Lunch is a tricky time for me and, I’m sure, many Americans, who enjoy good food, in a way that it isn’t for most Europeans, or at least, most southern Europeans. There is no place in American life for the leisurely two-hour, weekday lunch that many French, Italians and Spanish enjoy several times a week. For us in North America and northern Europe, lunch is something to be rushed through, something to be gulped and shoved down the throat in the minimum of time and loss of efficiency, and frequently, a minimum of taste and enjoyment.
There are many cultural and economic reasons for the lack of relaxed lunching in America and Britain, including the need to work hell-for-leather during the daylight hours, and the fact that traditionally, the day’s main meal is consumed in the evening in these countries. However, while it is an easily observable fact that the residents of these southern European countries rarely have a comparable standard of material wealth to us in the north, it is as easily observable that they rarely have comparable stress levels. It might be stretching the argument to say that a long, leisurely lunch, sometimes followed by a nap, automatically translates into a less stressful life but I would be hard put to argue that a nice, refreshing break in the middle of the day would somehow compound life’s stresses and strains.
The obvious conclusion is that a stressful, lunch-crunching, workaday life is incompatible with an enjoyable midday meal, and for many of us it is. Several of my colleagues rarely get to their lunch before 3pm and when they do it’s often a soggy sandwich that has been moldering in their desk drawer all day, or a bowl of tasteless/oversalted and bitter soup from the deli around the corner. This is, seemingly, a symptom of a busy, but productive, life. I beg to differ with this conclusion, and in fact, have been pioneering what I like to call the “at the desk gourmet.”
Peter Mayle (author of A Year in Provence and other books on southern French lifestyles) writes at length about how no-one can really enjoy their lunch while eating it hunched over a desk, scanning a computer for new e-mail messages, and to a great extent I agree. It is indisputable that a great lunch is almost always enjoyed to the utmost, sitting outside, in the shade, over the course of two, or more, hours, and accompanied by one, or more, chilled bottles of white wine. But, given that most of us do not have the luxury of such relaxed lunches, except perhaps on weekends, “at the desk gourmet” is about as good as we can get.
This style of lunching might be indistinguishable from a normal, rushed, lunch at the desk to the uninitiated, and in truth, it has many similarities — the location (desk), and the view (computer/cubicle), but there are some essential differences. The most crucial of which is, the food. Bringing leftovers or home-made meals into work greatly improves not only your diet and the variety of your meals, but also your levels of anticipation. For example, yesterday I brought in leftovers from a meal we made on Thursday — marinated skirt steak, shallow-fried corn-cake/sope, with grilled peppers and onions and a roasted tomatillo salsa. This I microwaved on medium for a couple of minutes, and then enjoyed at my desk – see image at right. Sure, the sope wasn’t as crunchy, nor the steak as deliciously rare, as when it was first cooked, but given the dull, cold-cuts and cheese sandwich alternatives, I’ll settle for a Yucatecan-style steak lunch anyday.
Today, I’ve brought in leftovers from Sunday night’s meal — a take on the Tuscan pollo alla diavola (grilled chicken with hot pepper), served with linguine and homemade pesto alla genovese and a tomato, basil and onion salad. I’ll have to eat it cold so as not to ruin the salad, and no doubt, the pasta will be a bit chewier and clumpier than when fresh out of the pan, but again, I’ll be enjoying a really delicious and healthy, homemade meal, off a real plate with actual metal silverware/cutlery while my colleagues wolf down something gross and expensive they’ve bought locally.
Finally, it’s worth noting the additional benefits of “at the desk gourmet” — the money saved (between $6 and $10 a day) and the time saved (two minutes in the microwave as opposed to 15-20 minutes in line waiting to be served, having your sandwich made and then queueing to pay for it). The former benefit is obvious — around $2,000/year saved, the latter less so, until you realize that the extra 20 minutes can be spent happily enjoying your lunch as you eat more slowly, savoring it more, aiding digestion and nutrient absorption. All in all, “at the desk gourmet” is, in my view, the way of the future.