We were at a big family dinner in a restaurant on the East Coast. I want to say it was a steak house in the DC suburbs, but those are purely speculative details. I was between 10 and 12 years old, still allowed to order a children's meal but verging on independence and free choice. We had been seated, icy water had been poured in our red plastic glasses and we were all armed with the literature we needed to make informed decisions. The conversation about what to eat had begun among the adults. My uncle was recommending a dish he had previously tasted while my aunt warned the other guests on the generous sizes of portions in this particular establishment. My mother was voicing her hesitation between two appetizing alternatives. I felt close to each family member as they gave their opinion and disclosed what would please them to eat that day.
I turned to the kids menu. It stared back at me, inevitably proving to be what it had always been : mind-numbingly boring. What, exactly, was listed in that miserable corner of the oversized menu, I can't recall. It might have been a plain hamburger with no fancy toppings or, worst, the monochrome chicken-tenders-and-fries. Since we were in the 1990s, I doubt that a vegetarian option was listed; if there was one, I'd bank on either mac n cheese or a grilled cheese sandwich.
Besides, the finality of the kids menu was an insult to my creativity. I wanted to engage in that colorful discussion around food and moods, combining the right cuisine with my current emotional state. Was I feeling adventurous or needing reassurance? Would I venture towards the uncharted territory of baked clams or the satisfying earthiness of steak and a baked potato? I wanted a chance to know what it felt like to have a "memorable meal", and picking from the kid's section wasn't going to cut it.
When I voiced my wish to dive in the deep end, my mother fully supported my decision and suggested items I would enjoy. At that moment, I was overwhelmed with the satisfaction that came with opportunity: I could, if I so desired, taste the house crab-cakes instead of the chicken! I looked back at my menu, this time with great curiosity, ready to embrace the diversity of what was offered.
That's when I noticed something, which I had largely managed to ignore until then: distracting numeric symbols following each dish name. I tried avoiding looking at them and focused instead on the delicious sounding words like "pie à la mode", "sirloin steak" or "blackened cod". But, eventually, the numbers caught up with me and I could no longer fool myself. Granted, I wasn't the one footing the bill, but there was a significant difference between a 10$ all-inclusive deal and a 20$ entrée. Could I decently justify costing so much more to the table? I was just a lanky kid compared to the robust family members surrounding me, and even compared to my sister, who was 3 years older and already a teenager. Was I being a spoiled brat, going beyond my condition and demanding fancier food? No one at the table seemed to think so. And, if I had voiced such a concern, I would have been greeted with words of encouragement to "try anything you like" or "whatever you want on the menu is fine". But I remained silent, quietly determining which plate had the best value, aside from the dreaded kid's section.
I've been compensating like that ever since, dinner after dinner, searching for the perfect balance between quality and thrift. I decode the labels, I see which ingredient has been chosen, I decide which dish really is the tastiest and which one is mainly for show. Thanks to this tried and true method, I've been complimented many times on my savvy choices.
But maybe, just once, I could throw all caution to the wind and decide to eat what I truly, really want at that time, in that place. And on that day, a little girl who looks very familiar would be sitting right next to me, eyes narrowed. She'd study the menu purposefully and then she'd look up and ask: "are you sure we can?" And I'd say: "don't worry, just this time, we're going for it". She'd smile and I'd hear her belly gently rumble in anticipation.