I nearly had a panic attack in the Which Wich in downtown Dallas earlier this year. I did not know what a Which Wich was. A Which Wich, it turns out, is a sandwich shop where you have to do everything. You have to choose the bread, then you choose the cheese, and then you choose what types of meat in what combinations, and then which toppings, and there is a dizzying array of selections grouped into opaque and impenetrable pricing patterns such that, much as with the old DC taxi zone system, you pretty much have to take their word for it when they tell you what you owe them.
I’d had a frenzied and discouraging search for non-disgusting food outlets across the whole of downtown, was running out of time, and generally in a completely frazzled headspace when I stumbled into line of Which Wich, which went out the door. Plenty of happiness studies have shown people feel better about what they’ve got when they had fewer alternatives to fret over. Which Wich don’t care. You have to pick up a brown paper bag and document your sandwich dissertation directly onto the bag and then get in line, and it was somewhere between bag retrieval and dissertation completion that I flipped.
WHAT kind of wretched place is this? I don’t understand what I am doing, I don’t know exactly what I want, I DO NOT KNOW WHICH WICH and I just want SOMEBODY to TELL me. Why should I have to decide these things? YOU’RE the food establishment, you make sandwiches ALL day, you must have given SOME thought into what delightful flavor combinations might make for appealing sandwiches – I will tell you to hold the mayo! It’s fine! But I have enough things in one day to think about and adjudicate and decide and I do not want to have to spend five minutes ruminating on sandwich construction! Just give me a good sandwich and do not ask me which wich!! I welcome the Nanny State sandwich establishment!
This aversion to choice may explain the appeal of the old Soviet milieu.
My current lunch spot is much more to my liking. It is called Paprika and a couple of Georgian ladies stand behind the counter of daily wares and tell me what I will have for lunch. They could call it THAT WICH.
It is wonderful.
“I think chicken,” I will say. Their chicken is lovely.
“No, no, no,” they will tell me. “Today we have ghomi with cheese, you must take that.” Ghomi is grits. A bit, I don’t know, carby I thought. What I thought couldn’t be farther from the point. “It’s a bit too much…” I said looking at the container brimming with goopy clumps. “It’s not too much, it’s one portion, and it’s good with spinach so how much spinach are you taking? 100g or 150?” In this I have a choice, clearly defined. “100!” I proudly agree. And then I am told to take the yeasty roll, which is French and fresh and very good.
I am always happy with their commandments. Leave these things to the specialists, I say.
Inside the office I unwrapped my wares under the vigilant glare of the cleaning lady. I feel guilty every time I breath the same air as the cleaning lady. Moving up stairs and across the room takes the breath out of her, as does lifting trash cans and bending over to sweep with those inexplicably stunted mini-brooms they use here. She moves like a woman uniquely bedeviled by the ills of this world, and all our cares are heaped upon her shoulders. So I’m kind of scared of her. I knew she had her eyes on my food.
“Ghomi!” I said smiling, showing her. She brightened at once. “It is from Samegrelo, yes?” I said, mentioning the Georgian region known for their grits. “Yes,” she confirmed, beaming.
I pulled the ghomi out of the microwave, her eyes still on me.
“One minute is not enough! Put it back in!” she announced. And so I did.
Pulling it out again, I reached for the salt and pepper in the cabinet. I’d opened up the salt and prepared to sprinkle when she sprang between the ghomi and the shaker, shielding it, her heavy panting breath forgotten for the moment. “NO salt!!!” she said.
“No? Oh.” I held up the pepper shaker. “Pepper, yes?”
“No! No no! It is not the way, I am from Samegrelo, you cannot do it.” Oh hell. It’s absurd to back down when the cleaning lady’s telling you not to salt your food, but if the seasoning’s going to be an insult to her people, you’re kind of a jerk if you push ahead. “It’s tradition!” she said.
“But I like it better that way,” I lamely protested — an argument whose irrelevance can hardly be overstated.
“Tradition,” she repeated.
And so I slunk upstairs, tail between my legs, bland old ghomi and spinach in hand. A few minutes after digging in, I heard the tell tale panting of the cleaning lady working her way up the stairs. She was walking towards me. “Oh jeez,” I thought. “She’s coming to watch me eat.”
She held a little saucer in hands and set in front of me. In it was the spicy Megrelian tomato sauce called adjika. “Adjika,” she explained. “Goes with ghomi. Eat. It will be even better. It’s tradition.”
I paused at my boss’s office after lunch. “You know,” I said, “The whole Georgian eating experience really raises a lot of interesting philosophical questions about free will.” Forget whether free will is compatible with an omniscient God. I’m not sure it’s even compatible with chicken.
He concurred. In years past, he and his wife had been in search of a hard-to-find Chinese restaurant, and every time they stopped a Georgian to ask its location, the horrified patriot redirected them at once to an acceptable Georgian restaurant. As far as I know, they never got their dim sum.