Dialogue: What gets me hot under the collar - National - NZ Herald News
Dialogue: What gets me hot under the collar4:56AM Friday Feb 23, 2001
"Why?" I said. "Why?"
He looked at me as though I was single-celled. To be fair to him, he was only the waiter, an underling hired to do the bidding of the boss. But the boss was away hitting his profits round a golf course.
It was not the first time I have fired the question. I have fired it in perhaps 20 restaurants over the years with varying degrees of wonder and vehemence. I have fired it so often because I have never received a credible answer. It is the question of the lone giant pepper mill.
I like restaurants. I didn't go into one until I was 16 and I've barely been out of them since. Food doesn't interest me hugely but not cooking does, and so does not washing up. And so does talking to people I like on neutral territory with a little grove of unplugged bottles to ease the gears of conversation.
For the non-cooking, non-washing-up reasons, all restaurants are good. But some are better. The best of the lot serve large quantities of recognisable food. The furniture is various, the plates and the prices are of human proportion and there's only one cook. And that cook is a woman.
The waiter tells you neither his name nor that he is going to look after you for the evening. He does not have a ponytail and he does not tell jokes. He does not lie in ambush at the door like a pottle of lard. He does not simper after coats and jackets, nor does he address the customer in the third person conditional tense - "Would sir care to ... ?" - because this sir wouldn't.
The good waiter is one you immediately forget. He does not forget you. He appears by telepathy the instant you need him and at all other times he is somewhere else doing what he's paid to do, which is waiting. If at the end of an evening I haven't noticed the waiter, I tip him fatly.
As soon as you enter a restaurant, order a beer. The variety of beer doesn't matter because there are only two - brown and yellow - and they taste the same. The beer's a snout-wetter. Its purpose is to get you through the barren rigmarole of menu and wine list.
Of all the restaurant flummeries, the wine list wins the prize. But its florid prose goes unread. Wine is sold only by colour and price. Colour is easy. White is for lunch, red for dinner and rose for the pretentious who pretend they like it. Price is just as easy. The dearest wines on the list are there only for entertainment. They shape the reader's mouth into a gasp. The cheapest are there as ballast.
It would be more honest and practical if wines were not named but numbered. If, say, five wines were available, No 1 would be the comically expensive one and No 5 would be the cheapo. And everyone would order number No 4.
Then the menu. I have written before about the vaunting absurdity of menus but it hasn't done any good. Tiny meals continue to be described in monstrous paragraphs. Drizzling goes on, as does grain-feeding, vine-ripening and no end of nestling. But in the end the are-we-having-starters debate has been delicately raised and settled, the wine's been unplugged, some food has landed, minds are beginning to mesh and all is set to fulfil the purpose of restaurants, which is to increase the sum of human happiness.
Enter, with waiter attached, the lone giant pepper mill. And driven by fury, puzzlement and impotence I fire my unanswerable question: Why?
Why can I not be trusted to pepper my own food? Why can pepper not be treated as salt? Why is the pepper mill so vast? Why in Italian restaurants, in particular, is it the size of a totem pole, except in Italian restaurants which happen to be in Italy? Why is the waiter allowed to judge the size and location of the shower of pepper on my plate? The answers I have received have been risible. I have been told that that's how it's done these days. I have been told with staggering redundancy that it is because some customers don't like pepper. I have even been told that it is a way for the waiter to bond with his customers. I left that restaurant unfed.
So when I fired the question last night I did so without hope. I was merely venting my fist-clenching exasperation. But then, last night, at long long last, I met with honesty and sense.
"Why," I said, "can you not just leave pepper mills on each table?"
"Because," said the waiter, "the punters nick them."
The tip I left him was a metaphorical kiss.