It Matters

September 6, 2007 | By | COMMENTS

iced-tea-pitcher-sm.jpg

Frank Bruni told a story on his blog the other day about ordering iced tea at a restaurant only to have the waiter say they’d run out. “How do you run out of iced tea?” he queried. “I ask that question not snidely but earnestly, because I know that this blog has readers in the restaurant business, and I’d be curious for an answer.”

The answers he got were vicious. “Its so hard being a privelidged [sic] customer at an upscale restaurant,” wrote Jason C. “Oh, that I had these problems,” wrote Anna. “If the restaurant has run out of whatever, just order something else and get a life,” wrote VG.

The thrust of these arguments can be summed up by Wanda: “If you want to be in serious debate, read the front page.”

The front page, presumably, is filled with things that matter: soldiers dying in Iraq, terrorists plotting attacks in Germany, Senators seeking sex in bathrooms. These readers are outraged that Frank can be so frivolous: why raise a stink over something so minor? Who cares if the restaurant runs out of iced tea–there are more important things happening in the world!

It’s logic like this that explains why so many people in America eat so badly: “Who cares what I put in my stomach as long as I eat?” It’s a means to an end, a bodily function–food goes in like it comes out–and it’s not a thing to be taken seriously. Hence the outrage on Bruni’s blog.

But what are we fighting for when we fight for freedom? What are we protecting as we sniff out the terrorists? Is it just a matter of life and death? Or is it something more? Aren’t we trying to preserve and maintain the things that make living life worth living?

Sure, whether or not a restaurant runs out of iced tea seems minor in the grand scheme of things, but isn’t that true of anything that’s not a matter of life and death? Isn’t it more a question of which pleasures we deem important and which we don’t? For example, I bet many of the people raging about Bruni’s lack of perspective had strong opinions about the final episode of The Sopranos. Maybe some of them wrote a blog post about how David Chase ruined the franchise, didn’t deliver the proverbial “iced tea” if you will. Isn’t that just as irrelevant to front page news as anything else? Don’t we spend most of our days worrying and thinking about the little things–what to wear, where to eat, how to get there–than we do thinking about the big things? And isn’t that ok?

I think it is. I think these things matter because these are the things that give life substance. If it were your last meal and you were craving iced tea and you went to a restaurant and you ordered it and they didn’t have it, you’d be pretty upset. You’d wonder the same thing Frank wondered: “How do you run out of iced tea?”

And then you’d shrug, order a bottomless martini and drink yourself to oblivion.

Tags: ,

Categories: Essays

  • http://alithinks.com Alison

    Well said.

  • http://theblogthatatemanhattan.blogspot.com tbtam

    One of your best posts. Ever.

  • http://theblogthatatemanhattan.blogspot.com tbtam

    One of your best posts. Ever.

  • http://golikewater.blogspot.com Steven

    (Adam, I love your blog and read it every day, so please take my crankiness below in that light, okay!)

    It seems like the viciousness (not the viscosity, by the way, though good sweet tea might seem a bit viscous if there’s enough sugar in it) of the response was a reaction to the stupidity (or at least the disingenuousness) of the question. You run out of iced tea the same way you run out of anything else: You made some, you served it, it’s all gone.

    His question implies that he should be able to order whatever he wants and have it served to him. I love preparing and serving food to people, it’s why I love cooking. I think it’s a sacred exchange. But anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant has a million stories of arrogant guests who think it’s all about them.

    Your argument that we fight wars so that people in restaurants can always have iced tea if they want it ignores the fact that someone has to MAKE the iced tea.

  • Andie

    I don’t think Bruni’s point was that he should be able to order whatever he wants and have it served to him. He even acknowledged that point with the issue of fish (i.e. it’s understandable if a restaurant runs out of certain fish).

    However, his point is that with something so widely available like tea bags, why wouldn’t the restaurant just say, “We’ll have to make a new batch of iced tea. Would you mind waiting ten minutes for your drink?” See, that’s not that hard. And if the restaurant is deadset against having a busboy run to the market to pick up a pack of tetley, then they’re not really about customer service, are they? They’re really just trying to keep things convenient for them.

