Food and alcohol are intensely woven into the fabric of corporate American society. In its simplest form, a business is just a group of likeminded (unevenly paid) people working together to solve problems. Or sometimes to sell detergent. In such an environment that relies so heavily on social interaction, it should not be surprising that food and booze take on a key role. Most people need alcohol to tolerate the people that they supposedly *like* – The need for self-medication is amplified tenfold when your friend Michelle is swapped out for Deborah in accounting, or when your friend Rachel’s living room is swapped out for the private dining room of your local Applebee’s (*which has so graciously been reserved by the company for the evening*). Additionally, holding a drink in your dominant hand prevents you from taking a swing at a particularly loudmouthed co-worker, who’s taking the “Applebee’s Retreat* as his moment to really tell Michael in marketing what he thinks about immigrants. The glass would get *everywhere* if you were to drop it, and that’s really not fair to our waiter Jimmy who’s just working this job so he can afford his drugs…which he takes to deal with being a waiter at Applebee’s…which he works to afford money for drugs…you get it.
Now, like alcohol, food has also always been a staple of human society. And since the American corporation is a perfect microcosm of civilization (Rigid social hierarchy? Check. Unique cultural attire? Check. Strictly delineated roles and responsibilities based on age and ability…and gender and race? Check. The occasional human sacrifice to appease the gods? Well, only at Amazon *Glory to Bezos in the highest, hallowed be his name*) – food has an important role to play in the office as well. Very few meetings of any import can occur without a catered lunch. No new introduction can truly be consummated unless it’s occurred over a few dozen appetizers and an overly priced entrée. And no “Team Building” event can even hope to foster a desired sense of unity and comradery if there aren’t “Light refreshments” and “Several dozen cupcakes” provided to mark the occasion.
Yes, truly nothing stands as a better representation of corporate greed and gluttony than the literal disposal of several thousand calories down your white-collar gullet. And prior to the COVID pandemic, I was more than a willing participant in this delightful little exercise in American excess. To me, a meeting without donuts should have just been an email; a presentation to leadership could just as easily have been a pre-recorded message sent along in advance. Hell, the only reason I went to Church for the first 14 years of my life was to get my hands on some of that dank, dank unleavened bread and watered-down wine. But truly, nothing quite exceeds the sort of superfluous consumption that I would engage in during business or networking lunches.
Imagine, for the sake of example, a fine day in the middle of July. The sun is shining. Birds are chirping…sorry, my mistake – police sirens are blaring from down the street (I admittedly don’t work in the nicest part of town). My standard business casual attire is in full force, fully equipped with “That one belt I own” and “One of my three shirts”. And I stand ready to enter a local Thai restaurant with a new employee whom I’m attempting to get to know over a lovely meal. After sitting down in this restaurant and opening up the menu, my eyes are met with a plethora of fresh and healthy options. I ignore these and go straight for the giant plate of noodles. Such a plate should constitute three meals for an average human male, but these crafty bastards have marketed it as the “Lunch-sized” portion. And since I’m a sucker for a good marketing job, and am emphatically not a quitter, I go ahead and order the giant plate of carbohydrates and inevitable sadness. I pause on occasion to make conversation, take a sip of my water, or to snack on some crab rangoons that we didn’t have time to get to before our meals arrived (*No soldier left behind*). And at the end of my lunch, I am met with a clean plate, a distended stomach, and a mildly uneasy co-worker.
After this meal of casual conversation, business strategy, and overconsumption I head back to the office. When I arrive, I sit down at my desk, sigh deeply, and desperately attempt to consume enough water to counteract the several weeks’ worth of sodium I had just consumed. All the while, I’m still drinking the coffee required to give me the energy to get through the rest of my day. With my belly now full of food, my bladder overflowing with water, and my veins now clotted with coffee, the rest of the afternoon passes in a fairly consistent stream of stomach aches, fatigue, and near perpetual urination. All of which is covered in a thin veneer of sweat due to the hot July sun, and my body attempting to punish me for my sadomasochism. When I drive home that night, I promise myself that I will order the salad next time, until I look at my calendar and see that I’m on for the local burger joint tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. As, once more, I am not a quitter and am constantly looking for ways to validate my own masculinity to myself, I repeat this process the following afternoon with a double cheeseburger and a massively unnecessary plate of fries.
This would continue every week for, oh, 5 years or so. And despite my commitment to the over-consumptive craft, I would still be surprised, appalled, and eventually brought around on the behavior of my fellow co-workers. My favorite of these was, and remains, the concept of “Table Chicken”. Table chicken is a noble and scholarly theorem that effectively says: “When confusion or angst arises due to a multitude of menu items that you cannot decide between, order a plate of chicken for the table to sate your appetites with a diverse breadth of culinary options.” In short, buy a chicken and treat it as an appetizer. In time, this theorem was expanded upon to capture other tastes and sensibilities. Chief among these was the “Table Shrimp Scampi Postulation” which, while conceptually similar to the Table Chicken Theory, relies instead on delighting one’s tastebuds with buttery garlic, and the decadent flavor and aroma of shellfish.
It wasn’t until the “pandy” hit, stripping away on-campus working in the process, that this practice began to wane a bit. It becomes much more difficult (and infinitely sadder) to order a plate of table chicken, when the only participant is yourself, and you need to justify your wayward gluttony to a Grub-hub delivery person. And in this period of societal closures and quiet reflection, I began to truly take a hard look at my erstwhile corporate eating habits. Who eats 2,000 calories worth of noodles *at 11:30 am on a workday?* Why would anyone feel the need to start their day with a pair of donuts *knowing that the 11:30 noodles are on the horizon?* Naturally, it takes a neurotic and delusional person to go 5 years without noticing the impending disaster that eating a quart of noodles for lunch every day will elicit in one’s health and well-being. But I’ve never claimed to be a man of wisdom and intelligence. And Pad-Thai just hits differently.
But now after months of disassociating myself from mid-day sodium spikes, I find myself returning to my work campus more and more. And I’m not alone in this. Every day, a few more people show up to begin resuming a semi-normal corporate workstyle. It’s like ants at a picnic. Literally. And with this, has come the gradual reintroduction of the business lunch. It starts slowly, slyly. Maybe grabbing a quick smoothie to catch up. Perhaps snagging an “Afternoon pick-me-up” coffee on one of those particularly grueling days. But soon enough, it evolves into grabbing 3-5 pounds of fried potato and ground beef in an attempt to fill yourself with something that might *for just a few moments* make you feel a little less empty inside.
And thus, do I find myself today, downing a pile of cheese and corpse-flesh served atop a warm ciabatta role from a nearby sandwich shop. The chips, while superfluous, added an extra bit of crunch and self-loathing that would have been missing from the meal without them. My afternoon will be long, and my stomach pains many.
That being said, I am still hoping that this time around (*Corporate America Take 2*) I can resist my innate urges to overeat at unfortunate hours and in unfortunate circumstances. While the chips and cheese were, admittedly, a step in the wrong direction I refuse to consider myself doomed as of yet. Each day is a new day to be a better person, to grow from who I was before, and set forth into the world with a new and improved attitude. Yes, truly each new revolution of the earth around the sun blesses us with a…
Ope, sorry – My plate of General Tso’s chicken just arrived.
Until next time, all.