Biting the hands that feed them

Last week, a few missing chips drove one hungry diner to go on the rampage. And he's not alone. This is 'food rage', and it's coming to a restaurant near you. John Walsh on a new eating disorder
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It was a routine morning at the Burger King in Dubois, Pennsylvania on New Year's Day. A listless crew of midday lunchers were working off their hangovers with a Whopper and a slurp of Coca-Cola, and would barely have registered the pick-up truck that wheezed up to the "drive-thru" window. The driver was 22-year-old Gregg Luttman, and he was hungry. Terribly hungry. He placed his order for burger, fries and a Coke by speaking into the squawk-box, and drove to the collection window. "Sorry," they told him. "We've run out of French fries."

It was a routine morning at the Burger King in Dubois, Pennsylvania on New Year's Day. A listless crew of midday lunchers were working off their hangovers with a Whopper and a slurp of Coca-Cola, and would barely have registered the pick-up truck that wheezed up to the "drive-thru" window. The driver was 22-year-old Gregg Luttman, and he was hungry. Terribly hungry. He placed his order for burger, fries and a Coke by speaking into the squawk-box, and drove to the collection window. "Sorry," they told him. "We've run out of French fries."

It took a moment for Luttman to register that a major constituent of his favourite lunch would not be forthcoming, and then he exploded. He extended a middle finger to the drive-thru clerk, left his truck and burst into the restaurant. There, he rained abuse on the staff behind the counter, swearing horribly and calling them names. Walking back to his truck, he saw two Burger King staffers taking down his license-plate number, prior to ringing the police. Luttman really lost his temper at that. He swung into his cab, turned on the ignition, and reversed straight towards the men, narrowly missing one of them. Out on the highway, he was stopped by police. A scuffle ensued and ended when Luttman kicked out the windscreen of the police car. He was later charged with assault, reckless endangerment and other offences.

Every crime needs a motive. Luttman's was chip-deprivation. He was an American, goddammit, and he'd been denied his absolute right to eat fries with his lunch. Somebody was responsible and somebody had to pay. Gregg was briefly overwhelmed by something bigger than civilisation, than reason or human empathy. He was gripped by an instinctive, ungovernable fury that comes over ordinary members of society when they're not getting what they want to eat. Gregg was in the throes of Food Rage.

What is it about humans and food? We stopped being desperate hunter-gatherers millennia ago. We ceased, aeons back, to tear at raw flesh with our teeth because we would otherwise perish. Food has been readily available to us for several centuries. We're now such exquisite sophisticates that we routinely walk into well-furnished rooms and pay someone else to cook it for us. But this supposedly harmless area of human behaviour is full of potential disasters. Anything can trigger off food rage. It's a horrifying sight - a brief moment of red-film-before-the-eyes madness, accompanied by a man (it's almost always a man) flying off the handle, banging the table, hurling an ashtray or a butter dish, screaming at the waiters, bursting into tears or storming out of the door without paying.

"I was on a family holiday in Normandy," says Guy, 26, "with all my cousins, grandparents, and so on - about 15 of us. We went to a nice, though busy, seafood restaurant in Boulogne. The service was typically French, namely, surly and slow. It took forever. After over an hour, we got our starter, which - since we were starving - disappeared in five minutes flat. Half an hour later, they still hadn't taken our plates away. Suddenly, my uncle cracked. He picked up a load of plates in his arms, strode through the door into the kitchen and dumped them in the sink. The plongeur couldn't believe his eyes. But the waiters were marginally better after that."

Some of the most amusing forms of food rage involve direct action, when the punter decides to take over the food, reducing the restaurant to the level of helping hand. "My father took an interventionist approach," says David, aged 44. "When the waiter in a hotel in King's Lynn told him that the strawberries were off, my father pointed at the bustling market in full swing in the square outside the hotel, thrust the cost of a punnet into his hand, and told him that we'd wait until they'd been bought, washed and served." And I know of a grouchy American gourmet who insists on cooking his own steak in restaurant kitchens - or at least overseeing its brief four minutes of searing - and flies into a rage if the chef doesn't take it off the griddle in time.

Even the most rarefied of sensibilities can feel the tremor of food rage building up inside them. Stephen Bayley, the design guru, is a self-confessed "ferocious and pitiless food snob" and "a raving bigot about authenticity and cultural consistency". Did he ever experience food rage? "I get scarily wound-up by food atrocities. I once didn't speak to my sister-in-law's partner for a week after he ordered salmon in Greece. [Salmon in Greece has been frozen and bussed-in from Scotland, Norway or Canada.] A woman once wrote in The Independent on Sunday about a fabulous pizza she'd enjoyed in Gascony. She should be seared. People who serve lobster make me cross. It's a horrible, lazy, short-cut way to say I'm rich and sophisticated. Mackerel's much more impressive."

