Empty Calories

On the delicious pleasure of constructing the perfect imaginary menu.

Woman in a rabbit hole staring at a menu.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Jack Hollingsworth/Thinkstock.

Rabbit Holes is a recurring series in which writers pay homage to the diversity and ingenuity of the ways we procrastinate now. To pitch your personal rabbit hole, email

I thought everyone, from time to time, pulled up the menus of restaurants that they had no immediate plans to patronize and constructed a meal, from appetizers to drinks to dessert.

However, it turns out that many of you do not procrastinate by Googling that nondescript American place next to the well-reviewed Thai place you actually want to go to and cobbling together a dinner. Right on! That leaves me the proud owner of the deed to at least one eccentric procrastination tactic: fantasy meal-planning. From my computer, I research the options at culinary establishments whose doorways I will never darken and then I painstakingly decide what I would order if I somehow ended up passing through those doorways. I also sift through the spreads of restaurants that I’d like to try in real life, and occasionally I look up online menus in advance of actual visits, although with less urgency and fascination, as I will soon be initiating that process in person. But the real fun lies in conjuring an experience I am unlikely to have, in laying the world of fiction with the cobblestones of fact. If Marianne Moore envisioned poems as imaginary gardens with real toads in them, I am creating an imaginary dining room with a real Mediterranean pide in it, and also maybe some calamari to start.

The rules of the game—the number of constraints in play—change depending on my mood. What if I have all the money in the universe, or if I care nothing for my arteries or tomorrow’s hangover, or if I don’t fear judgment from a hypothetical snooty waiter? Maybe I order like a whimsical duchess: the cream-cheesy tart with the caramelized onions and a strong whisky cocktail, followed by mint ice cream served in a champagne flute. Or maybe I just request two helpings of sweet potato fries. (I really like sweet potato fries.) But more often, a naturalistic approach works best. If I were dining with a date, or a friend, or my family, or co-workers, what attitude or qualities would I want to project with my decision? Which starters could we split? Whose allergies would we need to negotiate around? If I asked for this substitution or that alteration (could you take the bacon OFF the club sandwich and, like, put it ON the Brussels sprouts?), just how ruthlessly would my companions judge me?

No doubt, this ritual represents a form of hedonistic wish fulfillment. I love the sensual, evocative language of menus. Even (especially) without descriptors, the combinations of proteins and sauces and greens and starches can feel at once predictable and bizarre, like neighborhood kids wearing Halloween costumes. I love when a dish sounds gross, easily banishable from consideration. But I also love when some offering looks unexpectedly delicious, and I have to make it a contender, revisiting the plans I concocted before learning what a French horn montadito was.

Another big part of the endeavor’s charm is the opportunity it presents for problem solving. Though I’ve dabbled in breakfast and brunch, my favorite gustatory events to game out happen in the evening because those encounters seem richest in complexity, in narrative possibility. Say you are grabbing a drink with a romantic prospect. You will need a contingency plan for both success and failure, for the date stretching late into the night or fizzling before the first bar snacks arrive. You might attend a work happy hour, in which case maybe you can persuade folks to gobble up tacos with you after. If not, though, are there any entrees that look serviceable at this German beer emporium? Let’s say you are out at a fancy institution: What’s your ideal number of courses? What do you actually get, when you see how hungry or thrifty your companions are? You must determine your priorities, your opportunity costs—if no one wants to share, would you sacrifice the ramen bowl to get the spicy shrimp balls and the pork buns? When do you take an eggplant parm for the team?

It must be said: Even as this mode of procrastination engages my imagination and prefrontal cortex and in general depends on the thrilling illusion that lots of tempting potentialities are marching toward my mouth, I occasionally find it unpleasant. You can tell a story through food; it doesn’t have to be a good story. Sometimes the menu fails to entice and you’re just making do. Sometimes you want the hanger steak but you know you’re going to get the grilled fish, because it’s healthier.

And I have a tortured relationship to decision-making in general. Since high school, I’ve been haunted by the precept introduced to the monster Grendel as he dies an agonizing death at Beowulf’s hands in the John Gardner novel Grendel: “Alternatives exclude.” Picking one thing means not picking the other. Belonging to the night-mere means forgoing the daydream of the king’s hall. Grendel is greedy because he devours dozens of thanes for supper, but also because he chafes against the orderly brightness of the human world, with its songs and religion and culture. It’s monstrous to want more than you should rightfully have, Beowulf suggests to his foe toward the end of the book. That homily is not unique to Geat warriors; it’s imprinted on any number of myths we cherish about people who crave everything and end up with nothing.

So, I suppose, when I click on a menu and select the components of my single circumscribed meal, I am not just expressing my idiosyncratic preferences or playing at strategy. I am a swamp hellion managing my barking desires. There are many, many situations in life that force you to choose no matter how much you wish you didn’t have to. Usually the stakes of those dramas are higher than a disappointing plate of limp asparagus spears. But it’s nice when they’re not.

Conversely, once you devise an artificial crossroads for yourself and then navigate it, the loveliest sense of accomplishment trails over you like a hand of fate. You have become incrementally more yourself, and all while risking so little. In fact, if you are only pretending to do business at the restaurant you’ve singled out for online menu perusal, the alternatives you’ve turned down remain as real to you as they were before you theoretically set them aside. Such decisions are more properly understood as suspensions, intervals of grace—not executed feats but stays of execution. They can taste so good you almost forget they don’t actually taste like anything at all.