“I’ll do the salad”…literally?

Spending eight years intensively learning Spanish heightened my awareness to what is lost—and conversely arises—through translation and word choice. I’ve always been interested in the nuances of words: what they say about our inner thoughts and how we affect others by using then. “I’ll do the [food]” is one such phrase that’s been bothering me for the past few years—likely because I overheard it on an episode of some Beverly Hills reality show that I hated both for its existence and cult-following. Since then, I’ve continued to hear this phrase assertively stated at formal and fast-casual restaurants, bars and coffee shops. When did we collectively transition from saying we’ll ‘have’ the food to ‘do’ it, while ordering?

The readings this past month begin to clarify how this change might have occurred. We not only own taste, but also our memory of a food and past experiences—the stuff that fills thousands of memoirs written by bloggers and restaurant critics alike. It would come to follow then that we also own what we perceive as our future experience (of a meal). Similarly, the experience of eating a meal is far more than just consuming nutrients to sustain our biological needs. It is a representative choice, not only to decide what lives on our plate, but how we identify: our level of education, socioeconomic status, region, culture, ethnicity, maturity, and political views. By consuming food from dumpster dives, freegan punks asserted their ‘pure’ anti-capitalist way of living. Here, eating represents another decisive action and role performance….yet another way to create order in “an inherently untidy world” (Julier, 2017).

Mary Douglas’ article Deciphering a Meal and Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste shows how eating often reveals far more than we intend it to. As Douglas writes in Food and the Social Order, the very act of sharing a meal asserts status and relationships. Ladies ‘doing brunch’ have the money to devote their weekend afternoon to lounging instead of working and have a close group of intimate friends (social capital) with whom they choose to spend their time. Here too, it makes sense that individuals state they will ‘do’ a meal; they will live in accordance with the expectations and roles attributed to a particular event. “Let’s do coffee!” an exchange held between two co-workers similarly holds unspoken social obligations and rules they must abide by. There are strict expectations surrounding this less intimate interaction: the meeting shall not be too long, is informal and does not include a large meal. Snack may be allowed, however not the messy ones Theresa Devasahayam speaks of. Similarly, the person who invited the other may be expected to pay, especially if this ‘coffee-date’ constitutes an exchange of caffeine for information or time.

Although I’ve never heard an equivalent for ‘doing’ a food in Spanish—the closest would be tomar un café or to take a coffee—I have learned the Chinese custom to always leave food on my plate, if someone else pays. The purpose? The diner must assert their equal socioeconomic status; they are able to provide for themselves and so are not hungry and do not need to eat the last few scraps of food. The discussion of language in Joshua Freedman’s article Authenticity in America: Class Distinctions in Potato Chip Advertising perfectly crystallized this natural progression: from invisible expectations and feelings to language. Regardless if we realize it or not, when we discuss our decision to commit to a meal, we use words that indicate our status, sense of ownership and capital.

So now, I am conflicted. Although the reasoning behind the phrase may be fascinating, unless we need to add all menu items to the list bizarre sexual fetishes, we are not, in fact, doing the salad. Yet is my grammatical mission to eradicate this phrase from our collective vocabulary worth overlooking the cultural insight?

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2 responses

  1. I have a simplistic way of thinking about some of this — and tell me if it makes sense in what you are saying or is not on target: when people use the word “do” in relation to food events, I think they are usually focused on the social rather than the material. (“let’s do coffee” means “let’s get some coffee together”). I wonder if this is because people purchase more food made by others than they make. So this emphasis on the social takes some of the onus of reciprocity off of people who don’t make food. What do you think?

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    • I agree with this! I feel like it gets a murky however when it comes to more abstract things on the menu. I’ve mainly heard this in relation to ordering a particular thing: I’ll ‘do the octopus taco, cheeseburger and the brioche toast.’ I think the same rules still apply…there is still a focus on what that means in terms of eating a cheeseburger, especially in conjunction with that the situation calls for (is it a date, etc?). But…even at a coffee shop, baristas hear ‘I’ll do the macchiato v. the cappuccino.’ It’s more specific. Which could just be a distillation of the general ‘I’ll do coffee,’ but if they’re ordering solo it doesn’t seem to fit as strongly. Do you think they’re different?

      Your response is so funny to me: I thought the same exact thing when I wrote it down as a topic, but thought about how you might look at it/sociologically-speaking and decided it had to be so much larger than that. (Everything this semester seems to explode past the obvious!).

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