Good Taste

By: Mary Lou Sanelli

There must have been a time in foodie heaven when eating became not what we do, but what we hope to experience.

   I’m sure I’ve read in one of Ruth Reichl’s books the exact date, restaurant, and chef that changed everything about eating in this country. 

   This would have been the date that changed everything for women like my mother,  whose pasta would please any palette, but was still more likely to be called macaroni.

   Not picturesque macaroni, either, like a Bon Appétit image of perfection. My mother’s bowl had a chipped rim and there was likely sauce dripping over it. Its purpose had little to do with presentation. We crossed ourselves, said a prayer, and dug in.

   And never once did we think of ourselves as “food people.” It was, after all, the sixties/seventies. Food was simple, respected, expected. We didn’t compliment it or, regrettably, my mother. And we never ate at a restaurant.

   This is so different than how a lot of my Seattle friends grew up, especially those originally from California, who talk about dining out once a week at their family’s favorite eatery, and are comfortable with words like infusion and plated. Growing up near the first food scenes of Berkeley, Napa, and the Bay Area, food became something to intellectualize, appraise, shake or nod your head at.

   And why I reluctantly eat out with them. 

   And when I say reluctantly, I mean I am filled with anxiety at the very thought! 

   Foodie-behavior embarrasses me. Frankly, it drives me nuts. I grow impatient with how long it takes them to study the menu, and don’t even get me started on the wine list. To me, their questions sound more like interrogations and disintegrate the joy of sharing a meal—where conversation is the point, or should be—before my very eyes. I find people who need to tell the waiter how much they know about spice rubs insufferable.

   Years ago, I went to Canlis, our city’s landmark fervent-fine-dining destination, to see what all the fuss was about. The food was exquisite, the service impeccable, but I couldn’t stop giggling at the absurdity of it all, the extravagance. 

   Clearly, under my white collar, I’m still awfully blue. 

   Unlike my parents, I can appreciate, even afford, a place like Canlis now and again, but I will never feel as though I belong there.

   Not like my friend Gina belongs there. I love to listen to her talk about food. She is an original life-is-about-eating-in-the-finest-restaurants example, the only person I’ve ever met who admits, flat out, she has never had to work. I believe she calls work “the four letter word.” Eating out is her work. And she does it well. If she recommends a restaurant, you know the food will be an experience.

  My friend Lena, who was my college roommate (so perhaps we are still a wee bit competitive), moved to Sonoma and we had a huge row at the sort of restaurant where even if you skip the starter and desert you are going to drop a hundred bucks, and that’s if you stick to one glass of wine. 

   Unwisely, I had two. 

   Two is where insecurities can quickly transgress. 

   The thing is, the waiter returned to our table four times to take her wine order. At one point I had this vision that long after the entire staff had gone home, here would be Lena, still inspecting the vintage and pedigree, and suddenly the new light of dawn would fill the dining room. Finally I screamed, “Oh my God, Lena! Is this what moving to Sonoma does to a girl from Erie, Pennsylvania?”

   And then, because wine is her new religion, there was an awful silence. 

   Immediately I felt so bad tears sprang to my eyes and all I could do is cross my arms tightly and rock back and forth a few times. 

   I think she has somewhat-basically forgiven me for being so annoyed, such an ass, a terrible friend. 

   I’ve yet to forgive myself, however. 

   Self-forgiveness is so much harder!

   More recently my friend Sara (who in our circle isn’t a foodie, she’s the foodie), called me out on my impatience. “Why do you get so impatient when I ask the waiter questions?” 

   For weeks, I didn’t know how to explain my bad manners because I wasn’t clear about their origin.

   What is this all about?

   Though my life on the West Coast has lifted me out of the status of my immigrant parents, on some level, I have this nagging suspicion that I see, or want to see, myself as they saw themselves: hardworking, unpretentious, unimpressed by prestige or distinction. It secures me to myself, to my past, to everything I believe in; quite possibly to earth. 

   And all the foodie talk—no matter how delicious the food or how beautifully it’s plated—undoes me. 

   Until I am reminded of Aristotle’s advice, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” 

   For several minutes I keep repeating the words to myself, letting them seep in, ‘til all I can say in my defense is that I like the tang of the words, the way they make me feel. I believe the man had good taste.

   Pun intended. 




Mary Lou Sanelli has published three works of non-fiction including AMONG FRIENDS
(a Goodreads notable title), and her first novel, THE STAR STRUCK DANCE STUDIO of Yucca Springs, was recently released by Chatwin Books. She has contributed to the Seattle Times, Seattle Metropolitan magazine,Morning Edition: National Public Radio, and her regular columns appear in Pacific Publishing newspapers and Dance Teacher magazine. For more information about her and her work, visit