I recently had a very disturbing dining experience. I think it might have been disturbing enough to be life changing. It was certainly eye opening to me on a personal level, and then a revelation on a national/first world level. A few weeks ago my wife and I were visiting my folks back home in Penn’s Woods. It is worth noting that my family gathers around food. The Wagners get together and we over eat. It is kind of our thing. Visiting for a holiday is a three to seven day grazing and gorging event. All of that to say that I never considered that practice to be sin, but now I’m rethinking it.
Here’s how that dining experience shook out. Annually large sit down restaurant food chains have meal deals that boost sales and get people in the doors. Great. I love a good deal. In addition to loving to eat lots of food, Wagners are also a frugal clan. We love saving money. On our visit we were aware that Red Lobster was having their annual Endless Shrimp special. The concept is simple, you pay a flat price, and you eat as much shrimp as you can or cannot handle. Historically, the Wagner men have been violently competitive in eating shrimp. (This is the written form of the shameful conversation that has happened between myself and my brothers) The violence of course is only to our own bodies. On this particular day I was not really feeling the shrimp thing. The Wagner family, surprise, surprise, also has a history of heart disease. We have all been passively (read as barely) working toward healthier hearts and lifestyles, but it is hard when you love to eat. We’ve been working hard to help my dad make better decisions about food and exercise. Endless Shrimp didn’t seem like it would be moving cholesterol or blood pressure in a positive direction. I half heartedly and maybe even jokingly vocalized my disinterest in the trip to Red Lobster, but we ended up going anyway.
When we arrived we were told an absurd wait time – some 45 minutes or so. That was my chance to get us out of there, but I chickened out. We stood outside, and waited with our buzzer, shifting around periodically to stay clear of the smokers. I have a slight distain for the chain restaurant with the $15-$35 per plate price point. At the end of a date night, I always have a $40 to $50 dollar tab for a meal that I am $15 to $20 satisfied with. I am almost always certain that I can find a better quality (food, service, atmosphere) mom and pop shop where I could put my money into the local economy, and into the hands of people, not big corporations. (That might be another self-righteous tirade that isn’t worth going into here and now.)
I already felt as though this place was drawing the crowd I didn’t feel like I wanted to be associated with. I knew my heart was being judgmental so I tried (with medium effort) to keep it in check. I try to make sure I am in tune with loving the least of these, at all times – or at least as often as possible. It is tough to love a man carrying his 65 pounds of excess weight on the front of his body under his sweat stained Duck Dynasty t-shirt, while he is shamelessly treating his wife like total shit in front of the whole restaurant. He seemed to think that he was entitled to have a table immediately when he arrived on a busy Saturday afternoon. When he was told the wait time, he took out his frustrations by verbally abusing his wife. It was not an outward beating, but a subtle belittling, an undercutting, and robbery of her self worth. It was the kind of thing you knew had been destroying her for years, and would not soon end. I began to lose my appetite. I continued to try to not judge people for face value, but as the crowd continued to grow, I could not stop noticing the obesity. I watched as people were wheel-chaired into the restaurant, or hobbling out with walkers. They were physically unable to walk from their own crippling weight. I felt as though I was seeing the actual spirit of gluttony at face value. It was as if every human I saw was just wearing the face of that deep dark demon. I am not at all trying to be hurtful to anyone who is overweight. Body image is a very real and sensitive issue that I am not trying to dance around. I am no physical trainer, or athletic specimen, I’m just trying to tell a story. What I was seeing was breaking my heart, because the sin of gluttony was destroying lives. The physical manifestation of sin was right there at the surface. From where I was standing, people were dying, and putting the last nails in their own coffin.
Our wait was significantly shorter than the estimated 45 minutes. It was maybe half of that when our buzzer invited us to enter and be lead to our table. The hostess seated us at a table that was just outside the wait staff’s entrance to the kitchen. The restaurant was a mad house. Obviously, if a hostess is estimating a 45 minute wait (however inaccurate her math was), the place was more than busy. It was actually grossly busy. There were so many people packed into such a small place, eating so much food, that there was no way for anything to be clean anywhere. The large minimally divided room buzzed with a dull roar. I tried hard to stay focused on the conversation that my family was having, but I kept drifting toward listening to conversations nearby. The dull roar was, in fact, a sea of complaining. “Why can’t that waitress get back here quicker? I’ve been finished with this plate of shrimp forever.” “Maybe she doesn’t want to get a tip.” “Wave her down next time you see her, if we ever see her.” There was a flood of ungrateful entitlement rising up from the dark, dirty, and stained carpet. It was getting deep, and I feared that I might drown.
From just outside the waitstaff entrance to the kitchen, I watched the faces of servers, hostesses, and busboys wrought with stress. The rise of ungrateful entitlement seemed to also be raining from the ceiling, and pouring over the waitstaff. The morale for this particular shift, at this particular Red Lobster was very low. This was a staff of broken people hardly pretending not to be. Having waited tables, and lived off of those tips, I knew the stress they were feeling. This was different, though. When I waited tables, I really enjoyed the hustle. The harder I worked, the better my tips were. Sometimes, it sucked. Sometimes, I had fun, but I knew my shift would end. The shift end would take me to one of my other jobs that I liked more, to my friends, or my bed to rest. I had hope for something better. I didn’t see any hope in this waitstaff. I think it was different on that day, partly because their restaurant put them behind the eight ball. The design of the Endless Shrimp sale doesn’t promote tips. The design ends up making lots of work for the wait staff while flattening the bill. (Who orders an appetizer or dessert when your entree goes on forever?) One price for an entree that requires multiple visits to the table translates to more miles for a server at the same or perhaps even less tip.
What was most disturbing to me about this visit was not the corporate design that makes money off of low wage workers. While that is relatively offensive, that is capitalism. Whether we like it or not, that is the economic structure of our world. What sucks about this particular corporate structure is that we designed it. By we, I mean you, me, America, consumers, my family. What we have done with food in our country and culture is disgusting. America worships food. We consume in a way that a corporation can lure us into a mediocre restaurant, with mediocre food, at a mediocre deal with the tagline ENDLESS. We convince ourselves that we can eat until that price is a great deal. How shameful is the gluttony in our hearts? I am not at all saying that you couldn’t convince yourself that Red Lobster does shrimp well. Let’s just say that you could also convince yourself that Nickelback does rock well. The quality is not the issue here. I don’t even think the volume is the issue. The cost is. The cost that day was not the 18 dollars per head to eat until our hearts were no longer content. The cost was much greater.
There is nothing wrong with feasting. It is quite biblical to celebrate by feasting with your family and friends. What does the word feast even mean when we over eat at every meal? Is there any room for a feast in a culture that constantly eats? What does feasting cost? What does a lifestyle of feasting cost? There is absolutely a dollar sign on the surface of that answer, but there is another cost that is paid elsewhere. It might cost a waiter his dignity, or it might cost me years of my own life.
Someone has to pay the tab every time.
On that day, on that trip, for that meal, we participated in the sacrifice of human dignity on the alter of gluttony. When the bill came to the table I wrestled it away from my dad to pay for the meal. I dressed it up as saying that I wanted to say thanks for the way that they have been so generous to my wife and I for so many years. They have been, and I am grateful. But more so, I was shamefully trying to fix the guilt in my heart. I did what any middle class white person does with their guilt, I threw money at it, and then ran from it. I tipped the shit out of our waitress, and like a coward didn’t say a word to my family about how I felt.
God forgive us, and save us from our sins.