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Oh, for a Table to Eat On

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

I was hungry and between flights at Atlanta's airport, "the world's busiest." So I wandered the corridor looking for a clean place to sit and eat something not dripping in grease.

There was no such place in Terminal D. The "restaurants" were crowded bars with few seats, soiled tabletops and junk-food menus. I did, however, find a Wolfgang Puck kiosk, at which I bought a quinoa and baby kale salad.

The salad was good, but to eat it, I first had to find an empty seat in the crowded waiting area. My hands held the plastic container. The polystyrene foam coffee cup was wedged between me and the armrest.

All around, other passengers balanced waxed cardboard food baskets threatening to bend at any moment and spill their contents on the floor. Some struggled to neatly remove the plastic-coated paper covering their sandwich wraps -- while walking.

That's the craziness of "dining" in America these days. At the high end, you have aesthetes groveling for tables at hot restaurants, worshipping celebrity chefs and seeking ways to "ramp up," "do a riff on" or otherwise turbocharge classic dishes.

At the lower end, you have irony. As the options include fresher and better-prepared fare, the dining conditions turn junkier. A table to eat on has become a luxury.

Hail the upscale food trucks now parked for lunch in many business districts. They serve clever tacos, innovative couscous and awesome Asian fusion. But where do you eat these things? Perhaps on a park bench, weather permitting, or, less gracefully, sitting on public stairs.

Food carts and eating on the run are nothing new. But praise for a higher cuisine must be tempered by the dismally lower standards by which we consume it.

Of course, many workers just bring the containers back to the office and eat off their desk. That has its own problems. Experts on worker burnout recommend going elsewhere for lunch.

There's also the unpleasantness: sweeping lettuce shards off the surface where papers normally go, typing on a slimy keyboard, smelling lunch till quitting time via fragrant wastebaskets.

Back at my quinoa/baby kale salad, opening the plastic box was just the start. Inside were three little plastic containers holding salsa, tiny nuts and the dressing. You see, one has to assemble the salad.

The dressing, of course, had to be shaken, the result being a dribble down the hand. I used the napkin to clean the mess (while somehow pinning down the plastic "tableware"). But to get at it, I first had to extricate the flimsy plastic fork and knife that such napkins are usually rolled around.

No one here is demanding candlelight, though in "Mad Men" days, fine dining was easy to come by at airports. And let the record show that at least one decent eatery exists at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, according to the latest issue of Conde Nast Traveler magazine. It is One Flew South, in Terminal E.

Problem is, one does not casually abandon one's corridor in a sprawling airport that uses trains to transport people between terminals. One wants the security of knowing that the gate can be reached in 10 minutes. As noted above, I was in Terminal D.

My thesis may be all wet. Perhaps there really isn't a market for middle-class, table-centric dining at airports. Or perhaps passengers have been so beaten down by the pitiless packing of seats in economy class they don't feel entitled to demand anything.

Again, we're not asking for the moon. Just a table at which to eat a meal. Even prisoners get that.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

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