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What guides your decision making process when you peruse the dizzying array of options on a typical restaurant menu? Of course the immediate discriminator is whether you enjoy a particular food or not. But after eliminating the things that you dislike, how do you then choose amongst the acceptable offerings?
I imagine price is sometimes a factor. If you’re near the end of the paycheck cycle you might opt for the $15 chicken over the $25 rack of lamb. Or maybe it just irks you to spend $40 on a two-pound lobster when you can make it at home for less than $10 a pound.
But let’s put money aside for the moment. Next are a plethora of health related factors that may come into play, be they real or imagined. Some people must avoid certain foods for medical reasons. Others are watching their waistline. And some folks have all sorts of kooky ideas about certain foods and health. Don’t get me started on this last point. I’ve belabored it to death in the past already. Let’s just put the food neurotics in with the “health reasons group” and move on.
A lot of people like to order items that they can’t make at home, either because they don’t know how or because the dish is complicated and time consuming. Thus, ordering it out is a treat. Conversely, one may have a great recipe for, let’s say lasagna, and never order it in a restaurant because they like their own preparation the best. Of course what you’ve eaten recently also plays a role. The need to avoid the drudgery of the mundane prevents us from revisiting recently consumed foods.
As we continue, we encounter reasons for choosing food that are practiced by many, but only on certain occasions. For example, people often avoid messy foods or foods requiring the use of the hands on a first date. A more refined impression is conveyed by cutting a chicken cutlet with a knife and fork as opposed to barbarically digging into greasy fried chicken with your paws. Or a dish may be chosen because it’s traditional fare on a popular holiday: corn beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day or turkey on Thanksgiving.
Next are multifarious idiosyncratic reasons for choosing or eschewing certain foods. These are the quirky motivations distinctive to the individual and inevitably arising from some unique set of circumstances in their background. A friend of mine eats fish but won’t order it if the word “fish” is in the description on the menu. For some reason that grosses her out. Another friend cannot eat a food if it is presented in its normal anatomical form. Thus, she is repulsed by a chicken leg, but not by a deboned, unidentifiably uniform piece of chicken breast devoid of any distinctive chicken shape. And then of course, are the people who avoid certain foods because they have a moral problem with their cultivation or slaughter. Personally I think that has more to do with the funny-farm than a traditional farm but to each his own.
But after we remove all of these extraneous influences, what then determines which food we will choose? I mean, on an entire restaurant menu, there has to be more than one dish that meets your medical, financial, socio-cultural, and psychological variables. Don’t we usually narrow it down to a few options and then make a final decision from there? Of course. And it’s that final determination that I wish to address.
The bottom line is, after all is said and done, we go with our gut. We make that final selection based upon how we feel. Do I feel like seafood today or pasta? Am I in a burger mood? Nah, I feel like something lighter. Someone please tell me how it feels to “feel” like having lobster? How do you put that into words? We all know the sensation of being drawn to one food over another but how in the world do you articulate that? What exactly is a burger mood? You could probably describe love, anger or sadness more readily than you could elucidate a sushi feeling.
I find this process fascinating. As we contemplate our final menu possibilities, we look inward, we imagine eating one or the other, and then somehow, seemingly magically, we are propelled toward one by some unseen yet irresistible force; an intangible, free-flowing, emotionally based sentiment that steers our receptivity toward a discrete taste sensation. We simply just feel like something spicy today.
It is my position that it behooves us to go with our gut, even though our feelings are sometimes wrong. Ever order something, take a sample of one of your dining partner’s meals and then wish you ordered that? Nevertheless, following our innate inclinations is usually psychologically sound. Being true to ourselves, as opposed to being directed by external factors, is a surer way toward happiness. Can I prove that? No more than I can define a hot dog feeling. But my gut tells me it’s right.
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