Stolen Sandwiches and Microwaved Fish: A Return to the Bizarre Office Lunch Politics

In the Season 2 opener of the cult sketch series, “I Think You Should Leave,” Tim Robinson plays Pat, an office worker who has just been notified of an unexpected lunchtime meeting. “But it’s lunch,” Robinson said, loosening his grip on the hot dog in his hands.

“We pushed lunch back to 1:30 p.m. so Dennis could fly to Chicago,” his colleague replies with a sigh, before heading down the hall. Pat thought for a moment, then muttered, “I don’t know if you have the right to do that.”

However, Pat dutifully enters the council chamber for the meeting, walking with an eerily stiff cadence, one arm outstretched parallel to the floor. Once seated, it becomes apparent that he is hiding his hot dog in the sleeve of his blazer. He takes a pseudo-discreet bite on the pretext of scratching his chin.

Related: The Only Thing My Quarantine Brain Wants To Watch Right Now Is A Sketch Comedy

Eventually, he holds his head in his hands for another bite, then places his head on the council room table for another. “Is that a hot dog?” whistles a colleague. Pat replies that he’s tired, “the most tired he’s ever been”, in fact.

“Pat, we know you’re eating a hot dog down there,” his boss finally chimes in, before Pat suddenly goes limp and quiet. Someone grabs Pat’s arm to make sure he’s okay, and Pat jumps out of his chair – a hot dog stuck between his throat and his mouth. All his colleagues try to help him dislodge the hot dog, but Pat begins to struggle like a rabid animal. They finally squeeze him into a corner, while Pat maintains a choke on a guy in a button down, and the hot dog is finally dislodged.

Pat watches them with tears in his eyes, but instead of offering thanks or an apology, he delivers a single piece of wisdom.

“You can’t skip lunch, you just can’t, guys,” he says, tears in his eyes.

This sketch became an instant classic of the internet age, inspiring oil paintings, remote desktop protocol and visits in real situation hot dog stands. It’s one of those comedies that’s greater than the sum of its parts and, as such, lives pretty much free in my brain. I think, aside from the physical comedy that makes you feel in your gut, it’s because there’s definitely something inherently ridiculous about lunch at the office.

I’ve thought about it a lot (an embarrassing amount, to be honest) as more and more people I know return to their jobs in real office buildings, spending their days relaxing behind the partial gray walls of their cabins. As a society, we throw people into this sterile but emotionally charged environment – where deadlines, layoffs and budgets loom – and expect them to act normal, but it doesn’t always work out. this way.

There are unspoken rules and small office policies that underlie day-to-day interactions. As Tim Robinson so eloquently pointed out, everyone needs breakfast; this is often when those simmering tensions begin to boil over, much like lunch in the cafeteria for school-aged children.

There are unspoken rules and small office policies that underlie day-to-day interactions. As Tim Robinson so eloquently pointed out, everyone needs breakfast; this is often when those simmering tensions begin to boil over, much like lunch in the cafeteria for school-aged children.

It’s partly for this reason that the archives of business advice columns like Ask A Manager are full of food-related questions. There are a number of memorable scandals, ranging from a manager who kept asking an employee to share food with her (and would become bad-tempered if the employee didn’t comply), the co-worker obsessed with Keto who kept shaming office snacks, and the woman who made NSFW noises while tasting the chocolate cake a co-worker had baked.

Most of the questions, however, relate to food stolen from a communal office refrigerator. It’s such a bizarre violation. You have food that someone made or bought – and, let’s face it, probably can’t wait to get it packed that morning – and someone in the office feels entitled enough to just reach for the fridge and to take it. It inspires a kind of singular rage, as well as an obvious question: “What kind of person would do this thing?”

It’s a seemingly perennial problem. In 1998, the “Friends” episode “The One With Ross’ Sandwich” first aired. In it, Ross crumbles over his impending divorce and recent eviction. “The only good thing that happens in [his] life,” is the remains of the Thanksgiving sandwich he packed to eat at work. Inevitably, he is robbed, despite the fact that he left a note that read: Knock Knock. Who is here? Ross Geller’s lunch. Ross Geller’s lunch, who? Ross Geller’s lunch, please don’t take me away. OK?

A little over two decades later, Ask a Manager publishes a question from a reader that could easily have been an abandoned plot from a comedy sketch series or a sitcom.

“My food is always very, very spicy,” the advice seeker wrote. “I love it. Anyway, I was sitting at my desk when my co-worker came running out, having trouble breathing. He then ran into the bathroom and started getting sick. Turns out he ate my clearly labeled lunch.(It was also in a cooler lunch box to keep it cool from work at home as it’s a long drive.) There was nothing wrong. different in my lunch that day. In fact, it was just leftovers from my dinner the night before.

Fast forward a day and the individual’s boss asks if the advice seeker attempted to poison the colleague. Human resources got involved. A case at the office came to light and the advice seeker was eventually cleared – but not before he was briefly fired.

This is one of those advice columns where you wonder for a minute if the dilemma is actually based in truth. However, just a few weeks ago I saw a viral post on Reddit in which there was a picture of a water cooler. On the cooler was a note: “Hello water drinker, if you want to enjoy this delicious POLAND SPRING WATER, please consult Sandra or Michelle to join the very cool WATER CLUB. This water is not free. members are currently enjoying unlimited top-ups for $5 per month.”

I initially retweeted the photo thinking it was a joke until several people I know – mostly academics and civil servants – replied that their departments had also set up aquatic clubs since their return to work in person. It was one of those weird bits of office protocol that also felt like it could be turned into a sketch, but they adjusted to it in real time.

There are even comprehensive articles written on the etiquette of eating in an office environment, further proving the fact that we humans forget how to behave normally within the confines of the office kitchen.

There are even comprehensive articles written on the etiquette of eating in an office environment, further proving the fact that we humans forget how to behave normally within the confines of the office kitchen.

I have a soft spot for this article by Alyse Whitney: “7 rules of microwave etiquette in the office to follow so that your co-workers don’t hate you.” The rules are pretty self-explanatory – don’t microwave Brussels sprouts or seafood, use splatter protection, clean up after yourself – but I like the framing.

One of the things I’m most curious to see unfold is how, after more than two years of many office workers shifting to working from home, the return to lunch together is unfolding. Publications ranging from the BBC to Scientific American have already established that people have almost forgotten how to be social; will there be new ways office politics rears its ugly head in the dining room? Or will it just be more cases of stolen sandwiches and microwaved salmon? I guess only time and future editions of Ask a Manager will tell.

Make your office lunch fun again: