When I asked Krishnendu Ray, a food-studies scholar at NYU, about dietary variety, he said: “Newness or difference from the norm is a very urban, almost postmodern, quest. It is recent. It is class-based.” So, when accounting for the totality of human experience, it is the variety-seekers—not the same-lunchers—who are the unusual ones.
I should reveal that my interest in this subject is not purely philosophical. Nearly every workday for the past five or so years, sometime during the 1 o’clock hour, I have assembled a more or less identical plate of food: Bean-and-cheese soft tacos (topped with greens, salt, pepper, and hot sauce), with baby carrots, tempeh, and some fruit on the side. And almost invariably, I see the same colleague in our communal kitchen, who asks with delight, “Joe, what are you having for lunch today?” The types of bean and cheese rotate, as does the fruit—which depends on the season—but I do not inform my co-worker of these variations when I laugh off her very clever and funny question.
The people I talked with recounted similar experiences of having co-workers harmlessly joke about their meals, like “How was that sandwich today, Vern? Did you use crunchy or plain?” Currie Lee’s former colleagues, aware that she adored horses, found her regular meal particularly amusing, saying things like “Oh, there’s Currie with her oats.”
Lee thought these comments were just regular workplace small talk. But perhaps there is more to them, and eating the same thing each day reveals something deeper about who people are, or at least perceived to be. Amanda Respers, the yearlong eater of salads, says that “we bring a little bit of home when we eat lunch at work,” and naturally people’s outside-of-work identities are a subject of interest. What does eating the same thing each day say, then? “No offense, but it gives the impression that you’re a little bit boring,” she says.
Personally, I think Respers is on to something, though I’d draw a slightly different conclusion. The daily rituals of office life are characterized by their monotony and roteness, and bringing a different lunch each day is a sunny, inspired attempt to combat all the repetition. I do genuinely appreciate the optimism of those attempts. But in my mind, eating the same thing for lunch each day represents a sober reckoning with the fundamental sameness of office life. It seems like an honest admission that life will have some drudgery in it—so accept that and find joy elsewhere instead of forcing a little bit of novelty into a Tupperware and dragging it along on your commute.
But I am probably overthinking this. Ultimately, I am partial to Vern Loomis’s analysis of what prompted his co-workers to poke fun at his peanut-butter sandwich: “Maybe [they did so] just out of good humor, or maybe guilt that they’re not eating as healthy—that they’re eating a greasy burger or something—or going out and spending $15 for a lunch when mine only cost 80 cents.”
“Jealousy,” he concluded. “I think it’s jealousy.”