Etiquette for Aliens in Ethnic Eateries – USA, France, Europe

Ever stumble upon an American “Deli” wondering if it was just a typo that they dropped the h? Ever speculate whether the foul wursty ingredients of a “hot dog” once went woof? Don’t freak out! Here are 10 tips (without VAT or “servis compris”) to speed you through the confusing congestion of customs and weird freeways of the “extreme sport” of foreign food eating

1.“Fast” food joints are not places to pick up cheap dates or begin your starvation regime for Ramadan. Fast means quick, not good value, or even tasty, as any one who has tried the Wimpy’s in Gibraltar could attest!

2. Don’t shudder when your dining companion describes the restaurant you’re eating in as “ethnic". This is especially problematic if your friend is Mormon, Baha’i or Scientologist, and the servers are wearing lederhosen or kilts.

3. Don’t draw attention to the egregious bloopers of foreigner dinner guests from “abroad". A friend once brought her new boyfriend to the quaint American custom of Thanksgiving. He asked politely, “Please pass the papadums”, to which she reacted swiftly (and with venal alarm), “Rajiv, in this country we call it bread.” Of course, the incident caused a slight pause (an embarrassing silence), quickly covered up by raucous laughter. It’s better to laugh loudly at our mistakes than to burn silently with revenge.

4. If you’re invited to someone’s “willage", don’t even think of turning down the pièce de résistance. Even if you’ve never tried orangutan’s brains, ram’s testicles, or sweetbreads, pick up a fork and dig in. If by mistake you mutter, “This tastes like crap”, be quick to add afterwards in a sing songy diplomatic voice, “But gooooood”.

5. Don’t talk amusingly and at length about the subject of “cannibalism” in Vegan restaurants. Most vegetarian restaurants are independent “green” cooperatives that buy straight from farmers' markets and recycle their toilet paper. The smirking wait staff might seem like self-satisfied and holier-than-thou-art losers and louts, but please don’t lose your temper with them. They just can’t afford to serve Jeffrey Dahmer’s leftovers.

6. Avoid trying plats, dishes, in French bistros you’ve never heard because they are cheap. You’ll feel like committing suicide with a mouthful of moules frites, mussels with fries, and undrinkable acrylic house wine (aka, “instant spew”). And those foppish, slightly androgynous-looking waiters with ponytails and hyphenated names like "Jean-Claude" probably did a stint with the Swiss Army in the Alps or the French Foreign Legion in Algeria, so don’t even think of returning your meal to the kitchen. They are quite energetic in mangling the limbs of “imbeciles”.

7. It’s considered crass and pedestrian to describe any restaurant as being “Five Stars” – no such animal. Your favorite steakhouse or red-sauce pasta dump probably nailed in the gaudy gilt stars because it’s getting close to Christmastime. The real well-traveled bon vivant and gourmand would be a bona-fide raconteur who describes painfully memorable meals, mouth pursed like rose petals into a moue, at places with unpronounceable names as being the proud recipient of three (never five) Michelin “rosettes”.

8. Never criticize the food in front of the chef, just fink on the place on the sly to Zagat’s. Once when I was abroad, I made the mistake of ordering from the local menu which was in Cyrillic, without knowing the English translation; I ended up with an unhygieneic bowl of “tripe soup”. I complained bitterly in an exceedingly loud voice. A meat-cleaving maniac, looking quite menacing in his pouffy Chef Boyardee hat, took me to account, roaring at me in Bulgarian. Using a Universal Translator, it sounded something like, “You’ve ruined my restaurant"!

9. If you are with a large group of people, always offer to pay. Since entourages out for a night of theater, and “travellers” in general (“homeless chaps” in British slang) are notoriously bad at math, you might not end up paying anything at all. At best, they’ll try to guestimate what the tip is, find it too difficult to figure out, each offer to pay for the whole shebang by stretching their arm out a mile towards their pockets or purses before the richest VIP swoops in, offering to comp it to cover up everybody’s lunacy in not knowing how to settle a complicated restaurant bill. At worst, you’ll Platinum Card it, ending up with the monkey’s share of the pot: other people’s overestimated cash distributions (without IRS interference). You’ll feel like Daddy Monopoly landing on Community Chest.

10. When dining alone, especially in an unstable foreign country where you might one day plan on living, never ask the maitre’d for “some company". You’ll end up handcuffed in the back of a van heading straight to the airport for this suggestive slight, while you brainstorm what you’re going to say about your “political refugee” status in the first place. You'll eventually arrive back completely humiliated in your hometown, scandalized to be without any work skills or any money, only the mockery of your former friends, and, the oh-so sorry souvenir (French for “memory”) of a series of menus flipped sadly like tarot cards, yelling, “I finally did it! I skipped out on the bill!” Guess who’s coming to dinner – Natty Bumpo.

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