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Nina In New York: Mealbreakers I Have Known

(credit: REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images)

(credit: REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images)

A lighthearted look at news, events, culture and everyday life in New York.
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By Nina Pajak

Yesterday, as I was doing my usual sweep of important news stories from my favorite blogs that help validate all my fears, I came across this Huffington Post gem of a series entitled, “Mealbreakers.” This seemed appropriate, in light of yesterday’s news of a boy finding a piece of a finger in his Arby’s sandwich.

The site defines a “mealbreaker” thusly:

Mealbreaker (n.): a nasty, non-edible surprise found in food while it is being eaten; often lawsuit-provoking, sometimes fabricated, always disgusting.

I have to admit. I’m somewhat devastated I didn’t think of this. Those who have known me throughout my life know me as The One Who Is Always Finding Bugs (And Other Stuff) In Her Food.

At first, when I was young, this habit of finding unwanted stowaways on my plate at restaurants was a product of being an eagle-eyed and obsessive food inspector. Or perhaps I became a food inspector after my first traumatic encounter.

Really, there are too many instances to name them all (and I’ve probably blocked a fair number of them from memory for pure survival purposes). There was the roach in my lo mein, which elicited a disinterested, “Oh. You want us to bring you another?” from the restaurant’s proprietors when my parents called to complain.

There was the time I insisted on pulling apart my tortellini in the dining room of a lovely Connecticut inn and found a fly hiding amid the pasta. The kitchen, mortified, sent us out a box of chocolate chip cookies in penance. I reluctantly took one and began breaking it into near-molecular pieces before giving up on the whole thing.

By the time I was in college, I’d managed to train myself out of this destructive and anti-social habit. But it was too late. My karma had been established, and now the bugs find me. I got used to innocently lifting a piece of lettuce and finding a big fat fly dead beneath it. It got to the point where I actually unwittingly allowed a dead bug to pass through a straw from a daiquiri and into my mouth. When I spit it out, all of my companions wretched a little, but I was unaffected.

My favorite instance, though, had nothing to do with an insect. It happened at an unfortunate diner located near our old apartment in Murray Hill, across from the Bellevue Medical Center. It appeared, in fact, to be a sort of unofficial dining hall for Bellevue outpatients and those out for lunch on good behavior. I felt a bit like we had stumbled into a scene out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but breakfast is breakfast. Right?

More: NYC’s 5 Best Breakfast Restaurants

Everything was smooth until mythen-boyfriend (now husband) had finished two of his turkey club quarters. As he lifted the third from the plate, he revealed an intact row of staples more than an inch long, just sitting there where the sandwich had been. We all stared, dumbfounded, and then called the waitress over. She was one of those dried-up old diner waitresses who looked like she hadn’t changed her youthful makeup routine or her uniform since the 1980s when she first took this job. We pointed to the row of staples. She asked if we put them there.

Uh, no.

She scratched her head theatrically, put her hand on one hip, and contemplated the staples. Then she looked over at the check-out desk, then to the kitchen, then back to the plate. Again, desk, kitchen, plate. And again, and again. Every so often during this routine, she’d stop and exclaim. But! Wha? Huh. Wha! After what seemed like quite a long time, she appeared to have worked out a response. We watched her expectantly.

“But . . . ” she began. “The kitchen is over there.” She pointed dramatically towards the kitchen door.

Uh huh.

“And the desk is . . . over there!” As she made this shocking revelation, she swiveled around to point at the desk, which was admittedly nowhere near the kitchen.

Right.

“That’s where we keep the stapler!”

Okaaaaay.

“The kitchen is over there, and the desk is over there!” she said again. The whole performance struck me as the result of one too many stage acting workshops.

We weren’t sure where this line of thinking was going. Nowhere, it appeared. However the staples made it to the plate, they made it there. Let’s move on. We suggested as much.

She looked down once more at the offending item on our table, reluctantly took the plate, and looked at my boyfriend squarely.

“Well. Doyawannanother?”

No, no he did not. He did, however, not want to pay for it.

This seemed to be an unexpected twist for our waitress, but after a moment’s hesitation she accepted our terms.

Needless to say, we never returned to that diner for a second visit. I don’t think we ever could have topped our first.

Dear Readers: While I am rarely at a loss for words, I’m always grateful for column ideas. Please feel free to e-mail me your suggestions.

Nina Pajak is a writer and publishing professional living with her husband on the Upper West Side.

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