Is it disgusting? That depends on whose it is.

January 8, 2007 | By | 15 Replies More

I have a confession. 

If the general consensus is that I should never do this again, I will seriously consider stopping (not that I had ever done this before–see below). I know that the story I am about to relate will disgust and confound some readers. Beware that I am thin-skinned, but don’t hold back.

Here’s the short version.  While in Chicago, my family and I (my wife and I have two daughters, aged six and eight) went to a trendy chocolatier (a store that sells high-priced chocolate).  While at said store, I ate some of the high-priced chocolate left by a customer who had left the store just as we were sitting down.

As I relate this, I am haunted by the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza is caught rummaging through the trash can in the kitchen of a house eating a pastry that someone had thrown away.  My adventure also brings to mind an idea put forth by “Tim,” a friend of mine, who has long argued that all morality starts with what one puts into one’s mouth.

Here’s what happened.  We went to a chocolatier, where my wife ordered a high-priced cup of hot chocolate.  The chocolatier was located on the first floor of an upscale mall that sells lots and lots of things that nobody really needs.  It just so happened that the Lego store was on the second floor of that mall.  That was our true destination when we were distracted by chocolatier’s prominent location.

                   chocolate shop.jpg

This is not one of those restaurants where you are assigned your own table.  Instead, the floor of the restaurant is occupied with couches, chairs and coffee tables placed here and there.  No fence or barbed wire or any other discernible barrier separates one’s territory from anyone else’s.  As we were sitting down with our hot chocolate, two other customers (who had been sitting very close to us) got up and walked out of the restaurant.  At the coffee table immediately in front of me (same table being used by the customers who just left), I noticed that they had left most of a chocolate fondue platter (cost: about $25).  It consisted of a large ceramic cup of thick and rich chocolate that is kept melted by the heat of a candle.  The cup was still almost completely full. The platter included crackers, marshmallows and fruit which one dips into the overpriced yet luxuriant chocolate, then presumably eats. If you’re not insane, that is.

I was keenly aware that one of the employees of this restaurant would be walking over within minutes to take away this tray of expensive food (it had barely been touched) and then throw it into the trash can.  I figured that the expensive chocolate platter didn’t belong to the restaurant anymore, since the restaurant had already sold it to the original purchasers who, in turn, had now abandoned it.

Therefore, I quietly took one of the oblong crackers and dipped it into the high-priced yet luxuriant chocolate and discovered that it was extremely pleasure-evoking. Extremely.  I did it again.  Then again. There was plenty of food still remaining. Therefore, I invited my young daughters to partake, and they took me up on this without any protest at all. It was chocolate and they are children.  Rousseau’s philosophy in action.

Note: We were not eating half chewed crackers.  Everything we touched was absolutely unspoiled and in its original placement on the overpriced platter.  My wife very much wanted to partake, but she was embarrassed (though she continued, uneasily, to sit with the rest of us).  All in all, my children and I probably ate about a half dozen items (each of them dipped quietly into the expensive chocolate) when an employee noticed that we were working on another customer’s (abandoned) food.  I heard her say something to the other employee, who responded “He’s doing what?”  Then she said “Ewwwww” and scowled at us.  At this point, the first employee came over to clear away the expensive platter and throw it in the trash.

At dinner that night, I discussed this episode with some friends.  The wife of a couple was somewhat put off by my behavior, whereas the husband seemed to enjoy and approve of my behavior. He assured me that chocolate fondue is maintained at a high enough temperature to burn off all known pathogens.

Here’s the logic I used. What if I I already knew the people who bought the chocolate that I ate?  What if they were my long-time good friends?  Would anyone have any problem with me eating their leftovers?  I don’t think so.  And it wouldn’t matter whether I came into the store with them or if I sat down just as they were leaving.  Friends share food.  What if I didn’t know the people who bought the chocolate until I sat down in the restaurant right next to them, whereupon we exchanged a few jokes first and then they offered me their leftovers because they had the run to catch a cab?  Any problem here? Again, I don’t think so.

Therefore, one thing that determines what is disgusting is whether we are friends with the people who last touched the food we are about to eat.  But this really doesn’t make any sense.  The food is the food.  Further, people with whom we are friends might be germier than random strangers. In fact, based upon their appearance, the people that frequent this pretentious mall are probably at least as likely to have good hygiene as many of the people I encounter in a typical day.

The question was then raised,” would you walk over and eat somebody’s leftover french fry?”  “No, french fries are extremely cheap,” I replied.

