A few years ago, I worked at a law firm in the Financial District. Sometimes, I’d bring my lunch from home — typically a sandwich or some leftover pasta, invariably an uninviting shade of its dinner-time self. More often than not though, I’d pick up food from the one of the delis, steam table salad bars, or assorted take-out spots studding the blocks winding around the 30-story office building where I worked. Save for the occasional hike up the hill to Chinatown or Ferry Building sojourn, by and large, this micro-community of eats was it for me. There was a San Francisco Soup Company outpost next to the lobby. I frequently enjoyed the chicken tortilla soup, usually in a bread bowl. There was a sandwich shop clinging to the other side of the building. I liked how the owner sliced avocados for my turkey sandwich: he popped out the pit, made six swift incisions, and fanned the contents out like waves along the expanse of a split dutch crunch roll caked in mayo. Then, both above and below layers of tomato, red onion, lettuce, and halved banana peppers, he carefully folded sheets of watery turkey so no errant bits flapped over the sides. The cross-section was beautiful, like stained glass, quite Scanwich-worthy. The sandwich, of course, tasted like most you get downtown for $5.25. I tried many others, and while a few slightly farther-flung establishments stood out for their fresh-carved leg meat, decent tomatoes, free cups of coleslaw, and the like, I went there again and again — because I appreciated how the man sliced avocados, because the price was right, and, most importantly, because I could leave my desk, zip down the elevator, get a football-sized sub, and slip back into the confines of my closet-like office before a YouTube clip finished buffering.
There were also the self-service salad bars: piles of faux-fancy greens and their common accoutrements — bacon bits, squishy cherry tomatoes, pre-packaged croutons, and drippy canned beans — alongside lamp-warmed tubs of sorry-looked ravioli bathed in thin sauce, dried-out roasts, and other lackluster entrees, bacteria-friendly, all conveniently sold by the ounce. Despite my reoccurring health concerns, these places terrorized my wallet more often than my digestive tract. I’d go, stack a few deceptively heavy items in a plastic container, add a tuft or two of lettuce, grab a roll, and head over to the weigh station, where the listless cashier would declare, to my shock and horror, that I now owed upwards of $10 to the awful enterprise’s greedy proprietor, money I could have put towards three days’ worth of decent bread and cheese — plus a few cold cans of beer after work.
Office workers are captive diners. Since people will pay more for convenient bad food in the middle of the day, lunch spots charged with feeding the downtown drones know their registers will ring regardless of how good their wares are. For every self-described foodie frantically mining for diamonds in the roughest of roughs, there are a dozen people who, at least for an hour or so, don’t care.
A Lee’s Deli. Photo by Aimee Shapiro
I once found bugs of indeterminable type floating in a huge styrofoam cylinder of wonton soup from Lee’s, that ubiquitous chain of dirty delis with the heinous red signs and peanut butter sandwiches for $2.75. After pouring the half-gallon of buggy broth down the drain and rinsing out my mouth with diet Dr. Pepper, I telephoned the more seasoned co-worker who’d recommended I try the joint in the first place. She screeched over the phone: “Dude, you’re not supposed to get the soup!” She emailed a few minutes later to say the salad bar was off-limits too — I could go only for sandwiches, and just specific ones at that: Nothing involving meat, fish, or eggs rendered into salad form; nothing served hot. Another time, I ordered two slices of mushroom pizza from a weird cafe around the corner offering nearly every sort of lunch-like dish an unimaginative person might ponder gobbling. The guy behind the counter — definitely not a pizzaiolo — slipped the skinny, grease-mottled triangles into a to-go box of flat-screen proportions adorned with the visage of a portly, mustachioed man in a floppy chef’s hat. One of the partners stood next to me on the elevator back up, and I, a little embarrassed, sweating profusely from the heat emanating off the gigantic pizza box, could have sworn he was smirking. The head partner at this firm was a older man on the brink of retirement. On my second day of work, his secretary pulled me aside in the hallway and whispered that he hated the smell of other people’s food — if I wanted to eat anything with a remotely pervasive odor at my desk, I’d need to be careful and keep the door closed so as not to incite his wrath. The head partner and I never actually spoke, but once I turned the corner of our shared hallway too quickly and almost ran into him — holding in two hands a plastic bag sticky with fish sauce oozing from a carton of Thai noodles wrapped inside. He must have been in a hurry because he merely grunted and shook his head briskly before clomping off.
