnox:


    I'm Canadian and I did not know one could extract milk out of beavers to make butter. (^O^)//

    Posted 53 minutes after the fact
  6. Paul G:

    Welcome to the world of mass customization, my friend :)

    It is interesting to see the underlying assumptions that are made about what is up for negotiation in America and what is not.

    Most restaurants have no problem cooking eggs to order, but customizing each individual egg is somehow out of bounds. The funny thing is that it makes perfect sense to me and I have no idea why...

    Maybe it has to do with our concept of what constitutes a dish, i.e., which ingredients are key and which are optional. I think most pizza joints here would define pizza as composed of a crust, tomato sauce, cheese, and toppings. Toppings are always negotiable. Cheese is becoming increasingly negotiable (as in you can get pizzas without it), but fiddle with the sauce, and suddenly you're getting dangerously close to something that is not a pizza. You've crossed that murky boundary between the optional and the crucial.

    Anyway, it's an interesting (as well as amusing) bit of whimsy to ponder on a slow Tuesday afternoon, thanks!

    Posted 1 hour, 18 minutes after the fact
    Inspired: ↓ Kitta
  7. Chris:

    Mike P - the photo has the opposite effect on me. Bleurgh.

    On ordering pizzas, try this:

    Dunstan: "I want a very lightly cooked base, standard flour you use. Then can you give me a SEPARATE plate with tomato slices on? Oh, then another plate with grated cheddar cheese on it. And another plate with a mixture of finely-cut salad on. And a small pot of ground mixed herbs if you have it."

    Pizza Seller: "Damn it, what you want it like that for!?"

    Dunstant: "Because I'm going to go home with the ingredients and cook the pizza myself!"

    Posted 1 hour, 54 minutes after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ Mike P.
    Inspired: ↓ Mike P.
  8. Mike P.:

    Chris: Huh. I'm a breakfast guy; at Uni we often would have days when everyone got back to the house and had "breakfast for dinner!". Usually in front of a hockey game, cause (@Zelnox) I be Canadian too eh.

    <OffTopic> Cool notify idea for the Comments Dunstan. I was thinking of having a 'subscribe to comments' function on my blog. Would be cool, I think, provided I started getting some comments!

    Posted 2 hours, 15 minutes after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ Chris
  9. Colin D. Devroe:

    ...with wholemeal low-fat yiddish flour and unsalted beaver-butter, then gimme 4 cheeses… What? Which ones? Um, Japanese Sage Darby, Pol le Veq, Czech sheep’s milk, and Norweigan Jarlsburg. Then I want salami, how do you serve that? Diced? OK give me shredded salami, some mushrooms from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and some baked guava halves as well...


    Posted 2 hours, 33 minutes after the fact
  10. Margaret:

    I've always ordered food this way- never asked for beaver butter, though. Are things different in England?

    Posted 3 hours, 33 minutes after the fact
    Inspired: ↓ Dunstan
  11. Jemaleddin:

    What's meat pizza? Pepperoni? Italian sausage? Ham? Bacon? Ground beef? Hot italian sausage? Canadian bacon? Chicken? All of the above? Some of the above?

    I'm guessing from what little I know of the UK that whatever it is must be boiled. (/me ducks)

    Posted 3 hours, 42 minutes after the fact
  12. Dunstan:

    They are, Margaret, in the UK you just tend to order what's on the menu.

    You can say "I don't want chips, could I possibly have veg instead, please?" but that's about as far as it tends to go.

    The US way certainly makes sense from a customer's point of view, and I'm sure we'll go further down that route as people become less afraid to ask for changes.

    Posted 3 hours, 46 minutes after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ Margaret
    Inspired: ↓ Kitta
  13. Molly:

    That Dunstan, what a teller of tall tales he is. I swear, I never eat low-salt anything, and I order all my mushrooms in bulk. So there. :P

    Posted 3 hours, 48 minutes after the fact
    Inspired: ↓ Dunstan, ↓ Paul G
  14. Chris Vincent:

    I've never gone to that extreme when ordering, nor have I bartered with a waitress. But it is an interesting connection... America has this big thing about food. Now then, look at the stats. More people in America die from eating food than by every incurable disease combined. It's true. We're a fat country (not that we should sue McDonald's for our lack of self-control).

    Posted 3 hours, 50 minutes after the fact
  15. Dunstan:

    Yes, I should say that Molly is a jolly good sport for letting me tell (and embellish) all these stories about her and her beautiful home town of Tucson, Arizona.

    What a gal.

