Global Province Letter: Eating Lunch at Your Desk
May 19, 2010

The Three Martini Lunch: Dem days are gone forever.  In yesteryear, the men and women who kept our economy grinding away actually went out for lunch.  For an hour, or hopefully more, they got away to a favorite pit-marked table at a neighborhood restaurant where the conversation might veer to the 1/3-off sale on underwear at Brooks, the amazingly good performance of Senate majority leader William Knowland who was not one of the world’s brainiest guys, or to the antics of stringy-hair 1960s children in bellbottom pants who seemed to speak a language not remotely connected to that of their parents.  Whatever the lunch was about, it was social and it escaped entirely from the endless conferences and mindless columns of data that clogged up office hours.

We ourselves remember spiriting a heavy-duty chief executive out to a Japanese lunch in the thirties, not far from the East River.  Plied with martinis, he felt moved, even before the food arrived, to stand up and give a 27-second speech in Japanese.  Needless to say, he really did not know a word of Japanese.  At 3:30 p.m. we poured out the doors into the bright sunlight, and he realized that he had missed several appointments.  But that’s the point of a martini lunch:  you clear the decks, forget about mortal affairs, and celebrate all sorts of transcendent matters.

Such an occasion could be followed by yet more martinis around five, just before one caught the express train to Westchester on the Harlem Division of the New York Central Railroad.  It helped that the Yale Club was just across the street from Grand Central, and that it served a double-sized drink that would liven any conversation.  The very red faces of all the patrons proved to one and all that this crowd knew all about conviviality and liquid meals.

In 1975 the parsimonious Harvard Club committed the ultimate apostasy.  It sliced its martini in half.  All the Harvard chaps rang their Yale friends, and repaired to the amiable Yale Club bar on the second floor to wet their whistles.  Needless to say, Harvard, humbled, hat in hand, had to give up its tiny ‘tini and bring back a reasonable drink. 

These days, of course, all the drinks and all the clubs are lousy, and the upwardly mobile are sipping white wine anyway.  You are advised to repair elsewhere for refreshment.  Moreover, all the eateries, no matter how fancy, have turned into expensive, quick- and- dirty fast food joints.  Eating lunch in New York City, or around America, has lost much of its charm, and one must hunt for secret spots that still know what dining’s all about.  Martini marauders are now a secret clan, much more clandestine than Skull and Bones.

The Fall of the Fortune 500. We think the decline and fall of goodtime lunches started when all the big Fortune 500 companies moved to Connecticut.  Amax, Lone Star Industries, Bangor Punta, Olin, Combustion Engineering—and all the rest—struck out for Greenwich, Stamford, and sundry other spots.  By this means, the companies ran away from New York’s high taxes; the chief executives cut their commutes down to 10 minutes; and expensive, country-club- campus-type complexes supplanted skyscraper offices and slow elevators. Everybody ate in corporate cafeterias in martini-free environments. 

When we visited our clients in their new lairs, every executive asked us what was going on at the other companies, because they had lost touch with chaps in other businesses. We became carrier pigeons on Connecticut’s corporate highways. Quickly enough most of these companies began to have problems, performance faltering.  Many of them have since disappeared. Without their martinis and without urban vitality, they faltered.

Lunch at Your Desk. We’re reconciled to life without lunch. There will be no restoration of luncheon banter. You are probably eating at your desk. The only question is how you can make the best of it. If you are to be isolated, imprisoned in your cubicle, how can you quiet the soul and enjoy, if a little bit, your repast?

For starters, one has to cast aside take-out lunches served on styrofoam or air-bread sandwiches stuffed with processed meats. That just does not sit well. Plastic food in plastic wrappings shrivels one’s heart.

Restful Alternatives. To wit, we recommend a decent yoghurt accompanied by a topflight extra virgin olive oil. Or very fresh, chilled tofu laced with more refined soy sauces. If one is to eat in silence inside a fluorescent prison, the secret is to uncover very simple but soothing recipes using only the highest quality ingredients. What’s right now is a very elegant anti-lunch.

Finding the right olive oil or a refined soy sauce is not easy.  Best, we think, to call one of the finest grocers in the country—Corti Brothers in Sacramento.  For the extra virgin we would select Melgarejo, very fine, award-winning Spanish oil from Jaen, the center of the olive oil universe. It’s hard to come by this exquisite picual in the States, but Darrell Corti knows it well.  At his establishment, too, one can find Goyogura Shoya, a soy that soars beyond the average Kikkoman product.  With these additives, your yoghurt or tofu is transformed, and your deskbound lunch becomes a rare experience.  Suddenly you are transported to Spain or to Japan. 

Oddly enough chilled tofu is usually not found on the menu of Japanese restaurants in America. When it appears, it is called Hiyayakko or Yakko Tofu.  Often the recipes are too complex, confounding the taste buds. Those who tart it up will add ginger, or bonito flakes, or mustard, or plum paste, and so on. What’s wanted is a good fresh tofu without all the extras: a good Chinese market will order it weekly and store it in a tub of water.  At the same market, you will find thin scallions that have more spike and interest than those at your super market.  You might serve the tofu in chilled water, topped by a few chopped scallions. We prefer instead to surround the tofu with a few chips of ice, adding soy sauce and a few slivers of scallion to the mix.

If you’re to eat at your desk, then restful food is wanted that can reconcile you to your solitude. If lunch is not to be a time to get away and to visit with friends, then let it be a moment of introspection. Your lunch break now becomes an interlude where you lower the blood pressure.

Or No Lunch At All. Then again, maybe you want to shed calories and skip lunch on most days. After all, the Greek shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis, once attributed his great success to eating light lunches. Jackie Kennedy, who surprised the world and married him, later in life, skipped fancy publishing lunches, often eating at her desk during the many years she worked at Doubleday.  There’s something to be said for very light lunches, or no lunch at all.

In that event, one must distract the mind for an hour, taking up some sport that will provide relief from the daily grind. That’s to be had on the Internet.  For instance, we can suggest a visit to GraphJam, a website that uses charts and graphs to make slapdash comments about the absurdity of modern life. It permits one to take an ironic view of almost everything.  We include here two of its charts for your amusement. 

Can We Talk?  The comedienne Joan Rivers is fond of saying, “Can we talk?”  The answer, of course, is, “No, we can’t.”  We’re either running just to keep up or we are glued to our desks and our notebook computers. On cable stations and talk radio, we encounter motor mouths who drown out conversation.  A real talk is hard to come by.       Modern man is so alone, yet always surrounded by senseless voices.

That’s what really has been lost.  Not lunch. But conversation.  Man at his best. That’s what we have to reclaim.

P.S.  Meager martinis in 1975 were not the first time Harvard has gone astray. Yale itself was founded because Increase Mather and other divines felt that Harvard was straying away from Puritan orthodoxy—the equivalent we suppose of heresy.

P.P.S.  Yoghurt does not have to be dreary.  Whole Foods, for instance, stocks a Brown Cow yoghurt which is topped with cream. Health food addicts would regard it as sinful.

P.P.P.S.  There’s a soy sauce from Kentucky, aged in bourbon bottles, that’s not too bad, though the bottle is on the meager side.

P.P.P.P.S.  It’s possible also to have a rarified lunch of fine tofu, free of cell phone blabbermouths in shirtsleeves.  At one or two, En may be practically empty, and the view inside and outside the restaurant is rewarding.  It’s on the West Side of New York. Tofu is its signature offering.



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