Once and only once, an intern at the magazine where I used to work brought back McDonald’s for lunch. People said it stunk, but I thought it smelled like revolution.
That’s because a Happy Meal is a Happy Desk Lunch and therefore a potential hindrance to your career. It implies that you don’t have the discipline to deny your needs, whether they be carbs or a personal life, to get ahead. At least, I felt judged by that rubric — and inspired by those who railed against it.
A Sad Desk Salad (the chopped salad women in mostly-female workplaces tend to eat at their desks, and the name of Jessica Grose’s debut novel) is inconspicuous save for the soft sound of crunching. Nonetheless, it says a lot: I make good decisions. I’m healthy, a little bit cold, and not someone who’s ever suffered meat sweats.
McDonald’s, on the other hand, says that you don’t care what other people think of you. So does Chipotle. It smells good, and that smell tells everyone that you’re eating close to 1,000 calories. Microwaved leftovers have a story to tell, too. They announce that you weren’t too crazy-busy running from SoulCycle to Drybar to drinks to cook dinner the night before. You stayed in, and you ate carbs on the couch, and you’re eating them for a second time to save money, which is down-market.
Now that I’ve been working from home for about a year, I eat leftovers at noon every day. But when I worked in an office, everyone seemed too busy to remember to have lunch until two or even three. For me, forgetting to eat would be like forgetting to put on underwear. My appetite has always been the pea in my princess bed that no protocol could wash away. In high school, when I worked at a café owned by an ex-underwear model, I once broke down and asked whether I could eat a muffin midway through my shift. She gave me a look of distaste that clearly said, “You will never make a living off of your torso.” In college, I lasted one workday at a campus day care before being told that I took too many snack breaks.
Later, in office settings, I felt self-conscious about how frequently I was in the kitchen. Like hummingbirds making a pit stop for nectar, all the other women would dart in to grab a green juice out of the fridge or dump a tiny packet of oatmeal into a paper cup and top it off with hot water. Only when they’d spot me in there chopping fruit for the parfait I ate for second breakfast every morning would they linger. “Wow, that looks amazing,” someone would inevitably say. “It’s just yogurt and fruit,” I’d mutter, trying to get them to move along. Their desire mixed with restraint made me feel like that woman Koreans pay money to watch eat.
This reticence to be seen enjoying food extends outside the workplace. Spy on any celebratory going-away lunch at one of those upscale Mexican places that’s seemingly next door to every office and you’ll notice that the women are all ordering a chicken salad with the dressing on the side. To order tacos is to get your hands dirty. Enchiladas mean melted cheese stretching from mouth to fork. Both suggest: I value my cravings more than the appearance of asceticism. I have a hunger like a man.
Men seem to have no such self-consciousness. They’ll fire up their blender every morning in the communal kitchen, even though executives work a few feet away. They’ll microwave fish because fuck it if the smell — which seems to gain power with every meal nuked thereafter — is going to keep them from their lean protein of choice.
And they have no compunction about reaching for a second or even third mini cupcake and a glass of prosecco at office birthday parties, whereas the ladies can often be seen clutching mugs of tea and standing around the conference-room table, abstaining. Men seem to admire the women who buck the trend and pile their plate, but only if those women are thin. (As Gillian Flynn’s Amy Dunne said, “Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who … jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2.”)
Now that my dog is the only one around when I eat lunch, I too shake the walls with my Vitamix and stink up the kitchen with my leftover shrimp curry. I often eat pasta, not even the whole-wheat kind, with garlicky pesto. I don’t know what happened to the intern who dared bring fast food onto the 25th floor, but I continue to think of her fondly. And I hope she’s still blazing a trail with the scent of her 99-cent hamburgers, making it safer for women everywhere to be judged by what comes out of their mouths and not what goes into them.