‘ICE’ Is One Of The Rudest Dining Habits Ever, And You Might Be Doing It
Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do everything better than you.
The Scene: It’s been an hour since a dinner party you’re throwing for “friends.” (Note the quotation marks.) Most of your guests are on their second (or third) round of adult drinks and tucking into the main course — luscious grilled shrimp paired with grits [similar to cornmeal] You made the latter yourself according to an old family recipe. Shouts of approval echo around the table, but then there’s a distinctly audible murmur, “This grits are good. But you know, when I make them, I use real cream, not milk.”
whoops Was that a compliment or an insult? Or both – a compliment?
If this situation sounds familiar, you’re one of the many who have witnessed what might be called “evil comparison eating,” or ICE.
ICE is perhaps the most passive-aggressive bad eating habit when a person indirectly claims that a dish they are consuming is less good by listing the “superior” merits of another version (usually their own).
ICE can play out in any type of group meal (e.g. restaurants or cafes) but is particularly offensive when it occurs in a domestic area right in front of the home cook.
Lest you assume that ICE is a newfangled fad, let it be known that this awkward behavior has been going on for hundreds of years—and more importantly, it’s been recorded.
In his seminal 1899 study of wealth and consumption, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen argued that spiteful comparisons are a key way in which members of the affluent and/or affluent class actively attempt to distinguish themselves from those of the distinguish lower socioeconomic status.
He explicitly posited foul comparison as “a process of evaluating people in terms of their worth,” often accomplished through the accumulation and (here’s the important part) display or disclosure of superior assets.
In other words, it’s not enough that your “friend” at the dinner party can afford to buy real cream and use it when making grits; this fact must also be communicated to the masses in order to prove their superiority.
Like many formative traumas, my first experience with ICE happened in the middle school cafeteria while enjoying a lunchtime meal with my then-ride-or-dies, including a girl named — I shit you not — Karen.
My friends and I had a habit of swapping all or part of our lunches, and on this particular day, I swapped half of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich for one of Karen’s Swiss Buns (strictly forbidden in my household).
I was very pleased and more than a little smug, thinking I definitely got the better end of the deal, and asked Karen how she liked the sandwich. She stopped midway and replied without missing a beat, “It’s OK, yo-yo. But my mom does PB&Js clunky Peanut butter.”
I was angry. Not because Karen called me Jo-Jo (actually my tween self chosen nickname), nor for insulting my mother’s cooking (Mum’s forte was constructing legal arguments, not sandwiches, and she was fine with that), but because Karen conveyed that uncomfortable truth in such a sneaky, salacious way.
And while this anecdote was supposed to end with me stumbling out of the dining room and never speaking to Karen again, she was my little Debbie fixer and I didn’t want to mess with that connection.
As an adult I have seen the ICE man (and woman) come to many meetings and I am not alone. As I contacted family, friends, and even strangers online, I received anecdotes that ranged from humorous to downright painful.
Kerry Crisley, a novelist and communications expert, found herself on the receiving end of ICE behavior during a family dinner with an in-law. “I served Shepherd’s Pie and she asked me for the recipe. It was flattering and made me feel like a good hostess,” she said.
But then things took a confusing and rather offensive turn. “However, the next time I see her, she tells me, ‘I made your recipe for dinner,’ and then goes on to tell me that she changed everything. I top my shepherd’s pie with cheddar mashed potatoes. She just used a little shaved parmesan. Instead of mashed potatoes, she used scalloped potatoes. Instead of beef, she used ground turkey. And she used half the Worcestershire sauce. But still (and that’s the kicker) it was “my recipe”. I’ve gone from being a good host to a lousy cook,” Crisley said.
And because one bad twist so often deserves another, ICE can also be a double whammy when it comes to cultural appropriation, with the eater offering their own version of a dish from a culture (not their own) that is (usually very) nonstandard Ingredients.
Food blogger Tieghan Gerard of Half Baked Harvest has been mocked by members of the online culinary community when she published a recipe for “Weeknight ginger pho ga (Vietnamese chicken soup)” that replaced the traditional beef with caramelized chicken, among many alternatives. Gerard has since rebranded the recipe and apologized (sort of) for its glaring off taste.
Nick Leighton — a journalist, etiquette expert, and host of the Who Were You Raised by Wolves?” podcast — is insisted that ICE is clearly bad behavior. “In general, etiquette is about paying attention to other people’s feelings. And pondering the definition of “envious,” Merriam-Webster uses words and phrases like “uncomfortable,” “obnoxious nature,” and “to evoke hostility.” These are concepts that don’t reconcile very well with politeness, so surely etiquette would frown on any behavior described as “spooky,” he said.
For dealing with ICE, he offered this advice: “As a host who has prepared a meal, or as a fellow guest who is subjected to this behavior, there are many etiquette avenues one can take. From being polite but direct to completely ignoring it, it all depends on one’s mood, tolerance and the depth of the relationship with that person. For today, I would probably be inclined to offer a weak smile and then quickly change the subject. And then I would think twice about my guest list for the future.”
So while it’s certainly useful in some contexts to keep your friends and your enemies closer, perhaps when it comes to enjoying a meal, this Karen doesn’t deserve a seat at the table in your life.