How to Practice True Economy

For those who have miraculously found their way above the flood line,

to rest for a moment, while the waters recede.

— Joel Matthew Gunderson, “A Last Level of Anxiety”

While we waited for our menus, my ten-year-old daughter and I marveled at the elegant dining room.  We had been seated out of the way, in a corner, by the service station, at the last empty table.  In the center of the room three monolithic glass vases overflowing with white orchids towered above the marble-topped credenza.  Behind the flowers, filling the back wall, hung the grand painting of choppy ocean waves; a roiling green sea.  The wait grew long.  The room was busy, and I counted at least a dozen service staff in dark suits, including three sommeliers wearing large silver tastevins strung like medals around their necks.  


Our server finally arrived with menus, and launched into a rapid explanation of the four-course option; speaking, it seemed, primarily to my daughter, who sat next to me at the round, cloth-covered table.  Choose one from here, two from here, one from here.  He swept his index finger through the air just above her menu, highlighting each section: the almost raw, the barely touched, the lightly cooked.  

My daughter’s eyes widened with concern as he sped along.  She watched him, listening seriously, and now and again she stole a furtive glance at the columns of unfamiliar words on her menu.  

“We’d like to do the full tasting menu, please,” I said.  

The server looked up at me, his eyebrows furrowing slightly.  My daughter relaxed a little in her chair.  

“The eight courses,” I said.  

“Yes,” he said, taking back our menus.  He seemed surprised. “The Chef’s Tasting Menu.  Certainly.” 


The Spring Break trip to New York was supposed to be my daughter’s big Christmas present.  I had included everything she wanted to do and see:  the garment district, the Met, MOMA, Economy Candy, a Jazz at Lincoln Center matinee, Times Square, slices from Joe’s and also John’s of Bleecker Street, the Interactive Spy Museum, the Statue of Liberty.  

“Are there restaurants you want to go to?” She had asked, standing beside me as I reserved tickets online.  

There were.  New York was a veritable sea of Michelin-stars.  I booked everything I could.  


We landed just before midnight and cabbed into the city.  Too excited to sleep, we dropped our bags at the hotel, and then skipped up Broadway hand in hand, in search of late-night pizza.  The next day, my daughter woke with a burgeoning upper-respiratory infection.  Cough, fever, sore throat, general malaise.  She remained in bed for the next four days.  Those mornings, I woke with the sun, showered, fixed myself a weak espresso from the groaning plastic machine across from the bathroom, and then arranged myself in the single chair in the corner of the room with Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries propped open on my lap, waiting for her to stir.  Sometimes I leaned back, gazing up from our fourth-story window to locate, between the tall midtown buildings, the single visible patch of bright blue sky.  I had small hopeful thoughts:  maybe today we would make it to the museum before they closed; maybe she would feel well enough later to walk three blocks to dinner.  But every day she woke miserably sick.  I made my cancellation calls without betraying a trace of disappointment.  After all, it was she who was ill, and of course, the trip had been for her.  An old friend of mine, who lived Uptown, and whose own daughter was applying to colleges, swung by the hotel lobby with a care package of colored pencils, sketch books, and card games.  She said, “Dude, the thing they never tell you is that a vacation with kids is not a vacation.  It is just your life somewhere else.” 


On the last full day of our trip, my daughter woke feeling well enough to get up.  Her fever had broken.  Still faintly wan, she drank her orange juice and ate a muffin, and we left the tiny hotel room together for the first time that week.  She was determined to visit the Statue of Liberty before we flew home to Oregon.  On the train to Battery Park, she held my hand and curled her cheek into my shoulder, her eyes squeezed shut.  The train screeched through the turns on its rails.  The ferry ride was not too windy.  The rain held off.  A gull landed near us on the ship’s top deck, catching a ride across the water.  My daughter snapped photos, one after the next, checking the exposure and the focus before moving on to another subject.  The salt air lifted strands of her long, mouse-brown hair.  

Back in our room after visiting the Statue, she said, “I don’t want you to cancel dinner.” Her cheeks were still rosy from the ferry ride.

