The Art of Take-Out

Michael FassbenderMichael Fassbender eating the Hollywood version of take-out while ordering some more. Film still from Shame, directed by Steve McQueen, 2011.

Like so much else it is not a surprise that at the end of the 20th century visualisations of food and its conception should also be mediated by TV and films. I’m thinking here between the difference between media: renaissance painting favoured collective mealtime in the commons – I’m thinking Bruegel’s peasants – or the 19th century novel had the tavern and salon – I’m thinking the Karamazov’s local tavern, scene of important discussions and the discourse of The Grand Inquisitor. And so for our own post-internet, alter-modern times, it seems fitting that the image to settle on for food today would be an Internet webpage, an app’s interface. I was thinking of writing about a complicated process of farm-to-table that is ably outlined by one New York City’s more known chefs when I realized that part of me wanted to look at how I’ve been actually eating the last weeks, and that, besides from trying to navigate Whole Foods and cooking for myself at home, has been through ordering take-out online for home delivery. I think all those scenes in movies of New Yorkers ruminating life’s plot twists with a cardboard take-out box and a couple of chopsticks in their hand played into the fantasy. But in any case, there is a remarkable ease and comfort, gained from the wondrous stimuli that is laziness, of ordering food for home delivery.

New York, like most cities, has its go-to website for ordering at home: seamless.com (its website states that can be used in ‘900+ cities across the US and London’). It is one of those sites that you can imagine a Start Up team excitedly inventing, beginning with the name and then moving from the design and coding to attain the fluidity of the page itself, the reassuring blocks and similarities of the interface, to the optimization across devices and web browsers. There are many online food websites in every city, but usually one beats the rest and becomes an eponym for the action. One doesn’t order food out, one gets seamless.

I first came across it when hosts invited me to choose what I wanted for dinner from its webpage, and in the coming months I’ve since gotten used to it’s generic pages and scroll down menus, because once I learned I could pay with my Paypal account I suddenly got hooked. And I admit that a large part of this was laziness, though a lot of people may argue that they use online food delivery services for convenience, which is not commensurate with laziness, and I wouldn’t argue with that. Because what is so apparent so quickly is the insidious nature of the process, the sheer variety at your fingertips becomes tantalizing.

The contemporary city is full of the possibility of alienation, this is a long established fact and many phone apps and Start Up inventions pretty much feed into this fact, indeed they thrive off it. Eating at home, ordering online, getting it delivered straight to your door all contributes to a depersonalization of the urban experience. Seamless.com appears to know this and their stringent ad campaigns play into it with apparent brazen gusto, winking at us that they know we don’t give a shit about the millions of other souls that pass us by each minute of the day, that we don’t want to put up with bad waiting staff or the bother of booking tables, they want to be the punchline in a private joke between you and the alienating city.

take-out

This doesn’t matter or shouldn’t because obviously you don’t want to know anybody’s name, you don’t even want to be near them in a restaurant.

take-out3

One French friend of mine found it particularly heinous how the ads of seamless.com tried to make cooking into some kind of uncool pastime that was for losers, people with no money or who are just plain stupid. Cooking well in a city is hard at the best of times, between finding fresh produce that is not overly priced to finding the actual time to go shopping for groceries in between your work and social life. I think it must be particularly discouraging on your daily commute to read such ads; the kitchen at home doesn’t really stand a chance.

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Driving it should be noted, is pointless in most big cities, and deciding not to drive is also environmentally friendly and proven to be so, with car emissions making up for one of the biggest polluters of American society today. Cooking on the other hand, when done with a bit of careful planning can give people a great role in choosing ethically raised meat products, organically grown vegetables and save on that most human all too human ingredients, plastic. So equating driving with cooking is lamentable. I had to laugh when I read in the FAQ of seamless.com about their commitment to the environment.

At participating restaurants, you will have the option of making your Seamless order more eco-friendly at checkout. On the checkout page, simply check the box that says “Spare me the napkins and plasticware. I’m trying to save the earth” and the restaurant will exclude all extraneous packaging from your order.

Even the tone of this is annoying (“Spare me the napkins and plasticware. I’m trying to save the earth”) it makes me feel like a dick just clicking on the box (when I remember to do this that is as it’s pretty small and easily overlooked). That’s right, I may be the lazy, sociopathic, social media addicted fatso your ads make me out to be, but I’m also a smug, eco-hipster prick, so please, spare me the plastic spoons, I have my own.

But this is a celebratory article, it is meant to be joyous and honest and of its time. So in order to be honest I don’t want to add to the lamentations of our age by merely criticizing that which I have gladfully partaken in and utilised. And yet, and yet: there does seem to be an added level of dehumanization to the process of using seamless.com; in days bygone when you got take-out at least you actually talked to someone on the phone, you probably knew the establishment, where it was and what it looked like, or at least knew about it because of some tangible factor or other such as a recommendation from a friend or even a flyer in the letterbox. The website in a way obliterates all those things, it has become the middle man and as a result the only genuine human interaction in the whole thing is when the delivery man comes to the door and even then the tip is incorporated already in the online fee, so one doesn’t even have to talk, just grab the bag of food and be done.

