Food. You need it to live, and a lot of the time you need it right now. Another thing you often need to do is be someplace. Therein lies a conflict if you happen to live in a major metropolitan area (we’ll focus on New York City for the purposes of simplicity and also because it’s where most of us at this website are): You may need to eat while traveling. Sometimes eating on the train causes fights or viral spectacle, and sometimes it causes commute-upending track fires, according to the MTA. It’s a big city, the possibilities are endless. That is why many of us are here in the first place.
DNAinfo reports that the MTA is mulling a program to help subway riders determine which foods one should eat on the subway, in order to help prevent garbage-started track fires that are adding to the subway’s current delay issues. MTA chair Joe Lhota said the “education program” is currently being drafted and “and there have been a lot of recommendations about what foods are appropriate, what foods are not.” The DNAinfo piece concludes:
Regarding the food issue, Lhota said he recently saw a passenger on the 2 train get on and start eating Chinese food from a Styrofoam container filled with “a lot of rice.”
“Inevitably, the rice fell — it was all over the place,” he said.
Packaged items like protein bars, on the other hand, make less of a mess in the transit system.
“Some things work, some things don’t,” Lhota added.
A good rule of thumb is don’t eat rice on the goddamn subway! That’s a terrible way of inconveniencing your fellow straphangers and making them think they’re seeing maggots when they first spy your rice out of the corners of their little eyes. Here is some more good advice from Hamilton Nolan’s popular Gawker post “The Ten Worst People on the Subway”:
You want to eat a Snickers bar on the train? Fine. You want to stank up the entire subway car eating a huge styrofoam container of Kung Pao Chicken? That is rude. If the food you are eating is stank, do not eat it on the subway. Eat it before you get on. Eat it after you get off. But do not eat it while we are all stuck in this tiny confined space for the next half hour or so. A simple and effective rule we can all live with. (Homeless people can be exempt.)
It seems that experts agree: Bars are good, food that is probably sold with rice (or is rice) is bad. But what about other stuff?
A good rule of thumb is to limit your subway food to that which can be eaten by hand. In the United States, that kind of food tends to be less pungent than that which you cannot reasonably eat by hand. It is also less likely to make a mess, unless you’re one of those people who shovels handfuls of snackables like popcorn into your mouth, figuring that hitting the target 75 percent of the time ain’t bad. If you are a C student in the class of eating, I think you need to do better in general, not just on the subway.
Some handheld food is prone to messiness, though. A good question to ask yourself is: Does this food I want to eat on the subway contain parts that become moving parts when my teeth dig in (like tomatoes slipping out the back of your sandwich)? Avoid that. Do not eat Subway on the subway. I’d say all things considered, though, pizza is relatively tidy (unless it’s dripping with oil) and I’d give that one a pass, particularly given the speed at which it can be eaten.
Please never eat fried food, especially if your spot never changes the oil it cooks it in. We all live where we live, we all have our spots, but come on, I’m not trying to smell the ghost of chicken wings past in the heavy, sour potpourri you just brought on board.
When you think about it, eating with your hands on the subway is kind of gross since you’ve inevitably touched slime-slick poles, etc. upon boarding and taking your seat (I really hope you’re sitting down if you’re eating). That is just the price you pay for needing to eat on the subway. Nothing in New York is free, even when it seems like it should be.
I don’t think your food should take up more room than will fit in your personal space sitting down (assuming your legs are shoulder-width apart, as they should be). So rethink anything that requires a large cutting board.
I recently had a packed Saturday and I absolutely had to eat something before attending an afternoon party that I could spend no more than an hour at, max, before having to go on to the next thing. So I bought a sushi burrito (it’s like a burrito-sized sushi roll). I don’t recommend this—it had the moving parts I warned you about, many of them being the rice that the MTA warned you about. People looked at me like I was eating my own head, as the sushi burrito was roughly the same size of it. Not my best moment, but what can you do.
My esteemed colleague Joanna Rothkopf one almost choked on an egg on the subway. Here is her story, as shared on Slack:
The story is i needed quick protein and had a hardboiled egg and i had JUST moved here and knew it was shameful and tried it eat it in 2 bites but u cant do that and it got caught in my throat and i was like o this how i die.
So watch out for eggs (also I am just going to assume she did something polite with the peel).
Another esteemed colleague of mine, Kelly Faircloth, recommends bagels as a safe food “‘cause it doesn’t crumble.” That’s wise. If you’re going for a bread product, make it a smooth bread product.
Subway etiquette is fuzzy because as much as most of us want to get from point A to point B without any hassle and with minimal acknowledgement of the dozens, if not hundreds, of people we ride with in close contact, there’s also this imperative to fill space for the sake of efficiency. That means a real Wild West approach to line-forming (everyone clusters around stairwells that bottleneck and just tries to get in where they can, regardless of whom was standing there before them). It means a real fast and loose approach to any sort of rule-following. It means some people will try to cut corners and beat whatever system in order is in place, simply because they can and it’s kind of crazy down there. It certainly means that if you ride the subway enough, rules or no rules, campaigns or no campaigns, laws or no laws, at some point relatively soon, someone is going to be eating rice near you and it’s coming for your shoes.
With all of this in mind, we are curious as to what you think is proper subway cuisine. Please let us know in this poll: