by Laura Sillerman | bio

When did eating become “working on it”?

From Manhattan to western Pennsylvania, from southern Massachusetts to South Beach, we are now asked, “Are you still working on that?” whenever a waitperson wants to remove a plate. It won’t surprise me if I hear the question when I’m in Seattle in a couple of weeks.

I’ve been asked in places that have earned stars and in many that have yet to prove their stripes. It’s come up in the kinds of establishments that people save for special occasions and those they frequent for reliable pizza.

When did we go from, “Have you finished?” to “Are you still working it that?”

More importantly, how did we let it happen? Surely we were asleep at the wheel of language and manners, or wouldn’t we have protested something so destructive to the pleasures of dining out?

Maybe in a lobster shack, where one has to put effort into getting one’s sustenance, one could be said to be “working on” one’s lunch or dinner. But over quiche? Absolutely not. We’re “having a meal,” or “enjoying our dinner” or, simply, “eating.”

Indeed, a polite “Are you still eating?” is far more accurate and appetizing than a question about laboring over the plate.

Maybe we’re guilty about how large the portions are in America. Maybe we’re uneasy about how much we have when others have so little. Maybe to term dining as working makes us feel better.

Or maybe the people who serve us our food note that many overworked couples arrive at restaurants haggard after a hard day and look as if they’re still working even when they’re having a meal out. Then again, maybe they are a little resentful that we get to sit there while they have to carry heavy trays of arugula. Maybe they feel better if they behave as if we’re working, too.

Frankly, the reasons aren’t important.

Those of us who’ve earned a chance to dine out, who’ve labored over countless meals for countless husbands and children, or who’ve had innumerable years of earning our way — or have finally come round to insisting on what we like to eat and where — don’t want to be asked if we’re toiling over our plates.

It’s time to take a stand. “I’ve never been working on it; I have been enjoying it!” would work. If the question really grates on you, perhaps something a little more edgy: “Working on what?”

Or the old innocent ploy could make the point: “Oh, honey, did I look like I was working? I’ve got to stop wearing denim when I eat out.”

Maybe this isn’t a big deal, but it does signal an erosion of graciousness. And dining out would be better without it.

Let’s not gain any momentum down the slippery slope. Let’s put an end to this offensive question before we’re asked, “Are you still swallowing?” instead of, “More coffee?”

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  • Agnes Krup July 14, 2007 at 8:16 pm

    Laura, I couldn’t agree with you more — I have been annoyed by this phrase ever since I came to the US moire than a dozen years ago. Okay, my step mom, on her visits, is even offended when somebody tells her to “enjoy”, reasoning that she can very well make up her own mind about the quality of her dining experience.
    One of the few things I do in my life for relaxation is hosting dinner parties, so the thought of people “working on” my creations is rather horrifying … The terminology, of course, has been brought on by the break-neck speed at which wait staff is supposed to turn tables.
    Glad to say I have recently located a small restaurant in Brooklyn, NY, that subscribes to the European “Slow Food” philosophy and where the waiter sits down at your table to suggest that you and your dining companion share five courses — “share” as in one dish of each!