It likely began in the air over Los Angeles, when the first smartly dressed TWA flight attendant asked the traveler, “Coffee? Tea? Water? What would you prefer?”
The beloved pre-school teacher’s mantra, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit” got thrown right out the proverbial window, in this case at about 42,000 feet, with that very first mention of a preference.
The restaurant industry followed shortly, really aiming to please their customers by allowing almost every preference to be met. Booth or table? Lemon in your ice water? Loaded or plain baked potato? Salad dressing on the side? You say you would like sweetener for your tea? Which of these three kinds would you prefer?
Then it was a short leap from restaurants to our own homes. I follow the blog of a really creative mom with three young kids. Luckily none of them are allergic to peanut butter, a lunch staple, but get this: all three kids each prefer a different kind of peanut butter.
Never satisfying my curiosity and the very obvious question about how they even knew there were multiple kinds, blogger mom honors their preference. “They are just expressing their individuality,“ she writes. The adults in my life must have gotten individuality confused with being picky brats, which is what they would have called us if we had complained about the peanut butter.
Luckily my mom was a good cook, but let me assure you, she wasn’t much interested in our preferences. Maybe the spaghetti had meatballs, maybe it had meat sauce. Sometimes the lima beans had corn mixed in with them, and sometimes they didn’t (which frankly didn’t matter because we didn’t want to eat them anyway).
Our sandwiches were cut in rectangular halves, no trimmed crusts and no fancy triangles or star shaped cut outs. If it was baloney day, she chose the cheese, and the only choice we had was mustard or mayo.
She didn’t poll us for our preferences on how our egg was going to be cooked at breakfast each morning. If one of us had scrambled eggs (which for some reason still taste better out of Mom’s skillet), all of us had scrambled eggs. I am guessing I would have liked an occasional Ritz cracker rather than a saltine, but we weren’t busy making sure our preferences were known. And we survived quite nicely.
Some preferences are naturally easier to honor. When you bake a pan of brownies, somebody usually prefers the crispier edge pieces and somebody prefers the gooier center pieces. It is still all coming from one pan of brownies, and no, I was not tempted to buy the recently advertised all crispy tunnel looking brownie pan.
It’s okay for people to have a preference when you are passing a platter of turkey because dark meat and white meat are right there available for the taking. I also support steak houses asking our preference on how done we want our steaks because it is an expensive cut of meat that we are treating ourselves to.
My preference for a medium steak probably came from my dad slaving over a charcoal grill and finally giving up, plating it, telling us that is how it was supposed to look, and not asking us to cut into it in case we wanted it cooked a little more.
The rumors of people out there who like their steak moo’ing and some who like it charred are surely true. While I personally prefer a medium warm center, I have seen these mavericks in restaurants, sending back their steaks, like Goldilocks rejecting one chair or bed or porridge after another until one is just right.
As I age, some of the choices we are offered in the name of honoring preferences kind of wear me out. Case in point, every once in a while the hubs and I pretend we are young and hit up the local site of a nationwide breakfast chain.
We always do this on a day we know we can go home and nap off our food coma afterward; and by the way, I prefer the couch with a quilt for a quick nap, and an actual bed with a cotton blanket for anything much over an hour.
We get our coffee from the gum snapping waitress, and we each order the house special, which will be likely be delivered on a variety of not so clean looking plates, despite our preference for spotless plates and utensils.
Last time we went, I felt a little like I did when Mr. Hile would randomly call on me in Geometry class. “Quadrilateral? “ I would guess, and he would just shake his head, while I silently made plans to go home with Carla to copy her homework again.
Back to the greasy spoon. Did I want my hash browns crispy or soft? Bacon, sausage patty, sausage links, or ham? Grits or toast? Eggs over-easy, hard, or scrambled? Waffle or toast? Toast you say? Sourdough, wheat, or white? Real butter or margarine? I was so scared to make a mistake, to one of the questions I just meekly answered, “Yes.”
The Flo wannabe stared at me, uncomprehending, then finally looked over at my husband and said, “Do YOU know what she wants?” Luckily, he does, and if it wasn’t what I wanted when it arrives, he will just give me his breakfast and suck it up. Now there’s a guy that was raised not to have a preference, someone to truly love. I guess I should be grateful he preferred me over his other dates.
When we married, I knew he was darn near perfect, because he truly didn’t have any discernable preferences at all. He let me choose the side of the bed, which cabinets the plates and glasses went into, even our china pattern. I got to park my car on the right because it was easier to back out of the garage on that side.
Then came the day when he unpacked groceries to put them away. How could I have missed this crucial preference of his? Apparently he preferred jamming the cans onto the shelves all willy nilly and unreadable without a lot of effort or any organizational strategy at all.
Who doesn’t put soups together? Why were the beans all divided by short condensed milk cans? He has since changed his preference for can arrangement, likely due to my excellent tutelage and example.
At least I don’t have something as pedestrian as a dishwasher loading preference. I am so happy when anybody else mentions they will help with dishes, they can load them any darned way they want to.
But my friend’s preference about how her dishes go into her dishwasher has caused her a bunch of razzing. One night at a party she was hosting, two of us offered to clean up for her. She finally accepted and just told us to put as much as we could into the dishwasher.
She walked into the kitchen when we were about halfway finished with our mission. She froze in her tracks, and we could tell from her look we had somehow gone astray. “Oh…they actually go this way,” she said, and adjusted the plates on the dishwasher’s bottom rack.
I started to reorganize the remainder of them, but my co-loader intervened, wanting to know why the other way wouldn’t work. What ensued was a bunch of half-hearted explanations that finally ended with the hostess friend mumbling about the original manufacturer‘s instructions having diagrams of proper loading. In truth, it was just her preference.
Through somewhat incoherent cursing, my pal began to rearrange, but as soon as the hostess left the room, she quickly flipped them back. I cannot remember her exact words, but I think she said, “The sun will come up tomorrow whichever way they are loaded, “ or maybe it was, “That’s a load of something…”
Sure, there are some preferences that really are important, like high heels or flats, who we spend time with, No. 1 or No. 2 pencils, the type of car we drive, crushed or cubed ice, where we live and work, shaken or stirred, toothpaste flavors.
I bet some people think Coke or Pepsi is an important preference. Those of us who have experienced a perfect soda suicide mix know that it doesn’t really matter at all.
Preferences should also not be confused with highly distinguished favorites like the month of August, dark rinse jeans, and praline-flavored anything, which have risen to the top after years of testing out other options. They are not simply preferences. They are a way of life.
Heading into my landing, let’s circle down the runway back to the airlines, where this whole preference thing started, and where I recently booked some travel for my boss.
I selected the carrier, got to note his preference for the flight’s departure and arrival times, where and how much space he would have to stash his carry on, the amount of leg room, and an aisle, center, or window seat. Is this where the joke about you can pick your friends and pick your seat but you shouldn’t pick your friend’s seat goes?
When my boss came back from travel, I asked about his flight.
“I had great seats both ways, plenty of room to stretch out, and my bag was actually right above me for a change,” he said.
I smiled, but inside I was irritated; not with him, but with myself. My boss may not like his trip so much the next time; when I finished my purchase and went to pay, I forgot to save his darned preferences.
Cathy is a retired public school English teacher and Public Information Officer.