On the Menu: Eavesdropping offers an eye-opening look at what consumers think about food

On the Menu: Eavesdropping offers an eye-opening look at what consumers think about food

Being nosy by nature, I enjoy overhearing small conversations in public places, especially restaurants and supermarkets because most of the talk there focuses on food.

In a market you can stop midaisle and pretend to look for a favorite brand of crackers and listen if the talk intrigues you.

At a Whole Foods in Princeton, N.J., I recently pretended to be looking for the perfect cauliflower when a man asked his co-shopper, “Do we want organic broccoli?”

“No,” the woman he was with quickly answered. As the couple moved on through the produce area, I tagged along.

Next the male asked, “Then do we care if our apples are local?”

“No,” the female responded, again without hesitation. “All we really care about is if the produce looks good and fresh.”

That’s just the kind of honest answer that may be left unsaid if a food writer pulls out a notebook and asks for a formal quote. These candid comments offer a glimpse of diners’ personal preferences as well as their varying levels of sophistication.

Besides specialty food stores, farmers markets are a prime place to eavesdrop on strangers’ food opinions. At my local market one of the best comments overheard this summer was between two well-dressed men who were walking away from a fish monger selling product landed on the shores of our Garden State.

The buyer said the sea scallops they purchased were less expensive than those sold at an upscale store close by.

“And you’re supporting local fishermen while spending less,” said the fellow male with a smile.

“Who cares?” the scallop buyer candidly asked. “I want the best price.”

Folks purchasing memberships for between $358 and $604 a year to the Honey Brook Organic Farm in Pennington, N.J., seem unfocused on cost, but many take what they eat seriously. When visiting with a pal who belongs there eavesdropping was hardly even necessary. These folks spoke to absolute strangers.

A woman in the field picking okra looked like she was bubbling over with excitement as she randomly noted, “I’m from the South [2] and make gumbo all the time, but I’ve never seen how okra grows before. Look, on the top of the plant there’s a flower. I have to come back with my kids so they can see an okra plant.”

Just a few rows over from the okra plants a guy shared his find. “The husk-on tomatoes are dynamite in a salsa,” he said. “I picked them last week.”

Those fruits growing on bush plants looked like a form of gooseberries and they were downright delicious with an intense sweet flavor. But in my hands they were devoured before being turned into a dip.

While it’s interesting to hear people who are serious about food, supermarkets are a great place to witness the sophistication—or lack thereof—of the average consumer.

On Thanksgiving eve, for example, there were two young people rushing through the dairy aisle with an overflowing cart and one asked, “What about vegetables?”

“Do we have to?” the second wined.

“Yeah.”

“Okay, then lets get some canned corn.”

“No, frozen corn Niblets are sweeter,” said the one manning the cart as they turned down the frozen food area.

Restaurant dining rooms are another prime eavesdropping area.

“Don’t you love the burgers here?” asked a 60-something-woman eating in a casual chain restaurant.

“Yes. The buns are toasted,” her dining mate answered. “It makes the difference.”

Occasionally, however, I hear things I wish I hadn’t.

For example, about 10 years ago while on my honeymoon, my husband and I were eating in a small, quiet dining room in France when we were sort of trapped across from a loud complainer with a distinct Texas accent.

“Half a puny chicken, that’s all I get for $125?” complained the American to the server who was carving tableside.

“It is a poussin,” answered the waiter, who politely left out the fact that $125 was the price of an entire five-course tasting meal. “Would the gentleman care to have the other half?” he graciously asked.

As the loudmouth stuffed himself with the remainder of the baby bird, his dining mate hissed, “I’m mortified.”

As a fellow American, I was too.