June 14, 2009

I don't like surprises. Especially when it comes to food. The other day I asked a simple question. "Does that have onions in it?" The woman behind the food counter stared at me blankly. "I don't think so," she replied. But she didn't seem convinced. She looked at the beetroot salad for a few seconds, studying it, and as she did this, I waited patiently even though I knew if it was just a matter of visibility; I would have been able to answer on my own.

Eventually she reached the inevitable conclusion. "I can't tell," she said.

"Can I get a sample?" I asked. Again, a blank look. I rephrased it. "Can I try it?"

You'd think I'd asked her the meaning of life. Although that would have probably been less perplexing. In London, I've discovered, asking for a sample is not common.

In New York, you can get a sample of anything and it's produced a city of sample-junkies. These are people who can't pass by a plate of free food without a nibble and have no problem asking for a taster before purchasing everything from olive oil to sliced ham.

In London, samples mainly take place in department stores like Harrods and it's usually reserved for expensive lipgloss and face creams.

When I told my friend, Laura, in New York, what happened she was aghast. "Samples have been around since the begin of frozen yogurt time," she said. "How could she not know what you meant?"

I'm not sure if there's been any historical research on the subject, but I suspect soft-serve frozen yogurt did indeed popularise the craze. There are women in New York who will make a meal out of tasters. It's gotten so bad that places like Tasti-D-Lite have posted signs that say: Only one sample per customer. But at any given time you'll find someone in there pleading with the server for 'just one more'.

When it comes to food samples, I'll only try it if it comes in a sample-sized cup or if there's a toothpick provided. There's nothing more depressing than cubes of cheese on a paper plate without a toothpick. Who wants to touch that?

"I do," Laura says, proudly. "I have extra germ immunity from eating samples people have touched with their grubby fingers."

Who needs antibiotics when you have a square of carrot cake?

Touching the cake samples are one thing. But slices of fruit are another matter. Those slimy nectarine slices - she'll even touch those. I told her she could go on a show like Fear Factor and win a bucket of money for that kind of risk-taking.

Even when a toothpick is provided, I have to be careful. I've seen people double-dip with the same toothpick, which is on par with using bare hands to dig around for the good sized piece of cookie.

The nastiest kind of sample is the one you don't ask for. This happens frequently with perfume. What's worse than opening a magazine and being assaulted with the scent of "Happy"? If I want to induce nausea, I'll walk through the lobby of Bloomingdales.

Back at the food store in London, the woman disappeared down a flight of stairs. When she emerged she was carrying a fork and a proper plate. It was a sweet gesture and so when she placed a bite-sized amount on the enormous dish and then passed it over the counter to me, I couldn't help but feel I had enlightened her in some small way. I thanked her for going to the trouble. Even though after all that I didn't get the salad.

It had onions.