Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2015/ Reception Food: An Open Plea to Talk Organizers

Reception Food: An Open Plea to Talk Organizers

Anybody who has seen me at a reception or a potluck knows that I am a glutton: when free food is available I eat and eat and eat. I eat well past the point of enjoyment to the point of discomfort, then eat some more. Being a glutton is embarrassing to me and it is embarrassing to others, but I doubt I will be able to control myself anytime soon.

Let's acknowledge that my gluttony is my problem/responsibility, but let's also pretend that it is unchangeable for the purposes of this plea, because even if I somehow control my behaviour there are other gluttons in this world.

I obsess about food. If food is in the room it distracts me to the point where I cannot concentrate on the topic at hand. Furthermore, I despise food because when I eat and eat and eat I gain weight, and sure enough my weight has been going up and up and up. So I am not a dispassionate observer about this topic.

In addition to compulsively eating I go to talks and public lectures. Lately I have been refraining from attending lectures, because too many lectures feature post-lecture receptions where I eat compulsively.

One rationalization that I use when stuffing my face is that food is precious, and I hate seeing it going to waste. This rationalization is doubly tempting when I see just how much food tends to be provided at lectures, and how much of it is food that I ordinarily do not eat: cheeses and crackers and sweets and exotic fruits. I do not know a lot about food, but I know enough to understand that an enormous amount of food goes to waste, and the food that ends up on a reception table is the best of the best. To see such food and think that the leftovers will end up in the dumpster (or even the compost) makes me mad.

I believe there are a number of reasons why post-reception lectures tend to feature too much food, and they are all troubling.

The first factor is prestige. There is no reason that lecture organizers need to provide food after their events. Lectures are not parties or dinner theatre. People who attend (supposedly?) do so for the lecture content, and using free food to attract attendees is a cheap trick that (for many people) probably doesn't even work, since many people have more self control than I do and avoid reception food entirely. But providing a big table of food is a social signal. It demonstrates to others that this is an important lecture with a budget. Using wasted food as the collateral damage for this makes me feel sick.

The second problem have to do with bureaucracies and health regulations. As far as I know, once trays of food have been presented to the public they cannot be donated to soup kitchens. That means that it is difficult to dispose of surplus food in a way that it will be enjoyed by others. Sometimes talk organizers will skirt these rules by leaving leftovers in a common lounge area, where it will mysteriously disappear. But I have a suspicion this is the exception, not the rule.

The third problem is that organizers fret about not having enough food. They know that gluttons like me eat more than their fair share, and they worry that all the food will be eaten and some people will go without. Maybe they worry that lecture attendance will be so high that there will not be enough food to go around. I have witnessed one lecture series increase the amount of food it provided because on one occasion there were enough lecture attendees to finish the cookies. This means there is an arms race. Gluttons like me do not want to see food go to waste, so we eat more than our fair share. Lecture organizers then provide even more food so that even the gluttons cannot finish it all, which means food is guaranteed to go to waste.

What these lecture organizers do not understand is that food is not necessary for lectures, and that even gluttons have manners. People tend to take about the same amount of food on first helpings; I have never seen somebody come by with Tupperware or a pillowcase to load up on food before everybody has had a chance at the table. The gluttons can be distinguished because they (we) go back to the table for seconds and thirds and fourths and fifths, but as far as I can tell we do so after everybody else has had their fair share. If talk organizers provided less food, there would be no problem. Everybody would get their fair share, and if there were no second or third helpings to be taken nobody would be mad or think less of the lecture experience. Lectures are supposed to be about the lecture, not the reception.

This got a lot longer than I had hoped, so let's cut to the chase. If you organize lectures and are considering a reception, please consider the following:

I understand that the only thing I have accomplished with this plea is to make myself look bad in public. So be it.