“It’s going to be pretty late at night,” I said, hesitant.  I knew she knew which restaurant it was:  I had saved the best for last.  She knew about its sixth four-star review in The New York Times, and she knew I had been trying for two years to get a reservation before finally lucking into this one.  Three days earlier, I had wondered out loud about canceling, back when there was still time to avoid incurring the two hundred dollar cancellation fee.  I had held out hope.  I needed something to look forward to.

“It’s fine.” She said, waving me off.  “All I did this trip was sleep.  I’m still basically on Pacific Time anyway.”  

This was true.  She had slept in until eleven or twelve every day.  


In the taxi to the restaurant, I said to her, both as confession and disclaimer, having finally allowed myself to begin to thrill at the idea of a real fine dining meal in a real dining room after a week of take-out, “I struggle, to a degree, with this kind of food tourism, because the dining experience is inherently more transactional.  You know what I mean?”

“Yes,” she said.  She was used to this: it was a favorite topic of mine.   

“Transactional partly because it’s expensive, and also because we don’t live here.  The opposite of relational.  They don’t know us.”  

“It’s not my favorite,” she said, looking out the window.  

“It’s not mine either.  I mean, I’m excited for dinner, obviously.  But what I’m really fascinated by is the hospitality… especially in a Michelin 3.  Making people feel taken care of and like they belong is a crucial part of the experience.  So I’m curious to see how it will play out.”

“Hmm,” said my daughter.  

“You know what I mean, right?  You know the feeling I’m talking about… you know how good it feels to be a regular.  A great dining experience isn’t just about the food.  There’s always that thing that makes you never want to leave… that warmth and generosity.  That homeyness.  And a restaurant at this level is no exception.  Just different.”

“Restaurants should be about connection,” she replied.  She reached into the pocket of my suit jacket for the slender leather-bound notebook I carry for taking notes.  She flipped to the back to see if there were blank pages she could use for drawing later, and then handed it back. “It feels homey because you know the people and they know you, and so they treat you like it’s your home.”

“For sure,” I said.  I thought for a moment. “Is this your first tasting menu?  Small plates where the chef decides what you eat?”

“I don’t know,” she said.  “Maybe?  I think so.”


Now, seated as she was in the soft upholstered chair next to mine; in her long, sage-colored dress and brand new cream blazer, she looked poised.  She undid the buttons on her blazer using both hands.  

“Oops,” she said, blushing. “I meant to do this before I sat down.”

She marveled at the large, pebbled-edged charger before her, and fingered its gold rim.  A moment later, it was lifted away, making room for a narrow white platter holding the first three amuses

I fell into the briefest trance, spellbound just by looking at the first bites we had been served.  I glanced over at her.  She poked at her crudo.  She seemed to be trying carefully to wipe the cucumber foam off each tiny piece of fish with her fork.

Not a vacation, just my life somewhere else.  That was right, and it didn’t feel bad.  I didn’t begrudge it.  It was, I registered with a small amount of shock, exactly what I wanted.  I had missed my daughter while she was sick.  There is a wonderful passage in Bill Buford’s introduction to M.F.K. Fisher’s translation of The Physiology of Taste, where in talking about Food, he says, “It is identity, and culture, and history.  It is science, and nature, and botany.  It is the earth.  It is our family, our philosophy, our past.  It is the most important matter in our lives.  … But it is also just dinner.  It means nothing.” That’s what I wanted.  I just wanted to eat dinner with my kid.


“What do you think?” I asked her.

“Eh,” she said.  

“That’s alright,” I said.  “You don’t have to eat anything you don’t like.  Not all of this stuff is going to be your jam.  The tasting menu required full-table participation, so well, you’re getting what I’m getting.  I want to thank you again for letting me do this.  And, I mean, it is considered some of the best seafood in the country, so, at least you know you’re getting the good stuff.”

She smiled at me and shrugged.  

“I got to go to the Statue of Liberty.  This is your thing,” she said.  She picked up the miniature salad roll and took a dainty bite.  Her eyes moved slowly back and forth as she examined the flavors.  

“This is good,” she confirmed.  She spooned up some of the lobster bisque, and tested it with the pointed tip of her tongue.  She slipped the spoon into her mouth, and groaned with pleasure.  Her face spread into a rosy-cheeked swoon, and she swayed a little in her seat.  “This is so good,” she said.  “I love the texture.  And the tomatoeyness.”

