Food at Work

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On a recent episode of The Office, the secretary, Pam, is charged by management to keep an eye on her boss, Michael (Steve Carell), recording his every move. This grows difficult because the day she’s supposed to do this is Pretzel Day—a man comes once a year to the office with a pretzel cart, and everyone in the building lines up for fresh, hot pretzels. Michael spends his entire day waiting in line.

The paradox here—that Michael spends his entire day at work doing something that he could do much more quickly if he weren’t at work—brings to light the way food operates for most white collar workers in America. It’s a necessary respite, an almost all-consuming need for pleasure that makes the hours of repetitive typing, e-mailing, and phone-answering tolerable. Food is the carrot that dangles in front of the donkey: It’s what gets us through the first few hours of the day (where will we go to lunch?) and what gets us through the second half of the day, too (what will we eat for dinner?).

Thinking about food at work accounts for the popularity of food blogs (especially blogs like San Francisco's Burrito Eater or New York City's Midtown Lunch that reveal places to eat near the office), the expansion of easy home-cooking shows (a 30-minute meal after an eight-hour day has its appeal), and the escalation of normal work fare (coffee and muffins) to more refined options (lattes and scones). My friend Lisa’s office gets bakery deliveries that include pretzel croissants and tubs of lychee fruit. Other friends, such as D., have to plan office birthday parties on a regular basis because her co-workers demand a moment for cake and soda at least once a week. These small doses of food help keep the people happy, and staying happy at work is something many struggle to do.

Case in point, Lisa once decided to bake cookies for her friend’s birthday at work. She recounts the story on IM:

Lisa: i brought in cookies for my friend's birthday
Lisa: and i put them on the file cabinet near my desk that is in a frequently passed area so that everyone could enjoy them
Lisa: my boss came by in the morning and took one
Lisa: and didn't actually say anything to me
Lisa: then five minutes later he called the girl who sits next to me
Lisa: and told her to bring all the cookies into his office
Lisa: and she told me that he asked for them all
Lisa: and i was like "umm... those aren't his cookies and he didn't actually even say thank you for the one he already ate... that is not cool"
Lisa: especially since the guy whose birthday it was hadn't come in to work yet
Lisa: so i went to his office to reclaim them
Lisa: except his door was closed and he was meeting with two other people (both from our company) and sharing my cookies with them
Lisa: and then his door finally opened
Lisa: and i went to get them
Lisa: but he wasn't in his office
Lisa: so i just went in and took them back
Lisa: and i passed him in the hallway on the way back to my desk
Lisa: and said "I'm taking my cookies back"
Lisa: and he just sort of grunted at me and kept walking.

Her boss was subsequently fired (for unrelated reasons)—still, a small victory for food in the workplace.

Actually, the bureaucracy that Lisa describes speaks to the larger issue when it comes to food at work: (big word alert!) institutionalization. Work, like school, camp, and prison, is an institution. Institutions, as I learned in a law school psychology class (I got a C in the class so don’t take what I’m saying too seriously) operate like mothers: feeding, nurturing, and structuring the day for the “children.” People who enjoy institutions tend to have oral personalities—they like to be nurtured—and it makes sense, then, that people at work crave food.

Doesn’t it feel special at the office when someone brings in gourmet doughnuts? Moreso than if you went to the gourmet doughnut shop by yourself and had one? That’s because it’s happening within the walls of an institution. It’s like your mother letting you stay up past your bedtime or your teacher giving you a free homework pass. The context is what gives you that rush: It’s the rush of momentary liberation, a freedom that seems otherwise unattainable.

I never understood the power of food at work until I, myself, was at work at a law firm in Los Angeles. The coffee at this office was terrible. They had this machine where you inserted little packets of your choosing into a slot and then hot water came down and brewed you an individual cup. I hated it (though many people liked it). And though they did bring in doughnuts every day, after a while, the thrill of doughnuts grew old.

Since this was a period in my life when I was discovering cooking, I decided one night to make a mango cake from one of Sara Moulton’s cookbooks. The kitchen where I lived (a tiny apartment complex for actors in Burbank) was ill-equipped, and I barely had enough equipment to cut the mangos and mix the batter. But I finished the cake and it tasted good—really good—and I thought I’d take a few pieces to work.

I wrapped these pieces in aluminum foil, put them in a plastic bag, and took them into my cubicle. I didn’t know many other people yet—I had just a few friends and these were the ones I gave the cake to.

I may as well have sent “I hate you notes” to everyone else. Word quickly spread about my cake, and interns began popping up at my desk. “I hear you made cake,” they said.

“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry there isn’t any left.”

The looks they gave me were death glares. It was like bringing a few bottles of water into the desert and tossing them off casually to the parched people closest to you.

“Next time make enough for everyone,” one of the senior associates snapped later in the day.

Yikes. I learned my lesson. I gave up law and decided to become a writer. Now I’m my own boss, and I reward myself with food the same way I rewarded myself with food in an office, only I won’t spend the whole day waiting in line for a pretzel because it’s my time I’d be wasting. I suppose that’s ultimately how food relates to work: When you’re working for others, it’s time you get to take back for yourself. To plant your ass in a chair for eight or more hours a day entitles you to coffee, cookies, and cake. If your boss takes them away, you storm the Bastille and demand them back. “Let us eat cake,” should be the rallying cry.

The evidence suggests that a little food goes a long way at work.