I myself have been a long-term sufferer from food rage. It can strike at odd times. Watching someone in the newspaper canteen making an egg-mayonnaise sandwich terr-ib-ly sl-ow-ly, spreading butter with infinite, painterly leisureliness, like Seurat dabbing a thousand bits of pigment on A Sunday on the Grande-Jatte - I, too, feel like clamping a Magnum .44 against the side of his or her head. I had a terrible row in a Fulham restaurant with a waiter (possibly a posh friend of the owner, helping out on an off-day) whose questions hit a pitch of surrealism:

Me: "I'll have the coq-au-vin please. And some boiled potatoes."

Waiter: "Mm - hmm. How many?"

Me: "What?"

Waiter (rather huffily): "How many. Potatoes. Do you. Want?"

Me: "Er, well, just a few I suppose..."

Waiter (sarcastically): "How many is a few? Two? Six?"

Me (going red): "I don't know. Are they big or small?"

Waiter (rolling eyes to heaven): "Do you really mean that you wish to specify the size of potatoes you want?"

Me (grinding teeth): "No, I just want some potatoes. I just want [sudden brainwave] a portion."

Waiter: "And how many is that?"

Me (decisively): "Four small ones. Or two-and-a-half large ones."

Waiter (camp flounce): "You're not making my job any easier, you know."

I nearly hit him. I'm not, by nature, violent, but, like many, I suffer from hypoglycaemia, or low blood-sugar levels. The medical book gives the symptoms as: "frayed nerves, hunger pangs, fatigue, short temper, pent-up aggression". It is not, I'm glad to say, a disease - more a condition, and one that can be alleviated by simply Having Something To Eat.

Lots of people do not share my condition, however, so the ultimate cause of food rage still eludes us. But then you notice how many FR stories are about service as well as food, and you realise that this whole syndrome may be something to do, not with cooking or digestion, but with self-esteem.

Everyone has stories to tell about intrusive, offhand, insulting, boorish or dim waiters who drive us to Restaurant Fury. Waiters who crash into your tête-â-tête every three minutes to ask, "Is everything all right?". Waiters who fill your wine glasses rather than letting you do it (my personal cracking-point). Waiters who cluelessly serve red wine warmed almost to boiling-point in glasses just out of the dishwasher... The list stretches to the crack of doom. Matthew, 35, retains a special loathing for the waiter who told him, sorry, no, he couldn't leave the Parmesan dish on the table, because he, the diner, was allowed only two spoonfuls to sprinkle on his risotto - any more, said the waiter, darkly, and "we'd have to charge for it".

Irritating staff have turned up in key scenes of food rage in films, as a reliable indicator of either the hero's low tolerance threshold or of his brave anti-authority stance. In the diner scene in Five Easy Pieces, Jack Nicholson simply wants some toast and coffee, but the stroppy waitress won't hear of it. He has to order a meal. So he settles for a chicken-salad sandwich, but without the chicken, lettuce or mayonnaise. "You want me to hold the chicken?" she snaps. "I want you to hold it," grates Nicholson, "between your knees." Whereupon she complains and he sweeps all the glasses of water on to the floor. In Falling Down, the story of one man's reprisals against the frustrations of living in Los Angeles, Michael Douglas walks into a McDonald's-style burger bar looking for breakfast, and orders an egg muffin. "Sorry," says the counter staffer, "it's 10.33 and we don't do breakfast after 10.30. You'll have to order off the lunch menu." That's when Douglas pulls out his semiautomatic and starts firing.

At such moments, food rage seems merely an expression of petulance, as if we're no more sophisticated than two-year-olds who've been denied an ice lolly. But it can't be that simple. Nor can it be generated by mere hunger or hypoglycaemia, because many food rages occur in the middle or at the end of a meal. I suspect that it's really about our amour-propre, our hidden, half-denied sense of our own worth. Inside every luncher or diner, there is, I suspect, a Lord or Lady Muck, a grandee, a panjandrum lurking unseen - a kind of superego who takes it as natural and fitting that he or she should have servants jumping at his or her beck and call. Even the sandwich-painter in the canteen seems (from this vainglorious perspective) just one more slave put on this earth to do our bidding.

We would not, of course, admit any of this aloud for a second; but when things go wrong in a restaurant, when the wait is too long or the food too cold or the wine too warm, when the whole eater/server bond is strained, some terrible fantasy monologue takes off in your head. "I deserve better than this," its nagging mantra starts. "This is not what I asked for/ This is not what I want/ I'm being ignored/My requirements count for nothing/ I'm an important diner with a credit card and everything/ I'll teach them a lesson..." Some martinet at the back of your head starts to shout, "I AM NOT GOING TO BE TREATED LIKE THIS", and you turn into Basil Fawlty bawling out the garçon in a slow Montmartre bistrot.

I suspect that food rage will increase, as our foodie demands become more precious and our sense of self-worth more inflated. Soon we'll see fist fights at Sketch because the waiter forgot to Hold The Sweetcorn in the passion fruit-and-sweetcorn sorbet. If you are what you eat, being denied your rightful French fries is like being denied a personality. Is it any wonder that, at such moments, you stop being a rational homme moyen sensuel, at ease in salons from Mayfair to Montana, and become instead a raging animal, seeking blood, redress and the grim satisfaction of revenge?

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