  • Giulia

    On the contrary, Steven, to two of your points:

    a) As well-intentioned as you would like to think these people are, I think their viciousness was indeed in response to Frank’s general frivolity, and not to the stupidity of the question. In response to which my immediate thought was, if you are reading Frank Bruni’s blog on the Times website, a blog otherwise marked “Diner’s Journal,” how can you possibly expect to read about anything other than food? Bruni is a food writer, therefore any of his postings on his own blog are going to be about precisely that. The same with a fashion blog, a music blog, a blog about a TV show, etc. If these people were to go on every blog and say, “How can you write about A, B, and C, when there is an AIDS epidemic, starving people all over the world, a war in Iraq, etc.?” then they are essentially saying we can never write about anything other than those more “important” things ever again. (Much like when people declared irony “dead” after 9/11: yeah right.) Unless every single one of these commenters here got accidentally side-tracked while reading the “World News” section online, I don’t think they really can complain. This is Bruni’s domain, and his entire purpose is to write about food so that readers who want to read about it can go there to read about it!

    b) Now in response to your comment about the “stupidity” of asking for iced tea. While I realize that most people in fact SHOULD get a life if they get crabby when something on the menu they wanted isn’t available, I would hesitate to mark as “arrogant” every single customer who thinks the dining experience is “all about them.” Call me crazy, but isn’t that kind of the point? Whereas a writer can write without any desire to be published, and a painter can paint without any need ever to see his canvas leave the room, food is made to be eaten, and without being eaten, just sitting in a tower or spread out on a plate looking pretty, it can only be half appreciated, or, some would argue, not appreciated at all. So food needs eaters and therefore chefs need restaurant customers; that’s the whole point. Further more, when I sit down at a restaurant that I’m paying a good sum of money for (never mind so much the diners, cafes, and the smaller restaurants that charge more cheaply), in my opinion it IS all about me. I’m paying this money, so things should be as good as they possibly can be. I’m the customer and the restaurant is providing something in exchange for my money, and I in turn am providing the restaurant with the valuable cash it needs to stay open and keep doing what it’s doing. Money isn’t coming from anywhere else, so why shouldn’t it be all about me?

    (And lest you think I am one of those arrogant customers, I am a college student who gets to eat out rarely, who knows what it’s like to wait tables, and who has been nothing but courteous at a restaurant and experienced nothing but courteous service. I also always leave a good tip.)

  • livetotravel

    Making the superficial both interesting and important is an art form – that’s why food critics at the Times reside in the Style Section. But having a subsequent discussion in defense of the first is taking on a certain “The Emperor’s New Clothes” – there’s no there there – aspect.

    But there are truly things one can and cannot live without – nor should they. In my case what I need is to not read a food blog while looking at an ample white ass on a toilet advertisement.

    Yucky!

  • tim

    I agree with Guilia. If someone is reading Bruni’s blog and then complains that he dare comment on experience and ask a question about that experience than that someone is a complete idiot. But honestly – very few of the responses to his article was negative. Majority of the responses were earnestly trying to answer the question.

  • wonders

    I think the article was very straight to the point. Bruni was upset because iced tea isn’t rocket science and for a restaurant to run out of it, means they’re incompetent of keeping something as simple as iced tea, available for their customers. Most of us wouldn’t think it’s a big deal and order something else, but sometimes you just want what your mind was set out to have.

  • http://rainydaysandsundays-c.blogspot.com/ Clare

    Well written, Guilia.

    Adam, it’s hard to concentrate on anything else besides the big, bare ASS that seems to overtake my view of everything else on your blog. I’m not conservative by any stretch, but the only butt I want to see on your blog is one of a crispy, golden, delicious suckling pig.

    I read your blog at work. It’s embarrASSing. :)

  • Ryan

    Indeed, it is all about the customer. Any food service professional that cares about what he or she does and has pride in their work should understand that. The customer may not always be right, but it is our job to make them feel as though they are always right.

    As far as Bruni posting about food when there are other crises in the world, it is his job. What he has to say is important to people, can make or break a restaurant and launch a career. As much as I do read up on the war, illness and the such, I also read about food. I am in this industry and things written about it have an immediate impact on my day to day life more so than the problems of afar. I have bills to pay, and I pay those bills through my career as a food service professional.

  • Ryan

    Indeed, it is all about the customer. Any food service professional that cares about what he or she does and has pride in their work should understand that. The customer may not always be right, but it is our job to make them feel as though they are always right.

    As far as Bruni posting about food when there are other crises in the world, it is his job. What he has to say is important to people, can make or break a restaurant and launch a career. As much as I do read up on the war, illness and the such, I also read about food. I am in this industry and things written about it have an immediate impact on my day to day life more so than the problems of afar. I have bills to pay, and I pay those bills through my career as a food service professional.