The old school reactionary in me sees this as a leveling off of the cityscape itself, it is a flattening down of storefronts themselves, a sanding down of surface texture – storefront, lighting, atmosphere, ambiance, smell – to a bland website, and I don’t see this as a bad thing per se, because in a way the city will always need to exist for the food to be cooked in, for the customers to live in and space and distance do play their part, there are neighbourhoods in which my friends live that forces them to lament the absence of places worthy to use. So even on this bland level field there exists texture, a disembodied almost literary texture as we’re about to see, but mostly it is of a rather pallid nature.

And crucially this flattening of the city to a website interface means that there is no real way of telling what kind of establishment you are ordering from other than the generic indicators of the website. These cover basic things such as price range, estimate delivery times, average rating in terms of five stars and of course, the customer reviews. These become pretty key to any decision that is going to be an informed decision or indeed a decision that doesn’t result in a total surprise. One has to differentiate somehow the uniform website and the universal title of Pad Thai or Cheeseburger, or indeed ’Est. Wait 30 minute’. So randomly choosing the rather safe bet of the nearby noodle house, I randomly scroll down and read the following, trying in my slowly mounting state of hunger, to decide if this is the place for me tonight:

Brian
waiting over 90 minutes, called the restaurant they 'misplaced' my order. cancelled. frustrating.

Brian has a nice tone it should be observed, à point, minimal, clear. I feel his disappointment. Let’s hope it gets better.

Oren
Order was delivered over an hour later than quoted. No communication from restaurant, no explanation. Just totally blew me off and delivered nearly 2 hours after order placed when quote was 30-40 min.

Oren doesn’t have the concision of Brian, and oddly this means I take their criticism with less than the pinch of proverbial salt. Imagine how hungry one gets when waiting two whole hours after ordering? And yet Oren, I can’t help but notice, didn’t have the guts like Brian did to actually cancel. A bitter tasting meal I suspect. Next up, Alex:

Alex
Waited 90 minutes and still not received the food. Called the first time after an hour and they said that the food was on the way. Called the second time after 90 minutes and they said they were having issues and are backed up. Finally called and cancelled after 90+minutes. Not sure how their food is as I never got to try it, but their delivery is horrendous.

Well there you have it: a damning review, the establishment didn’t even make it past the first hurdle. Alex doesn’t even get to review the food! This is worrying. Next up, rather satisfactorily, like an addendum to irate Alex’ post that could only comment on the delivery, is Laura with a note:

Laura
Just a note on delivery: I have ordered from here twice, and both times they called my cell when delivering, even though I stated “buzz apt 3” on the delivery instructions. Keep your phone handy or you might miss your meal! (like i did :( )

Another missed meal! Saliva is entering my mouth and I’m not sure I can commit to such uncertainty, will the food come or won’t it, will I have the resolve to wait until 10pm to eat? Interestingly you can also see that reviewers actively give tips: how to handle the delivery guy, what to expect (expectation is a huge thing about ordering food online, it’s really a game of hopes fulfilled or dreams bitterly dashed, at times, it feels, not to over do it too much, veritably operatic).

Graham
Slow and Cold.

John
Good food. Always fast. But delivery men never smile and I’m a big tipper. Go figure.

John really is revealing more about himself here than the restaurant, and for that alone I’m slowly suspecting not only his opinion, but everyone else’s. He’s like so many people of this world, I cynically tell myself, only doing good and carrying out generous acts to be patted on the back, to bask in the gratitude of those less fortunate than he. There are over 8 million people in this city, I remind myself, 1.6 million on the island alone, and thanks to people like John, the only one I want to meet is the delivery guy. I’m hungry, he’s at work, why the fuck should he smile at my 20% tip?

This has been a pretty steady slew of bad reviews, at this stage I’m undecided even though I know the place is quality and that it has served my hosts well in the past (full disclosure: I’ve eaten there, it’s good!). And after all, this is a positive article, as I’ve already stated, enough criticism! So I continue reading the reviews as they come, and finally the stars start to accumulate and raise to five.

Mark
Very very good quality dishes. Actually prefer to eat there because it's kinda fun. Good Salmon with a sort of fruity cous cous. Alsoreal good cocktails (eat in, obviously!)

Aleksander
Always perfect.

Yana
super quick delivery. fresh/hot food. noodles are excellent. prices are a bit high but its the best take away Thai in the union sq area

I kind of think if this were a competition I would make Mark the winner, I would crown him champ of the comments, indeed I think I’d like to meet Mark and have a drink with him, one of those real good cocktails everyone else patently ignored in their reviews, I could agree with him that the cous cous is sort of fruity (I wonder where that comes from?) and just generally hang out and have more of that kinda fun than I’m having right now, on my own, in a dark apartment staring into the glare of my laptop waiting for the doorbell to ring and nervously wait for the delivery guy, hoping he doesn’t talk, doesn’t ask where’s his tip, doesn’t actually not come, ever, so that I would have to go to bed hungry and alone.

Screengrab_Shame1Michael Fassbender eating the Hollywood version of take-out while ordering some more. Film still from Shame, directed by Steve McQueen, 2011.

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