Before returning to the US, I was living and working in Africa for most of the past 3 years. I often ate at local restaurants, where it was commonplace to either: (a) have no menu; (b) have a menu, but few or none of the items on it (think of it more as a suggestion than a reality); or (c) have a simple choice, verbally presented, between “chicken or fish” and “rice or potatoes.” I got used to having limited selection and, with time, often felt myself content with what was available.
Like many expats returning to the “developed world” after time spent living in a “developing country,” I found myself overwhelmed with choice – at the supermarket, at the drug store, at restaurants, at bars, at home. But I honestly think that even if I you moved directly from Europe to the US, you would still be overwhelmed. Because America just takes choice to the next level… the consumer is truly drowned in selection.
If you go to a pub in the UK or a cafe in Europe, the menu tends to be limited – you are presented with a fixed set of items to choose from, usually laid out neatly on 1 to 2 pages, and you can reasonably read through the entire menu and make your pick. But, if you go to a diner in the US, you will be given a “menu” which reads like a book and is large enough to double as a sun hat.
No matter what time of day, you can be served breakfast, lunch, or dinner. You can have steak or scrambled eggs, chili or cheesecake, waffles or a Waldorf salad, clam chowder or a club sandwich, ice cream or iced coffee. The “menu” is not so much a menu as an exhaustive list of all possible permutations of food that exist on the planet. So, when the perky waitress asks you what you want, you simply freeze up and can’t compute.
You try to devise strategies for narrowing down your selection, but can’t even manage to focus in on which meal it is you’re ordering (did I come to the Pancake House for brunch, or is it really time for a cheeseburger right now?). You hesitate and agonize over whether you want your eggs with sausage, beef patty, steak, ham, or corn beef hash. In the end, you pick one at random, sensing the waitress’ growing impatience. She writes your order on her notepad and you put down the menu in relief. You did it. You chose.
And then she springs the next question that you’re totally not prepared for: how do you want your eggs?