  • Ryan

    Indeed, it is all about the customer. Any food service professional that cares about what he or she does and has pride in their work should understand that. The customer may not always be right, but it is our job to make them feel as though they are always right.

    As far as Bruni posting about food when there are other crises in the world, it is his job. What he has to say is important to people, can make or break a restaurant and launch a career. As much as I do read up on the war, illness and the such, I also read about food. I am in this industry and things written about it have an immediate impact on my day to day life more so than the problems of afar. I have bills to pay, and I pay those bills through my career as a food service professional.

  • Jim

    “I think these things matter because these are the things that give life substance.”

    Hardly.

    My family and friends do those things, not iced tea.

  • jason

    if a restaurant cannot handle the small things (like ice freakin tea), why should i let them handle something a little more difficult or expensive. i trailed at a restaurant for a job and one of the things they had me do was mince shallots. a small trivial task, but one that has to be done. i always enjoyed watching others come into the kitchen for a job and mince shallots.

  • http://chewonthatblog.com Hillary

    “It’s logic like this that explains why so many people in America eat so badly: ‘Who cares what I put in my stomach as long as I eat?’”

    I like this line because it puts things into perspective. Some of the best people I know are those that never neglect to do the little seemingly less important things amidst the larger “more important” things. These people never take shortcuts, and never break their habits. They’re the kind of people that still keep their hands at 10 and 2 while driving, not because anything bad will happen if they don’t, but if they don’t, they will enter in a downward cycle of paying less and less attention to their driving (just an example, not the best one I recognize…)

    I guess this point doesn’t entirely relate to iced tea, but it’s more about paying attention to what we eat. If you justify eating a McDonalds hamburger one day, ok, sure one day isn’t going to kill you, but eventually you’ll justify everything else at the sacrifice of anything good you’ve been eating.

  • http://blog.phantomdata.com phantomdata

    Well put Adam. Simply, very well put. Now I want some good iced tea…

  • pelle

    “It’s logic like this that explains why so many people in America eat so badly: ‘Who cares what I put in my stomach as long as I eat?’”

    I dunno. This is making a huge, huge, awkward leap. It’s not as though the people leaving comments and telling him to just order something else were telling him to shut up and hightail it to the nearest White Castle. He still would have been eating at Borough Food & Drink, and presumably the food there would still be the quality he expected . . . it just wouldn’t be the exact dish he wanted. He wasn’t being served something of lesser quality, which your summation of “American logic” suggests is what the blog comments really meant. I definitely know people who don’t care what they eat and will grab a pastry they found on top of a phonebooth on their way to a rock show so that they don’t have to eat dinner, but I don’t think that’s what the majority of the comments are telling Bruni to do.

    In fact, I’d argue that telling a restaurant to run out and get some Lipton tea bags would be telling the restaurant to lower the quality of their fare. Some of the people on Bruni’s blog would complain if he’d said, “I ordered some iced tea, but then later discovered that the restaurant had run out of their good tea and sent a busboy to the store for Lipton.” As a diner, I wouldn’t care either way, but running a restaurant is hard, and catering to everyone’s every whim is just ridiculous.

  • Laurie

    Having been a restaurant manager on the day the tea machine broke let me tell you it is not a pleasant experience to tell customers in TX that you have no tea. Running out of tea is crazy to me, but when the machine breaks it breaks.

    I love your site and have read it for years, but I have one question – why are you advertising bidets on it? Irony, hilarity, profit?

  • http://www.sweetnicks.com Cate O’Malley

    Honestly. Of course there are more important things in the world than a shortage of iced tea, but he’s a food writer and asked an innocent question. And to go one further, I’ve absolutely wondered the same thing. Went to KFC years ago and would you believe they ran out of fried chicken? Now how the heck does a chicken restaurant run out of chicken? Sheesh.

  • tom

    I really don’t think the attitude of “there’s a war on, don’t complain about the small things” is why we allegedly eat poorly in much of the US, Adam. You can be sure if the average restaurant in France, Italy, or Spain runs out of an item, well, that’s that…order something else. The restaurant would expect people to not make that big a deal about it. Expecting people to run to the Western European equivalent of a New York corner bodega to pick up tea bags, Diet Coke, etc. would be considered an affront to people who have a job to do that requires them to be on site, and not running all over the neighborhood.

    I think the sadder issue is that some people would believe that their meal would be “ruined” without a beverage like iced tea, Diet Coke, etc. Geez…that’s quite a commentary on our collective taste buds in this country.

