Mary Kenny: Lunch is a day ruined. By the time you've finished, half the afternoon is away. Drink wine, and it's all gone
Published 17/11/2013 | 01:00
When an old friend suggested a pre-Christmas lunch, I suddenly came out with a rather graceless response. "No," I cried. "I hate lunch. I really hate it!" It was one of those moments when I realised that I had blurted out something I felt very sincerely.
A meal at one o'clock in the daytime – and particularly in some formal restaurant – is my idea of purgatory.
For this occasion, you have to spend the morning getting yourself organised. You usually have to take some form of transport which involves either cost, or inconvenience, or both.
You are subjected to a formal ritual of meeting and greeting, of conversing about choosing aperitifs, of moving to tables and sitting down, and looking through a menu which can often be bewildering.
If you're the host, you slyly try to choose something that doesn't look too expensive, but doesn't look as though you're a cheapskate either. If you're the guest, you have to worry about whether stinging your companion for Beef Wellington will seem greedy.
And if you're going Dutch, you have to be concerned about keeping the victuals at level pegging.
I wish I had some of the hours back in my life that I've wasted over lunch. Somebody once described golf as "a good walk ruined": lunch means a good day ruined. By the time you've finished, half the afternoon is away. If you drink wine, all the afternoon is effectively gone.
Yes, there have been lunches that I have enjoyed, and I should look back on them in gratitude. In the newspaper business of my salad days, an Editor's lunch might be extended to a young writer as a sign of conferring approval. A man might invite you to lunch as a preliminary to inviting you to dinner (always a more serious date). And I'm still willing to participate in collective lunches, where gangs of old friends get together – I attend an annual and enjoyable Old Feminists' Lunch around this time of the year. But the core issue is that I have come to realise that lunch dates are often an ordeal, and in most cases over the years I agreed to "do lunch" to please someone else.
Or because I thought it was fashionable and I didn't want to seem a frump. Or for a lot of other silly and pretentious reasons.
One of the epiphanies of old age is that – while there are some disagreeable tasks you must do, mostly involving chores or duties – there are many things you don't have to do if you don't choose to. (I have also come to hate lists of "must-read" books. Why "must" I read something on someone else's orders? It's my call what I read.)
You come to realise, with time, that you have done many things you didn't want to do, but you felt you ought to do for the sake of others, or for social convention, or because someone might otherwise scold you or disapprove of you. Half the time we're manipulated into situations that we haven't chosen and are not consonant with our disposition. If it bothers you, just say no!
I have nothing against others enjoying lunch dates and, especially in the wake of the recession, it is pleasing to see a full restaurant. I have nothing against the life-balance psychologists who say that staff too often just grab a sandwich at their desks: it would do them good to get out of the workplace and enjoy a congenial lunch.
It's just that there are other meal-times that I have come to like better: afternoon tea is now my preferred time for sociable meeting. Four o'clock in the afternoon is a grand, relaxing time, and I'm glad to see a tea-time revival – when a couple of friends recently suggested tea at Dublin's Westbury Hotel, it was booked out.
I have also had recourse to a meal-time I call "Polish dinner". In times gone by, the main mealtime in Poland was about 5pm: it made sense in an agricultural society when people would return from the fields ravenously hungry.
This is where the brasserie comes to the rescue: a brasserie serves full meals all day, so if you want "Polish dinner" at 5pm you can have it. I suppose 5pm is near enough to the traditional Irish (full-meal) tea-time of 6pm. In favouring a later afternoon sit-down repast, it's back to where we started.
Patterns of life change, and we sometimes need to reassess what suits our own life schedules. Lunching (and breakfasting) can be significant occasions in business as well as in social interaction.
Posh lunches have fallen somewhat out of favour because most people can't afford them any more (and tax authorities no longer accept lunch as a business expense). And anyone with a job probably works too hard to consider lunch.
I loathed the competitiveness of the posh lunch anyway: there's a smart club in London's Soho where I have occasionally been treated to lunch – ungrateful minx that I am – but the moment you walk in the door, the media types are scrutinising you for your looks, your wardrobe and whether you generally cut the mustard. Oh, spare me. I'd sooner a sandwich at the corner coffee-house than all that annoying swank.
But, on the other hand, some folk love that side of lunch – the buzz of it all. Small wonder that the way of being told you are out with the in-crowd in Los Angeles is: "You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again."