    Posted 4 hours, 1 minute after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ Molly
    Inspired: ↓ Paul G
  16. Paul G:

    Every storyteller worth his exaggerations knows that embellishment is the difference between a good story and a great story. After all, you're entertaining, not giving testimony, right? ;)

    To tell a good story, you've got to think of the actual events as a raw material to be properly refined, formed, painted, and glazed. There is even an art to overdoing it for the sake of humor, which can be a delicate balance to strike (Dave Barry is the master).

    I say: Good show, Dunstan :)

    Posted 5 hours, 4 minutes after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ Molly, ↑ Dunstan
  17. Mattymcg:

    I think the phrase you're looking for is "never let the truth get in the way of a good story".

    Thanks for the laugh Dunstan!

    Posted 6 hours, 29 minutes after the fact
  18. Sean:

    No grits?

    That *ain't* a real breakfast.

    Posted 8 hours, 56 minutes after the fact
  19. Timmy:

    I am a Philadelphia native. This summer I took a road trip south to Daytona Beach, FL. Breakfast down there is really interesting. I gave them very anal retentive orders one morning for a breakfast made for about eight people. They gave me what I assumed was the same thing everyone else got. Then when I mentioned to the waitress that I must have gotten the wrong meal she cocked one eyebrow, scrunched her face like she had taken a big swig of yesterday's coffee and shifted her eyes to and fro for a moment. Then she walked away. Needless to say she didn't care.
    The other bizarre thing about breakfast in the south is that there are really only two places to go waffle house ( ) and Cracker Barrel ( ).

    Posted 9 hours, 42 minutes after the fact
    Inspired: ↓ Paul G, ↓ Chad
  20. Kitta:

    It's the same here in Australia, you order a dish off the menu - say chips, salad and fish - and that's what you get.

    I'm wondering about the whole toast issue, I mean, what's so bloody hard about making toast? And pizza, without cheese, why?!

    I must go lay down, this entry has messed with my mind too much.

    Posted 11 hours, 43 minutes after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ Paul G, ↑ Dunstan
  21. Huphtur:

    Check out Burger King's "Have it Tour Way" marketing campaign:

    Posted 11 hours, 47 minutes after the fact
  22. Lee:

    I know exactly what you mean. Us brits just aren't used to being given that much choice. The best we get is BK offering to leave things out (like no mayo) but you have to wait ten minutes to get your special order, no one can be bothered, so we just stick to what we got.

    In the UK, you order what's on the menu, if it's not on the menu, you can't have it. Nor are the restaurants particularly open to mixing and matching.

    Go to the states and everthing is negotiable, even in MacDonalds.

    I think the UK will go this way eventually, customisation seems to be the way forward at the moment, just looks at things like mobile phones.

    Posted 13 hours, 51 minutes after the fact
  23. Jgraham:

    I think the attitude in the UK stems partially from a sense of respect for the professional opinion of the chef as to what makes a good combination.

    Clearly, one wouldn't expect to go into an expensive resturant and try to customise the dishes; to do so would be considered insulting. However we retain that prejudice when confronted with more mundane eating establishments unless specifically told it is OK to mix and match (some pizza places allow you to choose your own toppings).

    Which doesn't explain the real issue:

    What's with all this eating out for breakfast?

    Surely you Americans don't all get up and think "Hrmm I'm not really awake yet but I'm a bit hungry, what shall I do? I know I'll jump in the car and go downtown to a resuturant! That way I can hold high levcel dimpomatic talks with the waitress before coffee, then, after coffee, I can slurp down some congealed fat! Sweet!"

    Posted 16 hours, 44 minutes after the fact
    Inspired: ↓ Timmy, ↓ Paul G
  24. Timmy:

    I think that I missed the point of this entry when I first posted. I thought you were complaining about how you couldn't get what you wanted when you were commenting on how you could. It was late I apologize.

    As for Jgraham, its not a matter of respect. Breakfast is a very different animal in the states when compared to breakfast in... oh... everywhere else on earth. Most places are set up to be build your own anyway. I don't go out for breakfast all the time though just because I am in the states. I usually have a croissant and a yogurt and a coffee. Regardless when I do go out I like to eat alot of breakfast. It's my favorite meal. My last breakfast included...
    2 pancakes
    orange juice
    cheese and mushroom omelette

    Oh god it does make it sound like thats what we say isn't it? Well anyway enough trashing the American image to the Brits. Thats what our leaders are for.

    Time for work. Perhaps i'll stop on the way and slurp down some congealed fat. SWEET!

    Posted 17 hours, 16 minutes after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ Jgraham
  25. Phil Baines:

    "...some mushrooms from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and some baked guava halves as well."

    Man! I almost read right through that bit without even thinking about the hyperbole. I had to go back and re-read the whole thing to decide if there was any other exaggeration that I might have missed.

    You can see that I have never been to the States.