I grinned.  I reached over and scooped up her uneaten crudo with my own spoon, finishing it inconspicuously in two bites.  

The men at the table behind my daughter shouted over each other, drunk.  Four servers approached their table with four identical plates:  the next course.  At the exact same moment, the servers stepped forward, and in one seamlessly choreographed motion, they set the plates before the men, who did not stop yelling.  

The first savory course was tuna tartare: a pair of identical ruby-colored rectangles of finely chopped fish beneath paper-thin sourdough crackers and glistening egg-yolk-orange pieces of sea urchin.  I divided each of mine in half with my fork before eating them.  I spooned up the golden broth and a few chives from the bottom of the dish.  My daughter prodded the tartare with the tines of her fork.  She looked up at me; her expression pinched.

I nodded.  “I’ll eat it,” I said, spooning the remaining jus from my plate.

She looked relieved.  I ate hers in three bites.  

“If you’re still hungry after,” I said, “I’ll get you anything you want.  We knew it might go like this.”

She smiled and gestured to the bread she had been served.  “I like the baguette,” she said.

When the next dish arrived, she used the side of her fork to shove the generous quenelle of Osetra caviar to the side so she could eat the scallop below.  I rescued the caviar with my spoon.  Beneath it lay a pool of pale yellow sauce Marinière, which in both color and texture resembled melted butter.  It tasted perfectly of shellfish: mussels, shallot, and white wine.  I closed my eyes, reveling in the brininess as though it were ocean air.  

My daughter said, “After three courses, I’d say pretty good so far!”  

“How are you feeling?” I asked her, “Sick at all?”

“Nope!” She said, and took a gulp of the mocktail I had ordered: ginger lemonade.  I opened my pen and eased the little notebook from my pocket.  I scratched the nib against the paper a few times, but the ink would not flow.  I discreetly licked the tip and then wrote quickly, in pale gray.

The pace of the meal was very brisk.  Our plates were cleared to make way for poached lobster, served as a composed salad.  There were slices of green grape and fennel, and also purple seaweed and tiny sea beans.  The salad was dressed with a sabayon made with verjus, the tart, faintly-sweet juice pressed from an early crop of unripened grapes.  

My daughter looked at the lobster.  

“Do I like lobster?” She whispered, leaning in.  

“It’ll be similar to the Dungeness crab we had at the coast with Syd,” I said.  “Though this is probably sweeter.  Cleaner.”

The server, having set down my dish, raised his voice over mine. 

“Sabayon,” he declared, “is a sauce made by beating egg yolks until they are light.”

“Yes,” I said, surprised at the interruption.  It felt strangely patronizing.  Maybe the tone. “Thank you.”  

Besides describing each dish, he had not spoken to us at all.  No one had.  Were other servers spending more time at their tables?  Some servers were chatting with guests.  Was it so obvious we were tourists?  Certainly, we were not regulars.  The service seemed a little cold.  A little bit impersonal.  Of course, parenting is the definition of déclassé.  I had carefully read the website ahead of time, to be sure that children her age were permitted.  Maybe it was just money.  After all, I wasn’t ordering expensive bottles of wine, and no money would be made off a ten-year-old.  But the sabayon comment still stuck out, for some reason.  Who explains sabayon but not verjus?  

I unscrewed the nib of the pen from the barrel to check the ink supply.  It was empty.  

“I liked the crab we had with Sydney,” my daughter said, picking up our conversation.  She took a bite of her lobster.  

I watched as her face puckered.  She swallowed the bite.  

“Nope,” she said, “not a fan of lobster.”  She leaned back in her seat.  She grinned.  

This was preferable to the picky phase she had gone through a few years before.  Palate, anyway, is not innate:  it is learned.  Different cultures value different flavors and textures.  What we think of as delicious is not objectively so.  Discovery of her own preferences would happen concurrently with the broadening of her palate, but the two things should not be confused or equated.

