Tell your momma she was wrong: breakfast is not the most important meal of the day. it's lunch. Day in and day out, lunch offers that all-important and all-too-brief reprieve from drudgery that lower level grunts look forward to all morning long; for bigwigs it's the golden hour when they can wheel and deal over plates of radicchio. And for everyone in the middle, it's true north, the one fixed point in an otherwise chaotic existence. In other words, the way in which we take our midday repasts speaks volumes about where we fit in the giant food chain of business.
At least that's the way it used to be. I know this from first-hand-to-mouth experience. In the old days I worked and ate at Jumbocorp (it now owns half of everything in the known world), where they fed us a daily diet designed to make us choke on the difference between the chosen few poobahs and the rest of us mere mortals. It was brought glaringly to our attention every day between 11:30 and 2 — the only hours our cafeteria was open. The worker bees' commissary was a room that comfortably seated 50 people. Our company's ranks, however, filled an entire Manhattan office building, so no one was ever comfortably seated. The walls were purple. The chairs were plastic. The foodstuffs were straight out of The "Joy of Cooking Hospital Food: Beth Israel's Favorite Lukewarm Meals for Convalescents."
Meanwhile, just a few floors above, the poohbahs were whooping it up with their own fancypants chef and an executive dining room that made Le Cirque look like Le Sizzler. We understood that rank has its lip-smacking privileges. But the fact that the same people who regularly nit-picked our requisitions for Post-its and paper clips were up there consuming vast quantities of chocolate mousse while we joylessly nibbled our Otis Spunkmeyer oatmeal raisin cookies was enough to make our stomachs grumble and our hungry hearts hanker for Marie Antoinette's cakes.
And yet as pathetic as our meager meals were compared with the sushi and Chardonnay bacchanals our overlords enjoyed, lunch was still the highlight of the day. More than the highlight — it was the day. Sure the food was wretched, but lunch was all we had. Somewhere around the time that morning doughnut and coffee wore off we'd begin to ruminate on luncheon plans. We flipped through our mental Rolodexes to peruse the possibilities: What'll it be today? The takeout soup stand? That new salad bar?
We'd call a coworker to ask if he'd tried that new place yet, The House of Overpriced Sandwiches. The phone would ring right back. Another coworker: the gang's going Chinese today. How about it?
Finally there was lunch hour. We'd go, we'd eat. And when we got back, there was after-lunch hour. We couldn't just plunge back into all that strenuous work — not 'til the quiche was settled. We couldn't concentrate on the Ferbush file — not 'til we went through the time-honored postgame wrap-up. By that point, with any luck, it was 4:30, time to start straightening desks. Another good day at the office.
Like menus, times change. The Powers That Be decided that a really cool company needs really cool food. Goodbye corporate cafeteria, hello Cafe Suave. No more purple walls, no more plastic chairs. It's the '90s version of a '60s food fight: they pelt us with smoked salmon salads and herbal iced tea, smother us with designer muffins and gourmet coffees, cover us with personally topped individual pizzas and seasonally flavored sorbet.
My friend Jack, a marketing director, finally figured it out. He worked for a terminally cool software company that offered the services of its own culinary staff for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. "You were supposed to sign a tab whenever you had a meal, and then they'd bill you," he says. "Months would go by, and suddenly you'd get an invoice for like $300."
Of course, Jack says, this lavish gustatory largesse isn't about the money. It also isn't about the food. It isn't even about the other food fight — the one among fat-cat companies to see who can out-do whom in the outsourced catering department.
It's about turning our old world inside out: instead of lunch consuming the whole work day, the whole work day consumes lunch. No one goes out anymore; in-house chefs prepare our food and in-house runners deliver our meals to our desks. We're permanent in-house workers, munching away in our veal-fattening pens. In this era of cas-dress and corpo-retreats, our ultra-with-it employers want us to feel so nourished at the office that we never want to leave.
Now the food's great. The work's wretched. Please, somebody! Anybody! Don't let us eat cake!
The Spy is a hungry writer who forages for food in the Northeast.
A version of this article appeared in the August/September 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.