    Posted 17 hours, 32 minutes after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ Todd
  26. Paul G:

    Honestly, I can't remember the last time I had breakfast food for breakfast (Oh wait, it was saturday). Usually, breakfast food is more of a late-night thing for me. Stopping at the local 24-hour diner after a concert or a party can be a good way to wind down. I don't know why it works this way, but most of my friends agree that breakfast food is best eaten between 11pm and 4am.

    Also, there are plenty of places besides Waffle House and Crack-Whore Barrel (an affectionate name that has stuck with me since college :). You forgot IHOP, Villiage Inn, Perkins (don't bark like a dog in Perkins. Trust me, you'll never live it down), Shoney's (shudder), Famous Amos (just say no), and all manner of local greasy spoon diners (my favorite is a place called "Firpo's"). You've just got to have a bit of an adventurous spirit when dining out. Also, you have to enjoy being called "Shug" or "Hon", that helps a lot.

    Posted 19 hours, 17 minutes after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ Timmy, ↑ Jgraham
    Inspired: ↓ Chad
  27. Sean:

    Food and service varies throughout the states.

    My state, Louisiana, has the greatest cultural link to food.
    Food is everything here.

    Laissez les bons temps rouler

    Posted 20 hours, 2 minutes after the fact
  28. Chad:

    Aahhhh, the Awful Waffle (House)....that sounds really good right about now...I'll take my hashbrowns scattered, smothered, chunked, and diced, thank you....and as for IHOP, I prefer to call them the IHOH, as in International House of Hepatitis, for in the town I currently live in, all Hepatitis outbreaks were sooner or later linked to that restaraunt, and now its closed, imagine that....

    And yes, the number of choices one can make from a menu at some places is almost ridiculous...I prefer the KISS methodology...Keep It Simple, Stupid.

    Posted 20 hours, 22 minutes after the fact
    Inspired by: ↑ Timmy, ↑ Paul G
  29. Hans Hyttinen:

    Thank god for America's happily amusing culture. I'm a picky eater, you see, and often customize my orders.

    Posted 1 day, 2 hours after the fact
  30. Ben Poole:

    :-) Another great post, thank you! I lived in the States for a year, and servers *still* interpreted my asking for "ice" as "fries". Gah.

    As for grits... bleurgh.

    Posted 1 day, 3 hours after the fact
  31. Taro, The Ex-pizzaman:

    I cooked a few no-sauce pizzas working at the Shakey's Pizza chain. No sweat. Middle Eastern folks seem to order them that way. Here in Tokyo I just-say-no-mayo on my seaweed and fish-eggs pizza, ok? See to believe here:

    Posted 1 day, 10 hours after the fact
  32. Justin:

    beaver-milk LOL. That's great. I have had moose-milk before, but it has everything to do with icecream and alcohol, and nothing to do with milk.

    Posted 1 day, 23 hours after the fact
  33. Harry:

    I've noticed more and more flexibility in restaurants willing to deviate and customize. Also some places will serve dishes that they don't even have on the menu -- if you know to ask for it. I've heard that said about restaurants in Europe...that the menus list a few things, but there's much more that's available, but not listed on the menu.

    Posted 2 days, 22 hours after the fact
  34. Michael R. Havard:

    To a degree it's out of control. I knew there was a problem with too many choices way back when Hardee's started selling fried chicken and as Jack in the Box has slowly become the International House of All Greasy Food (hamburgers, chicken, salads, tacos, eggrolls, breakfast, gyros, etc).

    Likewise with regular sit down eating establishments I'm given a menu that has 8 pages of regular menu items with an insert announcing a new mix and match any style steak with any style shrimp combo. Then at the top they actually encourage you to customize by including text "Substitute Onion Rings for Vegetables for .90".

    The nuts thing really is the inconsistency. I can go to one steak house and get what's on the menu and get asked how I want the steak cooked but no substitutions. Another steak house allows whatever substitution you want but they only cook steaks to medium.

    I think the sacrafice that some restaurants have made in the name of customization is specialization. Since so many restaurants are "doing it your way" then we miss out on the things that they once did extremely well. In it's place we get marginalized meals supposedly made to our tastes but typically just bland copies of the former real meals they served.

    Of course I understand why the English suffer through whatever meal the chef decides to give them. It doesn't have anything to do with respect. It goes into the same reason why they idolize certain heros. English hero's aren't like American hero's. American hero's get the girl, save the day, and live happily ever after. English hero's lose everything, watch the girl die helpless to save her, and eventually die themselves in some sad way - or worse they live to a ripe old age suffering with the memory of their failed lives. It's simple really - the English are masochists. :)

    Posted 3 days after the fact

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