I quickly ate my lobster and then reached over to scoop up a few bites of hers, just in time to have the plate cleared.  Langoustine came next, with four leaves of mâche sticking straight up out of it, like a silly hat.  The salad greens had been splashed with some kind of off-white foam, which spread out into a darker brown vinaigrette.  I wishfully tried my pen again.  Again I licked the tip of the nib to create ink.  I managed to scribble a description of the lobster.

“What are you doing.” Declared my daughter dryly, catching me about to lick the nib again. 

“Remember when the cap of my pen came undone in my pocket the other day?  There was that stain on my jeans?  Well, I’m out of ink.”

She shook her head very slightly.  Manners.

“I’ll ask for a pen,” I said.  “There are so many people here.  Do you see our server?”

My daughter took a timid nibble of the langoustine.  To me, the dish read as mustardy and muddy, and the aged balsamic did not help.  I tried to take a big bite of hers, to get it off her plate.  But I didn’t love it, and after eating double portions of most of the menu so far, I was getting full.  

The server appeared at my daughter’s side and extended his hand, palm up.

“Are you still enjoying?” He asked.  

“Yes,” she said.  “I, uh, liked it,” she said.

“Are you finished with it?” I asked her, understanding she had not heard this particular turn of phrase.  

“Oh, oh yes I am.  Thank you.”

He cleared our plates.  I only remembered about asking for a pen after he’d walked away.

“It’s an odd expression, isn’t it?” I said.  “Are you still enjoying the dish.“ 

“What if I was never enjoying it?” She said.

“Yay gaslighting,” I said.  

I caught a glimpse of someone at the service station behind me, and addressed the server standing there.  “Pardon me, could I please borrow a pen?” 

He turned and walked the other direction.  

I furrowed my brow at my daughter.  

“It is really hard to hear in here,” she said.  “So far everyone talks really quietly, for some reason.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I noticed that, too.  Maybe it’s also all the carpet and upholstery and curtains.  Sound-dampening.”


Two servers arrived and set before us long, slender, pan-roasted filets of Dover sole, topped with sliced green olives, toasted almonds, and black trumpet mushrooms.  Each was encircled with a ring of sherry wine reduction.  My stomach hurt.  I was full.  I took a bite, trying to focus on the mild, buttery flesh and the beautiful tiny dark mushrooms.  I had to will myself to chew; a lump had formed in my throat as my body protested the gavage.  I looked at my daughter’s plate.  She was gamely examining her filet.  

“It’s like the limpest pizza,” she said, poking at the fish.  Olives and mushrooms:  her favorite toppings.  

I let the corners of my closed mouth lift in acknowledgment, pleased she was comfortable enough to poke fun, but hoping it was not overheard.  She took a little bite.  She went back to eating her baguette, and then sipped her water.  She set down her glass and patted her lips dry.  

“I mean,” she said, “What were you thinking, taking a kid who was just sick to eat seafood.“ 

I laughed out loud. 

“Fair!  Fair!” I said.  I raised my hands and pretended to shield my face.  “I’m just grateful that we could do this.  I had zero expectations about what you would or wouldn’t eat.  You know that.”

“I liked some of the things.  And that lobster bisque was one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth.”  She took another drink of water.  

I looked at her fish, intact, save for one missing bite.  I could not bring myself to reach over and eat her portion.  Why, anyway, had I been doing that?  It made sense for the things I loved, for the caviar and the butter surrounding the scallop; but I had been eating what she left from every dish.  I didn’t want it, and I certainly didn’t need it.  I was paying for it:  I could leave it.  It had never once crossed my mind that I might need to get my money’s worth: that seemed absurd.  Why, then?  Why not let it go back to the kitchen?  Yes, it was wasteful, and I felt bad about that, but she had tried everything served to her.  This was her learning experience.  She had politely abstained when she didn’t like something, which was bound to happen during a blind tasting menu.  She was a kid, and as she had pointed out herself, a kid who had been sick for a whole week.


The server returned to the table.

“Are you still enjoying your Dover sole?” He asked her.  

“No thank you, I’m finished,” she said.  

“You’re finished?” He sneered.  

“Yes, I’m good,” she answered.  

He glared at her.  He lifted her nearly-untouched dish and narrowed his eyes.  After he had lifted my plate as well, he cut his eyes at her again.  

