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Jocelyn Hsu / Spoon
Life

A Love Letter to Buttered Noodles

In the back party room of Pie in the Sky Pizza, I sat along the edge of a table occupied by my middle school dance team. Twenty girls in matching sequin tops and their moms, all loudly shouting over each other over the Christmas songs softly playing on the radio. As the waitress made her way around the table, everyone ordered pizza one-by-one as she made tally marks for cheese versus pepperoni on her thin notepad. When she finally approached me, I broke the chain of repetitive orders and asked, “Could I have the kids spaghetti with butter only, please?”


meat cheese pizza on wood plate
Photo by Jakub Kapusnak from Foodies Feed

From Pie in the Sky Pizza—the most popular after-school spot in Franklin, Tennessee—to cheap Sbarro takeout in the Orlando International Airport to fine dining at restaurants whose names I couldn’t pronounce in Florence, Italy, I’ve uttered those nine words more times than I could possibly count in my 19 years of life.

While it might not be the most sophisticated dish, spaghetti with butter—and the occasional side of parmesan cheese—has served as a constant, delicious, and comforting meal throughout my life. Thanks to it, over the course of my life I have had to learn not to stress over ordering food that might be a bit out of the ordinary at restaurants.

When I was in elementary school, waiters would accept my request for plain pasta with a quick nod, asking if I wanted the complimentary drink with the meal and offering up a small side of fries.

However, by the time I was in fifth grade and had sprouted up to nearly 5’6’’ and towered over most of my friends, I got a different reaction. While my 5’1’’ friends continued to order off kids’ menus with ease, for me, waiters pointed to the menu in confusion, asking if I wanted the adult-sized penne alfredo instead.

Logically, I knew that I was still fine to order pasta off the children’s menu; I wouldn’t eat anything else, I was paying for what I was eating, and I always tipped.

But I lived in constant fear of sassy waiters saying “no” or messing up my requests. In an advice column, satirical food columnist The Salty Waitress told people ordering off the kids’ menu, “You look a little tacky, doll,” and advised going to different restaurants.

In middle school, there reached a point where I was so nervous about ordering and facing judgment from servers, like the Salty Waitress columnist, that I would try to avoid any activities that involved eating. I left sleepovers before breakfast, skipped team dinners, and only ate at restaurants like Pie in the Sky where I knew the menu by heart and most of the staff by name.

According to anxiety advice blogger Taylor J of Plenty of Flak, this stress was not unique to me. “Anxiety while ordering food over the phone is caused by performance anxiety and a subsequent fear of being judged,” she wrote in 2020. “This fear is common and occurs more frequently in people that suffer from social anxiety.”


woman on phone in a coffee shop
Photo by Averyanovphoto from Pixabay

Taylor detailed how she practiced her pizza order in her head before calling for delivery, repeating the words over and over until she was sure she wouldn’t mess up what she wanted.

Other testimonials on her blog advised researching restaurants’ menus before going, so diners can be sure of what they’re getting and how to order before even arriving.

A statistic from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America said that around 40 million people in America suffer from some form of anxiety that makes simple situations, such as ordering an out of the ordinary meal, difficult.

Combined with CNBC reports that an increasing number of Americans are spending money on eating out in 2019, this means the discomfort of ordering at restaurants has become nearly unavoidable for millions of Americans.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has upended all of these trends of eating out at restaurants as states have imposed various orders either closing restaurants down or limiting indoor capacity. Instead of dining in, people have been encouraged to either take their food to-go or delivered or simply make homemade family meals to eat.

Even at home, I was always the least adventurous food-wise of my family. My mom took on the burden of boiling me a bowl of spaghetti every night ever since seven-year-old me decided that I would be the first vegetarian in the family (she did try to force me to finish my dinner before leaving the table for a while, but I was willing to sit up all night if it meant never having to taste the horrible texture of chicken nuggets again). While my mom and brother experimented with spices and new flavors, I would experiment with different types of smooth noodles, sometimes spicing it up by eating angel hair or linguine pasta instead of my favorite Barilla brand spaghetti.


Jason Briscoe
Jason Briscoe / Unsplash

This past year, after COVID-19 sent me from Boston back home to Tennessee, I took command of cooking dinner for my mom, brother, and me. I didn’t mind cooking chicken parmesan or pizza for them as long as my mom kept the pantry constantly stocked with boxes of spaghetti for me. I found the routine of water, boil, pasta, strain, butter, and eat comforting as I repeated the same steps every evening in my strange new routine of college classes remote from home.

Nearly seven years prior, back at the middle school dance table, the other moms had often told my mom to wait and see me grow out of my love for routine and picky eating by the time I left for college. They were convinced that I would follow their children’s paths and miraculously grow adult-sized taste buds that could scoff down all the fancy foods and sauces in the world.

Both my mom and those other parents quickly realized that this was not going to happen any time soon. It became like second nature for those same well-meaning dance moms to check before every team meal and ask, “Did we order something for Grace?”

At the same time, my dance coaches switched from Papa John’s to Jet’s Pizza brand for pizza parties so that they could order cheesy breadsticks on the side for me. Despite being only one person out of hundreds on the team, they took the time to make sure I was included and would always have something to eat at gatherings throughout middle school and high school.

Their willingness to adapt helped me get more and more comfortable with ordering simple foods like plain spaghetti with butter while eating out in groups. I no longer felt like I had to practice apologizing to the waiter for being an annoying customer before even arriving at the restaurant.

Today in 2021, COVID-19 has changed the world as we know it. I no longer have to worry about ordering at restaurants because, for the time being, people are no longer allowed inside most restaurants. Places like Trident Booksellers and Cafe in Boston have shifted to digital menus and online ordering for in-store dining, and others have switched to delivery and pick-up options only.


Takeout
Photo by Kelly Sikkema from Unsplash

Despite the craziness of this year, spaghetti with butter has remained here for me. While the world outside has shut down, I’ve stayed inside with a warm bowl of spaghetti with butter.

And no one else is here to even question why I’ve been eating the exact same meal since I was 4-years-old.

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Originally from Nashville, TN, Grace is a junior at Boston University double majoring in media science and economics with minors in international relations and French. She can be found quoting Disney movies, defending country music, and searching for the city's best iced vanilla lattes.
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