Once a hallmark of the working day, the proverbial “lunch hour” has taken an extended leave, probably never to return.
These days, about the closest most American workers come to enjoying a regular lunch hour is watching others experience them on AMC’s “Mad Men.” The secretaries cover their electric typewriters to signal “out to lunch.” Executives claim “I’m going to lunch” when they slip out for a rendezvous.
It was the heyday of the three-martini lunch -- long, expensive, boozy business meals that executives enjoyed and companies deducted from their taxes as a business expense (which prompted a change to the tax code).
In 1978, President Gerald Ford defended the practice before the National Restaurant Association Convention, calling the three-martini lunch an epitome of American efficiency. “Where else can you get an earful, a bellyful and snootful at the same time?” Ford cracked.
Efficient or not, at one time nearly every place of employment was expected to provide workers with an hour around noon to take a break from work, take a walk, get some air, run an errand, de-stress, think and, most important, enjoy a meal with co-workers, business contacts, friends, family or alone.
Now it’s nostalgia, although not everywhere as a recent trip to southern France confirmed.
A 2012 survey of North American workers by Right Management, a workforce solutions company, found lunch hours have become a casualty of modern working life. Only one in five workers reported taking a real break for lunch. The plurality, 39 percent, said they have lunch at their desks.
The fast food giant, KFC Corp., did a similar study in 2006 and found that more than 60 percent of America’s office workers consider the 60-minute lunch to be the biggest myth in office life.
Why? Workplace expectations have changed. There is more work per person, office workers don’t have union contracts protecting break times, and everyone’s afraid to appear to be the one slacking off.
Maybe Americans don’t need a lunch hour to the same extent they once did. No longer is it essential to rush to the bank before 3 p.m. (remember “bankers’ hours”?) Even going to the post office to buy stamps is an anachronism. Everything is available online. Errands can be attended to from one’s desk or mobile device. “All the modern inconveniences,” to quote Mark Twain in another context.
But then there is France.
My husband and I were there for a week this summer visiting the Languedoc-Roussillon region. We traveled with friends by self-piloted canal boat along the Canal du Midi.
There, lunch is life.
Rule No. 1 of canal travel: The lock-keeper’s lunch is from 12:30 to 1:30. Then, all passage through the locks, of which there are many, will cease, so plan around it.
It was the same story visiting the winery at the Chateau de Paraza located in the tiny village of Paraza, and at the Bemberg Foundation art gallery in the bustling city of Toulouse. Sights were closed to visitors one to two hours a day so workers could enjoy their lunch. The idea was for you to do the same.
Restaurants located in the canal-side villages were largely alfresco affairs with awnings for shade from the intense afternoon sun. Despite the heat, people lingered over beautifully prepared, simple food. Servers were in no rush to bring a check. (This is what happens when restaurant staff is paid a living wage and doesn’t have to hurriedly flip tables for tips.) It appeared that locals and visitors were on the same languid timetable.
A culture of lunch, daily lunch, where one socializes and eats real food, not some McMeal, is a staple of a good life that Americans have lost to job stress, overwork and tight family budgets.
Maybe that’s why the Paris tourism board recently told restaurants in France to be nice to Americans even though they are always glued to their personal devices.
The world knows we’ve forgotten how to take time to dine.