Once he was out of earshot, and halfway across the room,  I turned to my daughter.  

“What was that?“ I said.

Before she could respond, our final savory course was set before us and explained: more fish, truffled sunchoke purée, baby root vegetables in sauce Bourguignon.  I stabbed up the baby carrots and parsnips and ate them in one bite.  I looked over at my daughter.  She was digging in heartily.  

“And this is the course you eat!  It’s good?” I asked.  

She tucked her chin, and her shoulders rose to her ears.  Her eyes darted to the floor.  “The server gave me that look and I felt like it was going on my report card,” she said, pushing around the remaining bites on the plate.  

“Babe, you don’t have to eat it,” I said.  “Only eat it if you like it, okay?”  I felt as guilty as she looked.  This was my fault.  It would not have happened if I hadn’t stopped eating her food.  But wasn’t she doing exactly what I had been doing?  I hadn’t liked it, and I had eaten it.

One of the men at the table behind her yelled, “That’s what I’m fucking talking about!  Fucking right!”

“Can you believe that fucking bullshit!” The man next to him crowed.

My daughter rolled her eyes at me.  I rolled mine back.  

The other men laughed.  The sommelier waited unregarded next to them, cradling their next bottle of wine.

“I’ll give you two hundred bucks if you turn around and tell those guys there are children present.” I said, not bothering to whisper.  She shook her head.  


The rhubarb dessert, decorated with a burgundy-colored white chocolate flower, like a five-petaled version of the Michelin-star, I missed, distracted.

My daughter breathed, “This is almost too beautiful to eat.”  

I ate it mindlessly, without tasting it at all.

“I love the snap of the chocolate shell,” she said, of the next dessert.  “It is the perfect thinness.”

I smiled at her.  

“The pistachio is so rich,” she said, “almost like citrusy or fruity.”

“Sicilian pistachios taste so different, don’t they?” I managed, taking a bite of the ice cream.

I wondered how I would talk to her later about the server.  Weren’t they such small things?  The tone?  The look?  No.  They were not small things.  

The mignardise arrived, signifying the end of the meal.  Two chocolates, a macaron, and a square of pink marshmallow.  My daughter explained the order in which she would eat them, and instructed me to do the same.  She moaned with delight at each new flavor.  


The server returned to the table and presented us with a pair of white porcelain egg cups, each holding a neatly-trimmed eggshell filled with layers of caramel, chocolate pot-de-crème, maple syrup, and a single flake of salt.  This was an off-menu dessert:  a bonus course.  I knew what it was, it was famous.  The server stood silently at the table after spieling the dish.  We waited.  And then, he leaned in close to my daughter and announced, almost inaudibly, “The Dover sole is my favorite dish.”

I stared at him with disbelief.  

He continued, “So this, you had better eat, because it is my favorite dessert.” 

I gaped, and then burst into outraged laughter.  

He turned and walked away.

“What the fuck,” I said to my daughter.  

We rode in silence back to the hotel.  I ordered her a pizza.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to eat in restaurants anymore.  Maybe I would cook at home for us for a while.  She could help me in the kitchen. While she sat at the tiny table in the corner of the hotel room and ate her slice, I folded our dirty clothing and packed it back into our suitcases.

“I should have spoken up,” I said.  “I feel guilty.”

“It’s fine,” said my daughter.

“Thank you for saying that.  It doesn’t feel fine.  I feel like I should have defended you, but from what… extra dessert?”

She rolled her eyes.  When she finished chewing, she spoke.  

“Remember how when restaurants reopened after the pandemic, you talked about servers being responsible for teaching people how to behave in public again?”

“Yeah, arbiters of social norms.  Sure.”  I zipped up her suitcase and set it by the door.  

“Uh-huh, that,” she said.  “Anyway, I don’t think that’s really a real thing.  Because if you don’t like how they’re treating you, you can leave, and go eat at a different restaurant.”

“You’re right,” I said.

“Let’s never go back.” She said.

“Never.” I agreed.

Author: `aqaq`

Tasia Bernie is an essayist, and editor of  She enjoys used bookstores, offal, and hard laughter.  She is a very good eater.  She lives with her daughter and two orange cats in Portland, Oregon.


v3 2024