The polite way to eat a hot dog

On the 100th anniversary of the World's Fair in St. Louis in 1904 you will, I trust, forgive me for devouring a hot dog right in your face. Sorry, did you find it (b-r-a-a-p) rude of me to eat in front of you? Next I suppose you'll be joining the Campaign for Courtesy. Gobble gluck munch. (Toss wrapper in street.) I am reluctant to attack fast food because it has all the wrong enemies, from demagogic politicians to humourless academics to predatory lawyers. (I somehow misplaced a cartoon of a guy blaming tobacco companies for his cancer, liquor companies for his alcoholism, fast-food companies for his obesity, then sighing: "If only I'd been there to stop me.") As for the documentary Supersize Me, I'd like to see someone eat three meals a day for a month in a fine French restaurant, say yes every time they offered dessert, and fit out the door at the end. Plus I enjoy a fat, juicy burger-and-fries combo every now and then. Still, let me tell you a tale.

When I was a teenager I thought I was cool partly because I wasn't fussy about when or where I ate. Any illusion that I was cool melted decades ago, and any desire to be cool shortly thereafter, but somehow I retained a sneaky, persistent, unexamined admiration for my hardy, adaptable willingness to eat anywhere.

Then, last November, I read an article by British commentator and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple, who said in "discussing self-restraint with a group of students a couple of years ago ... intelligent and decent young people ... I mentioned that it was once regarded in Britain as rather degraded to eat on the street: that people were expected, and expected others, to control themselves until they reached a more suitable place to eat. My students regarded this refusal to eat on the street as a weird inhibition, an utterly alien and quite unnecessary custom, bizarre and even offensive to human rights .... I'm hungry, therefore I eat; I want, therefore I have; I'm inclined, therefore I do ..."

He added that much of the litter in Britain comes from fast food (I gather Montreal has the same problem), and that "a large proportion of young Britons never eat in the company of others, except possibly in feral packs."

Suddenly I saw myself eating lunch alone at my desk, superimposed on Tumak in One Million Years B.C. scarfing his food in paranoid isolation until taught by more advanced cavemen to share his meals in both senses. You've got to hate it when you get lessons in civility from that kind of source. But the image came unbidden, and I couldn't get rid of it.

There are three main reasons why eating alone in public is rude.

First, especially in days of yore, you risked tormenting someone who was hungry but unable to afford food. (Today I suppose the politically correct might harangue you if, by not eating in public, you risked tormenting someone who was obese but unable to resist eating.)

Second, the growing popularity of fast food is a clear symptom of family breakdown, especially within, rather than of, the family structure. As Dr. Dalrymple also observes: "In Britain, the second-fattest country in the world after the United States, about half of households do not have a dining table." Eating alone in public makes you look a smug part of this mess, happy to have nowhere to call home.

Third and worst, it betokens shameless inability to resist an impulse, culinary or familial, implying overt contempt for those with whom one shares public spaces.

Which takes me back a century exactly, to the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, a spectacular expression of the spirit of the emerging age. Including sliced bread, popcorn, cotton candy and peanut butter. And three junk-food giants: Whatever their origin, it was this fair that popularized putting a hamburger patty into a bun, a wiener into a bun and ice cream into a cone.

The really distinctive thing about all three is not that they are unhealthy (though Lord only knows what went into a 1904 wiener). It's that all can be eaten without dishes or utensils; that is, while walking around. As visitors to St. Louis were encouraged to do. As the Globe and Mail quoted a food historian last winter, it was revolutionary: "Until that time, to walk around and eat away from a dining table would have been considered quite rude."

Maybe it still should be. Thomas Carlyle once told a young would-be reformer "Reform yourself. That way there will be one less rascal in the world." So my contribution to the Campaign for Courtesy founded by the late 11th Earl of Devonshire is to recognize that solitary eating in public is so rude it would offend a Hollywood Cro-Magnon. From this point forward I shall endeavour to consume hot dogs discreetly.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson