The Fallacy of the Free Meal

For Lingbo Li ’11, the cost of a meal may not be the hit to her wallet.

lingbo column
Judy Park

If you're this loaded, there's no need to seek free food anyway.

Lingbo Eats

Free food comes at a steep price.

A few years ago, I didn’t understand this. The mere words “free food” were enough to motivate me to scale mountains. I signed up for a two-week sleepaway chemistry camp junior year of high school purely because the itinerary advertised restaurant outings. I spent my interview rhapsodizing about Stephen Hawking and the theory of relativity, mainly because I couldn’t say much about chemistry. I figured physics would be a good stand-in.

I got in.

I hadn’t bargained for the chemistry lectures—from which I retained nothing—and thankfully, the experience was saved by a surprisingly socially adept bunch of students. I still remember poking at my pork katsu in a Japanese restaurant, stuffed with food but bored to tears by covalent bonding and chemical pigments.

I hadn’t learned my lesson by freshman year of college. The immediate sensory thrill of consuming—the sweet, fried crunch of a (free) egg roll, the fine, golden crumb of a (free) cake slice—meant that I thought with my stomach. Who cared about celebrities on campus, prime ministers speaking at the IOP, or theatrical productions when there was free bubble tea to be drunk?

I was soon to be corrected by a string of bad dates. I spent the summer between sophomore and junior year interning at a Shanghai expat magazine. I met an Australian man who took me out for teppanyaki with his friends. Over the course of one miserable evening, he told the waitress I was his wife (which I vehemently denied to her in Chinese) and mused about our three or four unborn children running on the sands of Australia’s Gold Coast. All the while, I suffered a violent, phlegmatic cough as his friends chain smoked their lungs to oblivion.

He was also uncommonly fond of his American Express black card, which he loved to wave around. “I can get in anywhere in the world,” he boasted, although the teppanyaki restaurant hardly required a membership. I attempted to soothe the pain with another round of fried rice while his friends, still chain smoking, made sexist comments about our female chef. Despite his talks of marriage, it thankfully turned out he was leaving for Australia the next morning. Afterwards, all I could think was: I missed out on a night out with my friends for this?

Two years later, in the midst of a surprising mini-career as a food writer, I’ve found that free appetizers still aren’t free. “You must get so much free food,” people often say after learning of my blog. The truth is that when restaurants sponsor blogger events, the spicy salmon maki doesn’t come without an implicit agenda. I always feel guilty eating food that I’m not planning on writing up—it’s important to remember why I get invited in the first place. The ethics of food blogging dictate that I disclose gifts, which I do, but the line between editorial and advertorial can occasionally feel tenuous. What I ended up realizing: if you’re approaching bloggers, either use a middleman (a PR agency) to plan an event, or build up a relationship first and don’t use the words “free meal.” The latter smells too much like a commercial transaction, and no one wants to feel bought.

When you’re young and poor, it’s easy to believe that free food is truly free. But as I learned in Ec 10, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Whenever you choose to do something, understand you’re giving up something infinitely more valuable: your time. While free food is still a draw, I always try to drag a good friend along to enjoy it with me. As pleasurable as food is, bad company can spoil even the finest (free) foie gras.

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