Communal dining, and 'The Finger'

Last updated 12:22 26/09/2012

"Have you dined with us before?" asks the slightly supercilious waiter. "Um, no," I reply. "Well, our menu is designed for sharing, for a whole table's participation," he tells me, looking pleased with himself, as though no one has ever had this idea before. "Oh, I see," I tell the waiter.

Bummer. I was kinda hoping to be able to order what I wanted to eat for dinner, rather than having to submit to a communal, family-style nosh up...

Small plates. Sharing plates. Food to share, food to split. It's all the rage, apparently. And, while I can totally understand the appeal - sharing food with the people you dine with, sharing the experience, sometimes, just sometimes, I reckon you don't really want to share dinner. You want to order what you want to eat. And then eat it. Pretty straightforward, I would have thought.

There are loads of situations in which sharing food becomes part of the dining experience. When you go to yum cha, or have tapas style food it is all about sharing the food that you give your assent to having left at your table. When you go on a date, tasting your dinner date's food may well be part of the process of becoming closer to each other - it is a quite intimate thing to do, to share food.

And therein lies the problem - it is one thing to share food, family style, with your nearest and dearest, or with close friends, or your nearest and dearest, but it is quite another to do so with people you don't know that well. There are plenty of situations where you may have to eat with people with whom the idea of sharing food is about as appealing as eating hairballs - at a business dinner, say, or with people who are eating food you don't like or can't eat. There is no reason why a vegetarian should have to submit to the shared dining experience to simply eat whatever the carnivores do not.

Also, some food just doesn't really suit being shared. There are some things that are problematic when you try to share them. You just can guarantee that some things will be delivered to your table in a denomination that will not divide easily by the number of people who are to eat it - there will be three crab cakes for four diners, or nine scallops between four. Don't ask me why this is, but it always seems to work out this way.

A whole piece of meat - a chicken, say - will always leave someone feeling hard done by. You wanted breast meat? Tough, have a wing. Thigh? Sorry, there are only two, and they have already been dibsed by Auntie Mavis and Uncle Derek.

I am, it must be said, not overwhelmingly keen on sharing food. I mean, I'll do it, at a push, but part of me still feels aggrieved if someone takes the particular morsel I have had designs on. I know this is slightly irrational, but I can't help it. I want you to be able to read my mind and not make a move on something I have already mentally claimed.

And - let's not get started on buffets again, huh?

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The other thing I have decided to take umbrage with is what I have decided to call "The Finger". You know you are in a restaurant that takes itself a bit too seriously when the waiter, (or, worse yet, the chef) turns up at your table to describe each dish, which he (trust me, it will be a bloke doing this) does - with the aid of an extended pinkie.

As the food arrives at the table they will describe it in grandiloquent terms; "here we have the sesame crusted lamb rack, with a tuile of caramelised turnip, a mustard parfait and..." And all the while, The Finger hovers precariously close to your food, extended objectionably, probing, wanting ultimately to actually jab itself into the meal, but hopefully never quite getting there.

The phrase "a little bit of..." will also likely come up in the description, e.g. "a little bit of raspberry dust/basil foam/garlic crumb". Surely there must be a more eloquent way of describing food?!

Ultimately, though, both the "shared food" trend and "The Finger" are food trends, that will inevitably be eclipsed when something new comes along - a new concept, a new buzz-phrase. And good thing too - I find the ubiquitousness of them both kind of oppressive.

"Have you dined with us before?" asks another waiter, in another restaurant, somewhere further down the line. "Not really," I reply. "But I feel as though I have..."

How do you feel about the "shared food" trend - love it? Loathe it? Reckon it has run its course? And - has anyone else encountered "The Finger"?

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Oh, and the picture above is of the Bayview Restaurant in Guantanamo Bay (think of it as a metaphor) - it is of unknown authorship...

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