Messy Eaters, Unite!

Messy Eaters, Unite! August 24, 2011

Can you not stand the smell of lamb vindaloo coming from the next cubicle? Does the sight of a masticating neighbor chafe your eyes and ruin your mental feng shui? According to the Wall Street Journal, you’re not alone. In fact, you and your more fastidious colleagues may even be able to form — and here, at last, the metaphor becomes appropriate — a tea party:

Becki Holmes especially hates the fumes of artificial-butter flavoring in microwave popcorn that pollute the offices of a Seattle food and beverage retailer where she works. “And you can never find the person who made the popcorn,” she says.

That smell, from shelf-stable additives that produce a buttery flavor, can be unpleasant and tends to linger, says Pamela Dalton, an olfactory researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, a nonprofit that researches taste and smell.

She ties bad smell to a much larger mood: Smelling others’ lunches in the office can make people feel as if they have lost “control over their personal environment,” Dr. Dalton says. A bad or unidentified smell can “make us go on alert, distract us from what we’re doing and change our mood,” usually for the worse, she says.

Ten years ago, American white-collar workers were wondering who moved their cheese. Before long, they’ll be wondering who cut it.

Jesus wept. Must people be so precious? Reduced to its essentials, eating is the task of stuffing foreign objects — often dead animal flesh — into a body cavity where they’ll be broken down by digestive enzymes. With or without trans fat, with or without complex carbohydrates, it is a nasty, primal business. Whatever anyone might wish, it cannot be reduced completely to the abstract.

This impulse to do so helps explain that scene from Animal House where the beatnik has attracted a harem of sorority houris by singing, “I gave my love a cherry/That had no stone;/I gave my love a chicken/That had no bone.” Tunefully or not, he is offering these girls — who, this being 1962, will probably spend their lives toiling under someone like Lou Grant — a utopian vision of their future.

Look, I’ve shared office space with all sorts of people , from Dorito scarfers to kimchi gobblers. But I can say honestly that, by and large, they managed not to drive me to distraction. The most disconcerting office mate I ever had was a bodybuilder who lived on MyoPlex shakes, which he mixed in the blender he kept next to his monitor. What bothered me wasn’t the sound of whirring blades, since that lasted for only thirty seconds, nor the smell, since there wasn’t any. Instead, it was his habit of asking whether I knew any good veterinarians. When I’d answer no and ask why, he’d flex his biceps and shout, “CAUSE THESE PYHTHONS’RE SICK!”, whereupon I’d have to admit, enviously, that they were.

It’s a question of assigning blame properly. A general decline of manners and morals is, as noted gastronomical pioneer Hannibal Lecter would say, incidental. The real culprit is the death of leisure. If people are eating cheek-by-jowl in cube farms, it’s because lack the time to eat anywhere else. The mannerly, multicourse meal of old — where everyone juggled numerous pieces of silverware, chewed slowly, passed the claret in the correct direction and traded epigrams — was the creation of people who neither worked nor commuted. Conversely, the sandwich — pretty much synonymous with unseemly bolting, extravagant chin dribbling and obstructed speech — was the invention of one of history’s first multitaskers. Granted, the innovator in question — John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich — was trying to combine the tasks of dining and high-stakes faro-playing. But among people of his time and class, that counted as a job. Certainly it was no less stressful, or risky, than trading bonds is today.

Perhaps it’s memories of my father that bias me in favor of the busy, messy eater. In matters of dress, the man was a perfect coxcomb, compared by everyone who knew him to one member of the Rat Pack or another. His conversation was varied and witty; he could navigate his way through art or philosophy without hitting too many walls, and had a genuine appreciation for jazz music. But he worked 13 hours a day, and for that reason, turned into a cafone whenever food hove in view.

On his lunch breaks, I’d bring us both Italian sausage parmesan sandwiches from Vinnie’s, on West 73rd Street. Those delicious things are stinking, sweating mess machines; not even Jane Austen could have addressed one daintily. My dad had the additional handicap of wanting — in fact, needing — to talk simultaneously, since these moments made up a good part of our quality time. Often, while telling me about his work or asking about my grades, he’d have to pluck a dangling aiguillette of melted mozzarella from his mouth, roll it discreetly into a small ball, and stick it back in. I did not wince, I did not sniff: this was the act of a hardworking man.

Fortunately, some people get it. According to the WSJ article, “‘Squeezing out every possible moment’ in the day for work actually drains energy and reduces output, says Tony Schwartz, chief executive of the Energy Project, Riverdale, N.Y., an author and consultant on employee engagement.” Thanks to a campaign launched last year, 109 “Take Back Your Lunch” groups have emerged on

Yes indeed, citizens — to the barricades! Make a point of eating where nobody will have occasion to complain what or how. Otherwise, I can see HR masterminds imposing drastic measures. Imagine hearing Bill Lumbergh tell Milton, “Why don’t you, ah, go ahead and disconnect that IV drip for a second. We need to talk.”

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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