  • bryan

    Wow. It just seems so simple to me. Do you have tea bags? Do have hot water? Do you have ice? Then you have ice tea.

    You don’t need a machine to make a pitcher of ice tea. And it doesn’t seem as though his meal was ruined – it seems as though he was asking a very elemental question. That question being, does anyone have a 3-digit IQ around here? It’s not rocket science. It’s ice tea.

  • http://golikewater.blogspot.com Steven

    However, his point is that with something so widely available like tea bags, why wouldn’t the restaurant just say, “We’ll have to make a new batch of iced tea. Would you mind waiting ten minutes for your drink?”

    Andie, my point was that it takes a lot longer than 10 minutes to make good iced tea. I’d rather be told that there is none and have the option to choose something else than be served something makeshift in 10 minutes just because the restaurant was desperate to cater to my whim.

    Guilia, I didn’t say that asking for iced tea is stupid, I said that being totally perplexed as to how a restaurant could run out of it is stupid (or disingenuous, at least). And I’m a college student too, so I know that college students are certainly not immune to arrogance in restaurants.

  • http://www.saltshaker.net Dan

    While it’s true that iced tea isn’t rocket science, and yes, one could just whip up a batch with some teabags from the store, what’s missing, at least in this particular case, is whether or not that’s how the restaurant in question makes it in the first place. Sure, if that’s the quality of iced tea they serve, they ought to do exactly as many are suggesting – run someone out to the store, buy some more bags (maybe they even had them, for hot tea…), and go for it, just apologizing for the delay. But, what if the restaurant has a particular iced tea that they use – a special house blend – perhaps brewed from good quality leaf tea, etc., etc… should they then compromise on the quality of what they’re serving, just because someone – whether Frank Bruni or anyone else – wants it? He didn’t give us enough detail to know. Personally, if I’m at a restaurant that cares at that level, I’d rather they be out of iced tea than send in a ringer – just as I’d rather they be out of their grilled mahi-mahi with kaffir lime tuiles that they spent time putting together than send a busboy out for a pack of Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks with a squirt of lemon juice…

  • Will

    Being a restaurant critic means being absurdly picky. That’s what restaurant criticism is. It’s the nature of the job. Frank Bruni comes off as high-maintenance in every column because without that, every restaurant would get at least two stars.

    That said, this is a situation somewhat unique to New York (and America in general). The table service in most European countries (yes, even France) is borderline dismissive. I’m American, by the way, so please don’t dismiss ME as some Yank-hating foreigner.

    We live in a high-maintenance, ultra-picky culture. People complain about the tiniest things. In that context, Bruni’s complaint about the iced tea, while sort of whiny, is pretty standard stuff.

  • mary beth

    I miss intelligent food writers who could write about food and have full formed opinions about the rest of the world, like Jane Grigson.

    Adam ignores the 8-ton gorilla in the room. America has 5% of the population of the world, yet CONSUMES 25% of the worlds resources? How do I eat as a American when I know stuff like that? How do I eat like a foodie- do I just think that I deserve to consume more b/c I work harder? I can’t believe this.

    And why is there a war going on? Because we need the oil to ship the saw dust filled ding dongs half way across the world from China b/c China has 12 year olds working in the factories and American doesn’t allow child labor.

    Adam is clearly not much of a reader or a thinker- to say nothing about Bruni.

  • tom

    Will:

    You added some great points that I didn’t clarify well in my post…we (in the States) are definitely a high-maintenance, picky culture.

    I would also slightly modify your comment about waitstaff in Western Europe being “dismissive”… they may seem dismissive, but my experiences (which are pretty extensive, having lived in different places in Western Europe) show me that they are just being honest…the items are no longer there; they cannot provide them; the clientele needs to order something else. Fini!

    Just to add some more fuel to that fire about waitstaff being treated as professionals, with consummate salaries in Western Europe…I am so sick of the restaurant industry in the US screaming that if they actually had to pay decent wages to the waitstaff, prices would go up SO much on the end product that consumers would be turned away…well, guess what…my (very recent!) experience of living in a major European capital like Paris demonstrate that I can actually eat better there for cheaper than I could during my twelve years of living and dining in Manhattan. And guess what? They pay their waitstaff better! And, their rent, food costs, overhead, etc., is just as high if not higher than those of New York.

  • http://www.stlbites.com Bill Burge

    If we all lived to eat a little more then we ate to live, perhaps, the world would be a better place, because life is definitely sweeter over a fine meal.