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Either/Or: The Art of Choosing

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It was one of those intimate, white-linen affairs—the kind of restaurant that requires me to dig my necktie out of the mothballs, where even the busboys out-dress me. But it was Anne’s birthday, and that called for heroic acts of selflessness. Besides, a friend had recommended it, his voice quivering and his eyes closing to slits as he spoke about the food.

Thus my astonishment when I opened the leather-bound menu to find they’d forgotten to include anything between the covers. In Paris, most restaurants offer you two ways to go: select dishes helter-skelter without restriction (known as ordering à la carte), or go for the fixed menu, the package deal. But here we had neither. Framed in calfskin was a card the size of a wedding invitation, and the calligraphed text simply waxed poetical about the dining experience. At the bottom it announced a figure that made my wallet wince.

I hailed a passing waiter, a thin fellow with slicked-back hair. “Excuse me,” I said. “There’s no menu in the menu.”

The man pressed his fingertips together with indulgence, explaining that, in fact, that was the point: no choices waited to be made. We were invited to give ourselves over to the fantasies of the chef, who would produce a succession of micro-courses for our delight.

“But what will they be?” I asked.

He gave a sour look. “A surprise.”

At first I balked. I don’t ordinarily expect my meals to be a lottery. When dinner is at stake, I want to win every time.

And yet, there was something calming about it, too. A weight rose from my shoulders. I felt… relieved. The fact is, there’s nothing harder to read than a French restaurant menu. In the fancier joints you’d be better off picking through hieroglyphs than trying to decipher the regional names for bird parts or pig organs. At this establishment they had reduced choice to its very atom: you dined here or you didn’t. Either way your input was unnecessary. It was like eating at my mother’s house. Although she charges a lot less.

Americans have a hard time giving up their choices. I’d noticed this before, when taking visitors out to the brasserie close to our apartment. “What kind of fries do they have?” my brother-in-law once asked as he scowled through the menu. He expected a choice between curly fries, steak fries, waffle fries, crinkle fries, and, I don’t know, maybe even onion rings. “Just fries,” I told him. “You know, the regular ones.” When we got to salad dressing, I didn’t have the heart to confess there was only one. Instead, I agreed to order him the French version of Thousand Island. Luckily, he was on his third beer by the time the evidence appeared before him.

I used to be like that, too, but spending so much time in France has made me soft. The little organ in charge of choosing has atrophied. Now when I’m in the States, I tire of playing twenty questions every time I have a meal, and my personal vision of hell resembles a Subway restaurant where a teenager with sniffles stands behind an infinitely long counter. He starts his torture with an initial question: “What kind of bread?”

I know why Americans are partial to choice: it’s the way we’re brought up. We learn the à la carte mentality in school—in part because that’s how our education is organized: make up your own projects, select from the smorgasbord of sports… heck, there were even books where you could choose your own adventure, deciding how you’d like the story to unfold. After high school it gets even worse. Whenever I explain American colleges to friends in Paris, they squint, trying to see what part they missed. Where’s the rigor, they want to know. Why does it sound so much like a cafeteria filled with junk food? Most of all, why would you let students make so many choices before they’re even educated? I tell them about my own experience, where I changed majors every semester up to my senior year. Once, as a joke, I wrote Mortuary Science on my registration card—a stunt I still enjoy, although French people just shake their head at it.

That’s because in France schools shut down options as fast as they can. Their philosophy is: get rid of the clutter. At eleven or twelve a kid’s future starts closing in on him. French students are like rats in a special maze—one where every time you turn a corner a wall appears behind you to keep you from backing up. Like Napoleon’s legions, French rats keep marching forward. In America they just charge about at random, ramming into walls, scratching at corners. When one path is blocked, they double back and try another, and then another—whatever it takes to get to the cheese.

And it’s not just education. Most of France is offered as a fixed menu. It’s what immigrants discover all the time: you can take or leave it, but there won’t be any substitutions. It’s great if you happen to have a hankering for what they’re serving. But who knows? Maybe you were brought up on a different diet. Maybe nuts make your throat swell, or gluten twists your gut. Then you might find the local stuff hard to swallow.

I don’t know which way is preferable, but sometimes it’s nice to be freed from the burden of choice. At the restaurant that night, Anne and I stepped anxiously through our meal, prodding at bubbles of gelatin and picking at pastry. Suspense mounted each time the waiter neared our table and unveiled the next bewilderment prepared by chef. Not a single one was a dish I’d ever have ordered off a menu. And it’s true that two of them made me grit my teeth.

But the others? Well, the others were to die for.

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