I don’t know if this has any relevance, but I remember Steven Pinker giving a lecture at which he mentioned how we swallow our own saliva without any problem.  But what if someone asked us to spit in a bowl, wait 5 seconds, then drink our own saliva.  Different, eh?  Disgusting!  Why?  Is this example even relevant to the chocolate shop–oops, chocolatier story, I wonder.

The confession is now complete.  I await guidance and judgment.

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Category: Culture, Food, Friendships/relationships, Psychology Cognition, Whimsy

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Time to simplify eating | Dangerous Intersection | September 19, 2010
  1. Artemis says:

    Oh my. Well, I had three responses: First and foremost, when I read the 7th paragrah, I had one of the best laughs I've had since I listened to Bush's end-of-the year address and his typically awkward, can't-think-on-his-feet responses to the questions posed by the press. Extremely! Absolutely! Go Dad! Go kids! You shoulda been on a sitcom!

    Second, I am an avowed dumpster-diver, leftover food eater, used-clothes buyer, recycling nut. I recycle almost obsessively. So you won't get no judgement from me, boy, other than I think chocolate fondue sounds too rich for my taste. I'd probably eat somebody's left-over french fries, though, if they weren't stone cold and I had a yen for them. More on this in a moment.

    Third, it is an interesting conundrum.. to eat or not to eat someone else's food based on the fear that we might "catch their germs". Now, I believe that unless there is some direct saliva or bodily fluid transfer (like, they spit in the fondue or on the crackers or fruit) and then you immediately consume said food, you're probably safe. OH COME ON! People eat at buffets and take samples at grocery stores ALL THE TIME, despite fear-mongering warnings by "the media" that such behavior is risky… we might catch some awful disease (like the flu or a cold or something???) I assume if someone is on their death-bed they are probably NOT out eating at a buffet). Now what THIS brings to this writer's mind, is the movie, Fight Club. You know, where they practice urban guerilla warfare by having restaurant employees pee in the soup. I'm sure there are a tremendous number of restaurants where the employees are too busy to wash their hands and there we are, still munching away…

    Look, I have learned to question everything. And I question whether or not the risk of getting other's illnesses is an absolute certainty based on my contact with their germs. Isn't the care and support of my immune system my responsibility?

    Now, back to my second response: We in this country are a bit too careful with our germ warfare. We may have weakened our resistance to disease by not allowing ourselves to build defenses through exposure to virues, bacteria, etc. We are, in my opinion, spoiled. If I lived in a third-world country, there would simply be no question that a plate of ANY food would be thrown out, and no one would question sharing that food with anyone, related by blood or not.

    'Course, in such a place you'd not likely find a high-priced chocolatier, a fancy mall or a Lego store….

    You go, Erich, and eat your neighbors' food to your heart's content. I for one applaud you, and believe you are setting a good example for your children.

    Artemis

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    Erich, my fellow, manly chocoholic: You have dropped off the Emily Post pages with this one. But I agree with your actions, in principle. A great lesson to your kids to "waste not".

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    At the Karni Mata Temple in the village of Deshnok, "it’s thought to be especially good luck to eat and drink from the same bowls as the rodents." See here.  And here

    Not that I'm calling the original purchasers of the chocolate "rats" in any derogatory sense.  I'm saying it in the good sense.

  4. Scholar says:

    So far, you seem so be a spitting image of my father. He is a well-documented "trash finder" and has found quite a few free things over the years, a la Castanza. Why spend money on something if somebody else is throwing it away…and I tend to agree.

    I think the key here is your (false) assumption that the food left by the customers was no longer the property of the store. My considerable restaurant, including experience as a *busboy* gives me some authority on the issue of resaurant leftovers. What you may be missing is the fact that by taking the food left at the table you are reducing the chances that you will spend money in the establishment. Sure it's noble for you wallet and the environment, its just not fair in terms of the livlihood of the waitresses/waiters/bussboys/cashiers/hostesses/managers/chefs/dishwashers of the choclatier. It's (sort of) akin to somebody taking a leftover "law brief" that you worked on and re-using it, thus preventing you from gaining that new client. Probably a better analogy is people who duplicate music/media and distribute it, in effect, reducing the audience who would be potential buyers.

    However, for your honesty you shall be *rewarded* with this short essay.

    What usually happens to the food left on plates?…the confessions of a bussboy.

    You may wonder why that pickle on the side of your plate is always soggy.

    The reason is that it is sitting in a pool of pickle brine just inside the door to the restaurant kitchen. Essentially the pickle bucket is a melting pot of disease and bacteria. As various waiters, managers, dishwashers, pass by the pickle bucket, they dip their hands in it, taking a snack, or garnishing plates. At the end of the shift, a lid is put on the bucket, and it goes back in the cooler (if you are lucky). Needless to say, we (I speak on behalf of restaurant workers), are not malicious in the fact that we don't have time to wash our hand all the time between touching dirty things and *your food*. The way things work in most restaurants, is that you have about 3 or 4 things in your head which you have to do, and you don't have time to wash your hands in between doing the unsanitary things and the plate presentations.

