a survey of contemporary office cuisine, part two

it’s been a bit over a month since we talked about the first survey of contemporary office cuisine, so let’s take a look at the second. if you have seen the photos, they’re in the anthropological archives here.

the follow-up study took place in november over the week of the ninth. this study examined the foods and interactions of office workers when lunch became a communal meal rather than an individualistic practice. participants helped plan each meal, obtain ingredients, and create the dishes in the office. there were four normal days of lunches in the study and one special lunch to finish it all off. aside from myself, four of my coworkers – ct, cs, sk, and rs – kindly participated in the study over the first four days. on the fifth day, lunch was held out of the office and included other department members. (it was the annual department thanksgiving lunch.) photos of the food were taken by ct and myself. only on the fifth day were foods prepared prior to the day and made individually, not as a group.

there are a few elements to take into account when comparing this follow-up experiment to the original food project. (if you haven’t seen or read them, the photos of the original survey are here and the write up is here.) the original survey focused on eating alone in public. this study did not alter that. meals were still eaten at the desk, often hidden behind a computer, at each individual’s time of choosing. rather than looking at eating as a group, this study focused on communal food choices and how decision-making and preparation differed from the food choices made in the first study.

when we eat alone, decisions about food – whether what to eat, when, how much prior preparation there will be, etc… – are determined solely based off of personal inclinations. when food is prepared by a group, dietary restrictions and food choices, as well as alternative, and sometimes conflicting, likes and dislikes have to be taken into account. in our case, sk is a vegan and i don’t really eat cheese (don’t get on my case, js, it just means there’s more for you in the world). except for the last day (when sk wasn’t there and it was pretty much all traditional thanksgiving foods), these restrictions were taken into account with each dish that was made.

another difference to be taken into account between the two different food surveys – one that i can’t fully document because i didn’t get pictures of receipts during either week – is that the cost of food (i.e. ingredients) was considerably less for the group lunches than it was for the individual lunches. an easy way to understand this is this: the lunches from the first study tended to be purchased as finished items, not ingredients. costs that are not included when purchasing ingredients, such as labor, are included in the cost of a meal. when we purchase ingredients from a grocery store (or wherever), you’re not paying for those extra costs and you’re getting more of whatever that ingredient is than you would by purchasing it in a meal. more of something means more people can be fed, possibly through more meals. lunch was supplied entirely through leftovers on the thursday of the second study, something that did not happen at all during the first study.

i will admit this second study was imagined partly out of boredom. (and if you think about it, comfort foods, such as birthday cakes, and candies are a way in which we relieve office tedium – see warming foods.) but a good part also came from the sense of disconnect there seems to be between our work selves and our personal lives. truly it seems odd that we separate ourselves into these two separate categories in the first place. the people we work with and the place we spend the most time in these days is the work sphere. and, especially after all schooling is done, most of the people we meet and interact with we meet through our work. (unless, of course, you troll bars after hours.) so why exactly do we eat so differently and separate ourselves so decisively from the people around us?

a good, if faulty, explanation, i think, is the vague idea that we pick our friends, not our coworkers. we are contractually obligated to be in our place of work. yet, we don’t choose our family, and we eat with them around a table (at least at holiday times). and the people we work with often become our friends, be it out of shared experiences or sentiments. so, in terms of an excuse, it’s not a very good one.

during the second study, two interesting things happened. the first was a general sense of goodwill. sharing food and finding different ways to prepare it in the office was fun. it helped break up the day a bit more and there was a sense of excitement about how each dish might turn out. participation also drew out conversation, primarily about food, but also describing personal experiences.

the second interesting bit was the moocher. (such a technical term, i know.) a non-participating coworker, who shall remain initial-less, took to scavenging from the meals. as someone who regularly does not think to help prepare foods for birthday or holiday celebrations and who regularly takes most lunches out of the office, this person had not mentioned anything about wanting to participate in the study. the question quickly became one of whether to confront the situation or not. the overall decision was to let it go as there was enough food to share, though the lack of respect was widely mentioned as having become a prominent quality of this person and was mentioned again when, on the fifth day, the afore-mentioned person was the only lunch attendee not to contribute to the thanksgiving lunch.

looking at this, perhaps one of the reasons why communal lunches are not a mainstay in offices or other places of business is because of the many ways in which we use food choices and sharing (or the lack of) as character defining qualities. if we think back to kindergarten, some of us mastered the art of sharing and some of us did not. and some of us only mastered one part of the sharing process – giving or taking. in childhood, sharing is often exemplified through food, such as sharing a dessert or trading lunch items. taking those tools into the work force, where lunch is perhaps the only time of day we don’t have to follow (as many) outwardly imposed rules – why share when you can hoard?

i will admit, this isn’t much of a conclusion. and i do thank you for at least attempting to follow my train of thought over this office eating disorder that seems to be, at least for now, a staying force. the truth is, with such brief glimpses into what currently is the mainstay – i.e., the first study – and what could be a mainstay with a bit of effort – the second study – it’s difficult to say much of value. perhaps, given a work community that was willing and could dedicate more time to such a communal food project, some insights of value could be obtained.