Dining out was a big deal when I was growing up. It was completely understandable for a family as large as mine to eat as economically as possible. Even so, I would have willingly traded in my eight siblings for a chance to be like those other families with three, two or even just one child, who ate out whenever they felt like it.
Instead we ate at home from large pots on the stove and dined out once in a Halley’s comet. On those occasions we were like children sitting at the adult table, unsure how to act. Our server would welcome us and ask us what we would like to drink.
“We’re fine with water,” Dad would say, answering for us all.
We followed a list of rules, the first being that we were not allowed to order anything to drink besides water unless it was included with the meal. This happened rarely, but when it did, we would clap with glee while Mom warned us to “make it last.” That meant that we better not drink it all up in one gulp before the meal even came. Instead of pacing ourselves, my siblings and I would drink our soda through coffee stirrers. The holes were tiny and allowed just a dribble to pass through. We had headaches by the time the meal was over from sucking every drop of enjoyment out of the sweet beverage.
Dining out was even more complicated when it involved a coupon, as it often did. Dad used higher math to make sure we were getting the most value from our buy-one-get-one-free coupon. We children would look hungrily at the menu dreaming of getting the most expensive item for free, but knowing that Dad had final veto power. When the waiter or waitress came to take our order Dad would hold the coupon up.
“Just so you know, we have this.”
The server would acknowledge the coupon and Dad would tell her to come back in a few minutes. After she left Dad would ask each of us what we were planning on ordering, checking the prices on everything and making sure all the entrees were about the same price. We weren’t allowed to order anything too expensive, but we weren’t allowed to order the cheapest thing on the menu either. If someone did that, that item would be free. And that would be bad, because if you were going to use a coupon you wanted to get something more valuable for free.
“But Dad, you’re still getting it for free,” we’d argue.
“That’s how they get you,” he’d say. “If you pay twice the price for something like fried shrimp and get something for a dollar for free, you’re not really getting anything.”
On one hand I could see his point, but on the other, I just once wanted the fried shrimp.
“We’ll be better off if we all order something in the middle price range, like a patty melt,” he’d say.
We’d finally agree with him and he’d summon the waitress back to our table. After taking our order, the waitress would hopefully ask again, “Can I get you anything to drink now?”
“We’re fine with water,” we would all say.
By the time the food came all of our objections were forgotten. It didn’t matter if we were eating fried shrimp or patty melts, we were just happy to be eating out.
Today the rules have changed. Soda comes with free refills and I can eat out just about anywhere and order whatever I want. But that doesn’t mean I’ve changed. I’m still fine with water.