a survey of contemporary office cuisine, part one

if you've gotten a chance to glance around the new site (what do you think of it, by the way? do you like? i do), you may have noticed a new section entitled "anthropological archives." the space is a little lonely right now, but there's a lot to be said about the sole photo gallery currently residing there.

just over two weeks ago, three of my coworkers - ct, sk, and jd - gamely let me photograph their lunches every day for a week. though it may have been considered a little unethical to participate in my own little study, anthropology is all about participant observation, so i took photos of my own lunches, too, to help round things out. the rules were very simple: do whatever you might normally do, eat whatever you might normally eat, and let's take a photo. i brought my camera into the office and we used cell phone cameras (which actually did rather well!) and ct's camera as back-ups when necessary. to help coordinate the project, inter-office email was used to plan and implement the study. photos (and amusing captions, because what good is a study if you can't at least make a little fun of it?) were originally posted in a photo album on facebook for general review. the subjects of this study were invited to participate soley based on the fact that out of the nine people in our department, they were the most likely to 1) eat lunch at their desk and 2) be in the office at least four out of five days of the business week. these factors were determined based on personal observation and the general office calendar, respectively.

the purpose of this study was not just to merely entertain myself for a week and irritate my coworkers, but to examine the "elusive eating habits of the neoteric office worker." office work is characteristically marked by a society of people all performing tasks to further a shared cause, effort, or mission. (this is a general, working definition, nothing formal.) however, the tasks that make up these efforts are generally invidiualistic as different workers focus on different tasks that use different skills and abilities to further the general effort of the whole. because of the nature of this separationalism and despite working toward a common goal, a worker's professional life is often marked by seclusion. (whether self-imposed or merely having developed out of the situation of the space, i think, depends mostly on the individual involved and the cultural norms of the workspace in question.) this seclusion (or not) can be expressed through food and by the very act of eating one's meals at one's desk.

when we eat at home or out of the office, we eat very differently. eating out at restaurants is very much about the experience of food. ordering an appetizer. indulging in different libations with different courses or throughout the meal. making the decision whether or not to have dessert. and participating in (or suffering through the lack of) conversation with dining companions. the fancier or more expensive the restaurant, the more important these factors become. eating at home holds similar factors with added crucial questions. do you eat at the table or on the sofa? do you wait for your family/roommates or eat on your own? what do you make for yourself or for them? how much of a mess do you want to have to clean up? time becomes less of an issue because you're home. and when you're home, you own the clock; it doesn't own you.

the clock does own you in the office. it determines your pay. it creates deadlines that must be adhered to. and, even if it isn't fully heeded it owns your lunch hour. eating in your office at your desk, as depressing as it may sound, is comparable to eating dinner from a drive through in your car in a dark corner of a parking lot. we eat fast, either trying not to focus on what we're eating, how much we're eating, or the fact that we're actually eating in the first place. food becomes something to ignore, maybe be embarrassed about, and it certainly becomes something we don't want to focus on. we read blogs and news online, flip emails, do anything to not own up to the fact that we, as humans, kind of need this food stuff to survive. even if we eat in a staff lounge or cafeteria, if we eat alone, we need something to distract ourselves from our food. maybe a book or, sadly, more work.

and when we eat like this, how much do we really taste? maybe some, if you can slow yourself down or if you actually like what you're eating. but if your food doesn't excite you and your work doesn't excite you, there's a good chance you're going to do as little as possible to acknowledge any of it during your breaks. and with growing globalization creating alternate identities and exclusive cultures (hello, internet), we are increasingly focusing more and more on imagined communities than physical realites. (such as, if the sandwich you bought for lunch tastes horrible, why do you still eat it? why not take an extra break to go back to the place you got it and exchange it?) in-person interactions are becoming increasingly rare and more phobic. after all, even if you're ordering a pizza for a staff lunch, why call in the order when you can place it online?

all of this is not to say that i think my coworkers are entirely anti-social. and i'm saying this as a self-proclaimed introvert. if or when you glance at the study's photos, you may notice a few matching lunches. (specifically, the vietnamese lunches and the veggie/regular hot dog lunches.) a few lunches were enjoyed out of the office. and a few lunches may have been spruced up and brought in solely for the photos. (<ahem> borscht.) and, as the week progressed, i think everyone enjoyed seeing how their lunch photos came out and what i said about them.

posting the photos on facebook generated a surprising number of responses to all of the lunches (though the captions may have helped). notable, though, were the number of comments that either mentioned which food picture the viewer liked (and wanted to eat, too) or what the viewer would have eaten, had s/he been part of the survey. so perhaps the idea to take away from this is that food is boring or ignorable until it becomes a direct focus of the day. effort makes the effect.

a follow-up study to this survey focusing on an experimental lunch concept will start next week. as before, photos will be placed on facebook and in the anthropological archives here. once all photos are collected and all participants have confirmed survival, an analysis will be reported.