March 2019

Hey, What Do You Say? Let’s Eat Out

Author: Lynnie Leavenworth

The cafeteria in the Student Union at the Big Ten university in my home town, a local pizza joint, and a McDonald’s, encapsulate my earliest memories of eating out. An inauspicious start, however, each contribute to the pitter-patter-flutter of my heartstrings to this day whenever someone says, “Let’s eat out.” If eating in restaurants was my career, I would be celebrating over half a century in the business and could have earned an advanced degree in my field.

From those modest beginnings I have enjoyed a life-long devotion to all things culinarily-inclined. Growing up in a university town, we went to football games, wandered the museum in the winter and the botanical gardens in summer, and best of all, dined at the Student Union. As a kid, I thought the trays and plastic canisters of flatware were super cool, and the selection of entrées, veggies, fruits, and desserts were fantastic. It was my maternal grandparents who led these cafeteria adventures. Perhaps they liked the youthful atmosphere; the price was probably right; and the selections likely appealed to their post-WWII palates. I will never know for sure what it was they liked about the Union, but my love for sitting around those Formica tables, family all around, with our orderly trays set like the dining table at home—fork and napkin on the left, knife and spoon on the right—firmly established my fondness for eating out.

I first saw how a restaurant kitchen operated just inside the door to our local pie shop. Customers stood on one side of a glass partition. On the other side were huge, blazing-hot pizza ovens, and a line where dough was stretched onto trays, sauce was slapped down, and toppings were laid. My brother and I would watch wide-eyed while waiting to place our order at the end of the line. The restaurant had red and white checked tablecloths and tear-drop-shaped red and yellow waxy candles that went under the pizza when it arrived at our table. And the place was loaded with ambiance: low lighting, music from a juke box, and waitresses to refill your huge red plastic drinking glass. For an eight-year-old, it was restaurant nirvana.

McDonald’s will forever be synonymous with my paternal grandmother. With 10 grandchildren, she had to be creative and frugal on the rare occasion when she entertained the entire brood. Thus, we piled into a station wagon (sans seatbelts) and made a visit to McDonald’s for lunch, followed by a trip to Woolworth’s Five & Dime. Grandma let us order whatever we wanted for lunch and gave us each $1 to spend. I don’t recall what I had to eat or what I bought at the Five & Dime, but I do remember Grandma’s order: a filet-o-fish sandwich and a coffee … every time.

At about four weeks old, our Daughtie cooed and charmed the staff through her first restaurant experience while her delighted parents enjoyed being back in the care and keeping of our favorite deli. Fortunate to be without food allergies, Daughtie has become a person of the world with a palate to match. However, when the nest was full and Honey and I were mired to the hip in the stuff of life, going out was more of a necessity now and then rather than an experience to be sought-out and savored. Picking up sub sandwiches on the way home from a long day, going out for pizza, and ordering Chinese food, were go-tos.

Over the course of my amateur career in dining out and reflecting on many years of enjoying the company of friends, loved ones, and just me—in restaurants hither and yon—I find myself enjoying the experience of going out these days … these empty-nest days … more than ever. Empty-nesting has brought about some interesting insights related to dining in or out. Over the past 20-plus years, as the primary culinary manager in our home, I have made approximately 3,120 trips to the grocery and cooked well over 20,000 meals. I am not complaining, just looking for an attagirl. Today, going out to eat offers the opportunity to take a break from all that shopping and cooking without the pressure to be elsewhere for practice, or homework, or any number of reasons.

I find we are seeking out new restaurants and different cuisines, just because we can. Assisting our rediscovered sense of adventure, the restaurant scene is providing a plethora of outlets for our creativity. A selection of foods native to India, Thailand, North Africa, the Mediterranean, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Korea, Mexico, and more are easily found across menus nearly everywhere. We speak a new international language of food; couscous, kimchee, kabobs, and curries are part of our everyday vernacular. It’s a new and yummy world out there, often as close as your neighborhood strip mall. Many empty-nesters are eating sushi like kids in the ’70s ate McDonald’s hamburgers, having meal kits sent to their doorsteps, and taking advantage of grocery delivery services.

Now, I’m all for any culinary experience that gets people talking over a plate or bowl. And while having food delivered or the ingredients dropped at your feet is tremendous, I believe it may be even better to hop in the car or take a walk around the corner to your favorite joint—or somewhere new to you when looking for a break from the routine or to shake things up a bit. I have found it liberating, and it has even inspired me get a little adventurous in my own kitchen. I’m feeling a little tug on my heartstrings.

Hey, what do you say? Let’s eat out.

Lynnie Leavenworth is a writer, blogger, and empty-nester who is happily in the midst of re-feathering her nest. www.lynnieleavenworth.com.

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