The morning I planned to write this blog, I woke up with a sore throat and the sniffles. I took the day off work. While I no longer toil in the upper reaches of a downtown office building, it felt disingenuous to write about eating at work when I was actually in bed, re-watching “Miller’s Crossing,” scooping peach sorbet right out of the container. I started thinking about foods we eat when we’re fighting a cold. Some people don’t eat at all; others eat more than usual, seeking out remedies via sustenance in the form of garlic, citrus, dark mineral-rich greens, and bright red berries.
Like many, I crave soup when I’m ill, particularly those of a brutally spicy ilk. Until the restaurant churlishly (and curiously) tried to cut costs by halving the size of its soup containers, I was a big fan of Spicy Bite‘s Indo-Chinese hot-and-sour, a fusion-y concoction L. E. Leone once deemed “the spiciest, zaniest, most medicinal, and most maddeningly delicious bowl of soup ever.” Most recently, I’ve sought out the Lao-style chicken soup from East Oakland’s Green Papaya Deli. The stock for this magnificent soup may have been leeched from the house-sized chicken in “George’s Marvelous Medicine” — rich and wholly enveloping, as if a free-range fowl’s most sparkling, soulful essence could be poured forth, pumped up through J. Mascis’ wall of amps, and compressed down again to pool impatiently within the confines of an 8 oz. bowl. It arrives speckled with thin-sliced green onions and bony bits of bird floating throughout, shot through with enough lime to bring a sour yet warm catch to the back of the throat — a wrecking ball for the curtains of mucus in your chest and the helmet of ache encircling your head. Of course, if you’re well enough to take BART to Oakland in search of soup, you’re probably well enough to go to work and get paid to sip a lesser tonic and nap under the desk.
The Sentinel. Photo by Aimee Shapiro
When we’re home sick, we’re comforted by routine — making smoothies, taking baths, chugging whiskey, and getting soup delivered. When we make it to work, we’re governed by habit too. Apart from the way we like our avocados sliced, how we spend our lunch hour says a lot about our priorities. I’ve gone out of my way for The Sentinel‘s delicious chickpea sandwich, but I’m too lazy and otherwise preoccupied to make a habit of it. Some people like to get together for lunch, to sit outside, eat something nice, and momentarily forget all about fuzzy computer screens and conference calls. Addicted to Facebook, others grab whatever’s most convenient and haul it back to the office to spill over the computer keyboard. Some people run errands on their breaks because they know they won’t have time after work. I used to religiously play basketball at the Y.M.C.A. during lunch. I’d leave at 11:45 a.m. and rush back by 1:20 p.m., still damp from the shower, wondering, almost on a daily basis, whether or not anyone important might have noticed my lengthy absence. Most days, I’d enter the lobby slowly, glancing around furtively, ready to fake a hobble should a supervising attorney approach and ask where I’d been for so long. Thankfully, I never had to stoop so low. I lived in a state of heightened anxiety, but at least the food was free. Yes, that’s right — the food was free. About halfway through my tour of duty at this office, I learned why no one ever seemed to actually eat lunch until after two. Every day, in at least two or three conference rooms spread out across three floors, groups of lawyers gathered for midday meetings. Lunch was inevitably served — usually Chinese or catered deli sandwiches. When the meetings let out, the leftovers were supposed to be ferried to one of three main kitchens where they’d be divvied up by employees who happened to be passing through. In reality, however, receptionists with favored perspectives would send out curt email bulletins to a select group of staffers once the conference room doors had been flung open and the parade of suits had disappeared. In that short window of time — after the lawyers had left, before an administrative assistant could arrive with a cart — scavengers would descend. Once I learned this, I wheedled my way on to the list and made the next evolutionary leap — from scrounging leftovers, to lazily buying takeout, to finally, gloriously, sustaining myself on food I did not pay for.
And then I quit.