As someone who already experiences menu-overwhelm and ordering anxiety at most food establishments, I remember the days where ordering things not on the official menu wasn’t called a “secret menu;” it was called being an asshole. The origins of the secret menu are rooted in a shameful history, pioneered mostly by your uncle insisting on holding up the entire drive-thru line by making his Wendy’s order overly elaborate, and drunk college kids asking bartenders for a “Cornelius St. George” or a “Jesuit Finger Blaster” and then following up incredulously with an “Oh my god, how do you not know what that is?”
My thesis is this: Fuck a secret menu. Whatever happened to ordering food using normal food words and being content with the limited choices already presented to us in life? (Editor’s note: This in no way applies to reproductive rights.)
The first places I can recall hearing about secret menus were In-N-Out Burger, Waffle House, and Starbucks, in that order. What struck me about most of these off-menu demands is that they forced food service workers to memorize infinitely more complicated items, a lot of them which sounded wholly unappetizing, and most seemed like something you could handle on your own by ordering a few things from the normal menu and then mushing them together in a bucket in your car. Why make a stoned 19-year-old food service worker do a weird thing with a hashbrown that you could just do yourself in private? Why order a “Harry Potter frappuccino” at Starbucks when you can just order a regular frappuccino, say some weird gender-essentialist shit and retweet Piers Morgan yourself?
A close cousin to the secret menu is the whimsical, overly aggressive ordering vernacular some establishments require. Waffle House really exemplifies this problem with the oddly violent and/or vaguely sexual “smothered, scattered, diced, capped, covered, chunked, and topped” language they force their wait staff to use instead of simply asking, “Would you like some stuff on your potatoes or would you not like some stuff on your potatoes?” I mean, at least Waffle House is profoundly self-aware. They’re not shining this up for you: These are particularly brutal words, and they describe exactly what’s going to happen to your food when you’re not looking.
To be clear, I love Waffle House–it sustained me through college and has never let me down, mainly because I’ve never had any expectations for it. I just want to ask for my food using food words from the list of available foods with which I have been presented. I want to order potatoes with onions, cheese, maybe some tomatoes, maybe not. By the time I’m at a Waffle House, I’ll eat pretty much anything you put in front of me that you have in the kitchen. I just don’t want to look into the tired eyes of a stranger at 4 in the morning and order my breakfast “drugged, strangled, and buried.”
Los Angeles, in my opinion, is the worst offender in the whimsical-ordering scourge ravishing this country. As a New Yorker, I often don’t know how to be when I leave New York, but I particularly don’t know how to be when I’m in L.A. I was introduced to Cafe Gratitude by a friend during a work trip in which I realized I hadn’t eaten a vegetable in three days. I wanted to eat leafy things and cheap avocados somewhere sunny. As we were being seated she said to me, “Oh, by the way there’s kind of a fun way you have to order here, and it’s a little weird but you HAVE to do it.” I responded, “Oh, is it like at Peter Luger where you grunt your meat demands to a surly waiter, leave a pile of cash on the table, and fuck off immediately after eating?” She was unfamiliar with the Brooklyn steakhouse. “I don’t know what that is,” she said. “No, for every item on the menu, you’ll make a declaration of who you are to our waitress. You’ll see!”
If you’ve never heard of this stupid and delicious restaurant, it’s such a strangely culty L.A. experience that when you Google “Is Cafe Gratitude…” one of the first phrases that populates is “owned by Jason Mraz?” Nothing on the menu is named anything remotely related to food. All items are instead named by various “I am” statements. For instance, you may want to order an asparagus and tomato salad, a curried lentil and vegetable bowl, and a raw vegan tiramisu. But you can’t simply say that; you’re not allowed to use your food’s government name. Instead, you have to say to your waiter, “I am gracious, I am humble, I am adoring,” and then they’ll bring you all of the things I just mentioned above.
Not one to brazenly lie in public, I scanned the menu and found nary a thing I would honestly use to describe myself. My options were words like: dazzling, vibrant, bountiful, glorious, pure, infinite, carefree, effervescent, and strangely enough, immortal. No, these things I am not.
“Please don’t make me do this,” I said to my L.A. dining companion. “What if I order normally, and I can just tell the waitress what I want to eat?” My friend has known me for a long time, we’ve eaten together at Waffle House, she has seen me dig my heels in and ruin a meal, so she was rightfully nervous that I was going to embarrass her when our waitress returned. Had there been menu options stating, “I am embarrassing, I am exhausted, I am upset about my melasma and the dismantling of my bodily rights in this country,” we wouldn’t be in this situation, and we’d already have our food.
I started trying to bargain my way out of it: “What if I just order something not on the menu, like a side of potatoes, and just tell the waitress, ‘I am a side of potatoes.’” But in that moment of desperation, I realized what I was actually proposing was… the creation of a secret menu item. I wanted to skirt the rules. I had become that which I sought to destroy. It was the fulfillment of the Nietschian admonition, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster...for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”
So, I sucked it up and dutifully uttered some humiliating shit to the server like, “I am loyal,” and she brought me out a bowl of vegetables.