    In terms of the food left on plates, that becomes the property of the busboy, who may choose to eat select morsels off of it himself, as he dumps the remains into the trashbucket by the dishwasher. Or, if it is an untouched entree, it will be passed on to the dishwasher (or any other underpaid worker) for a well deserved snack, or dismantled and *recycled* back into its components on the cooking line.

  5. Dan says:

    I tend toward the same rationalisations; I shan't judge. In fact, my first thought was "where is the cacao for this chocolate grown?". There are many chocolate farms, especially in Africa, that engage in child labour. Were they using organic and/or fair trade chocolate?

  6. Scholar says:

    Essentially, by eating that chocolate, you have effected a chain of events which will be felt like a gunshot around the globe. I only hope you have done enough to quell the damage.

  7. hogiemo says:

    Erich, you immoral nihilist! You're gonna burn in hell! This is what comes of not believng in God! You Godless anti-captitalist, you. Buy, consume as the "Decider" said we should do after 9/11. Then, we all shall be free. I will pray for you some more. Did you pocket any of the chocolate? Can I have some?

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    Hogie: "May I have some." "MAY." We went to high school together, so I know that the elderly nuns taught this. Or, at least, I attended the classes. You were probably skipping class, trying to invent synthetic chocolate in the chemistry lab.

  9. anon says:

    good on you!

    i worked at a fancy restaurant years ago. we servers were baffled by people who would order the most expensive steak on the menu, take one bite and leave the rest. we were poor folks, and when a barely touched steak would come back to the kitchen, an alert would be sounded, a half-inch of the steak where the customer had used his utensils would be hacked off and the feeding frenzy would commence.

    i'm only somewhat ashamed to admit that…

  10. Ebonmuse says:

    Hey, I don't see anything wrong with that. 🙂 I would probably have done the same, in your circumstances. I absolutely hate seeing good food go to waste (that's my bleeding-heart liberal mentality coming through there). In fact, my dinner for most of this week is probably going to be leftovers from a holiday party I attended last weekend.

    I certainly wouldn't eat anything a stranger had touched or chewed, but if the food was untouched, I can't see any harm in it. I doubt the risk is significantly higher than we already incur by eating in a mall restaurant frequented by hundreds of strangers every day where your food has already been shipped for miles and passed through who knows how many sets of hands before it ends up on your plate.

    I note also, for Scholar, that Erich had already purchased something from that restaurant, as his original post indicated. It's not as if he was taking business away from the establishment; they were only going to throw the food out anyway.

  11. Scholar says:

    Ebonmuse, I stand by my post. As someone who has worked in restaurants, 5 different ones, it isn't fair to the establishment to scavenge food purchased by other guests, regardless of if you bought something. If, the food had been left by the trashcan outside of the restaurant, in the mall central, sure, go ahead and dip in.

    Please don't think I am taking this too seriously, it just seems kind of interesting now that we have some differing points of view. I think that taking the food off of the other table is not really different than taking the tip off of a table. The food/plates/tip are the property of the restaurant, until you have the food boxed up *to go* and walk out the door. As Anon points out, the restaurant workers are the ones who are scraping for rent, car payments, shoes, school, *food*. The food left on the tables would seem to be *their* property more than some *bum* (sorry, I couldn't resist) off of the street.

  12. hogiemo says:

    Ah, my astute chocaholic friend, CAN is appropriate under the circumstances.

    I had not requested the chocolate but, inquired whether there is such chocolate and a present ability on your part to deliver same, which you have not indicated in your insouciant response.

    If you had such chocolate, and had indicated so in your response, then and only then, would the permissive "may" be required!

    I only skipped classes with you, and we plotted in the back to have Nixon impeached, or some entry for "Dr. Quack's Corner" in the student newspaper. In Fr. Siggy's relgion class we made paper airplanes, which may explain your current godless behavior, and my lack of respect for authority.

  13. Mary says:

    You know, historically, back in the one-room schoolhouse days, everyone drank from the same water dipper. Hurray for germs! At least some of them . . . . I hate to see food go to waste, so whether it's a later customer or the restaurant staff, or the dumpster-diver partaking, good for any of them.

  14. Jan says:

    Erich, if there is an afterlife, Pappy (our dear grandfather) is enjoying your chocolate-salvaging incident. It's quite a step up from the items he used to recover from the roads while driving about town.

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