I like to think of myself as something of a foodie, having licked plates clean of everything from avgolemono soup to zeppole. And while I may need a cast iron stomach to keep down morsels like fried rattlesnake, I lack accompanying abs, buns or any other muscle of steel. Indeed, SMA can make eating difficult.
Last week, as I was leaving a seminar downtown, I turned right and saw that I was less than a block away from the tapas bar I had been dying to try for three years. I hadn’t gone before because I couldn’t find a ride; no one seemed as excited about the roasted goat cheese as I was. Now, I had the chance to go but knew there was no one to help me. Rolling to the mall’s food court was the easier option. Then again, I had just suffered through three hours of continuing legal education and deserved a treat.
BARcelona it was. I wove through the restaurant’s narrow aisle as the waitress guided me to a table in the back. She explained that the buffet had a stair — not that I would have been able to reach or even see the food from my wheelchair if I could have gotten closer — and offered to fix me a plate if I wanted that option. I asked for a bit of everything and a Coke.
I hurriedly tried to extract my silverware from its cloth napkin cocoon before the waitress returned. A fork fell out, and I figured that was good enough. The waitress brought back a huge cup full of soda, and I tried to scoot it closer, across the tabletop’s treacherous terrain of mosaic tiles and grout. A few minutes later, I got a heaping plate full of cucumber salad, olives, gazpacho and other mouth-watering bites. The waitress said that was only the salad side, and when I was ready she would bring a plate of main dishes.
Eagerly, I stabbed a chunk of potato salad. Yum. Ceasar salad. Yum. But my arm was already becoming tired. The fork was really heavy. “Excuse me!” I called as the waitress walked by. “Do you happen to have any plastic silverware?” Worried she would think OCD germophobia was an additional issue she would have to contend with, I mumbled, “It’s easier with lighter utensils.” Luckily, she returned with a packaged set. That meant I could also eat the gazpacho with a spoon rather than heave the shot glass up to my mouth.
Loaded plate two arrived shortly thereafter, with chicken curry, vegetarian lasagna, a meatball and more. There was no way I could cut the chicken, so I ate the smaller pieces. I whittled away slices of meatball. The mussel from the paella was a cruel irony. My muscles struggled a good 10 minutes to separate the meat from the shell. I achieved a messy victory just before a final course of caramel-glazed bread pudding and fresh fruit.
I knew I needed to quit eating when it became a struggle to breathe. Thoroughly satisfied, I paid the bill and rolled out. Not only did I have a delicious lunch, but I also managed to eat it by myself while avoiding a major disaster. Now that we’ve conquered the buffet, I want to share with you a few other tips I’ve picked up for different dining scenarios.
The Business Lunch. Obviously, making a good impression is crucial. In law school, the Career Center brought in etiquette experts to train us in the art of dining. Unfortunately, I had to throw their advice out the window; I can only feed myself if my elbow is on the table, and there is no way I can pass the salt.
Instead, my advice is to be as comfortable as possible in order to be as confident as possible. Arrive early to make sure you can get to your seat, and check that your footplates won’t hit the table leg. If needed, approach your table’s waiter and ask that the chef cut your food before it is served. I did this recently at a fancy hotel, and the chef rearranged the presentation on my plate. Colleagues at the table asked the waiter if they could have the same; apparently mine looked more appealing. No one knew mine was different simply because I can’t wield a knife.
The Routine Work Lunch. Degenerating muscles make me a slow eater, and one hour to get food and eat it can be tough. One option is to bring a meal from home. Not a fan of cold cuts or PB&J, I often opt to become a regular at local eateries. When I worked at the National Council on Disability, there was a Subway next door. After I started eating there two or three times each week, its staff got my order down and the process went much more quickly. Even if I got a different sub for variety, employees still knew I needed help with a straw, napkins and bringing my order to the table.
The Dinner Date. The cardinal rule here is don’t order soup. Even if it sounds tasty, to order it is to set yourself up for failure. I also don’t order food that requires the use of a knife or fingers. That often means eating fish. Moreover, because I am not a big eater (BARcelona gluttony excluded), sometimes I order an appetizer as a meal. In doing so, I avoid questions about why I don’t like what’s left on my plate and the awkwardness of asking my date to help with a doggie bag.
By following these guidelines, I can eat pretty independently. Of course, if I need help, I will ask for it. If someone offers help I don’t necessarily need, sometimes I accept it anyway. Letting someone stick my straw in my glass can help diffuse worry; I know they are willing to help, and they know I am aware they are willing to give it. With the uneasiness put aside, we can break bread and enjoy one of life’s greatest pleasures.