It is a frail constitution that will never stray from the familiar and the comfortable. If no other experiences offer contrast to the familiar, the familiar is no longer comfortable but confining.
This I have brooded on for some time, and last week whilst on holiday at the beach I realized that the situation demanded action. It began at the Tillamook Cheese Factory, where I found myself realizing that I only ever order their Brown Cow white-and-brown chocolate ice cream. (I believe it goes by some different name now, yet another victim to the brazen branding fanatics, but in my heart it shall always remain Brown Cow.) It is delicious, but it is routine. What of the other thirty-some-odd flavors on the menu? I resolved to order a three-scoop sampler and expand my tastes.
But almost immediately, I realized this was not enough. Were I left to my own devices, I would simply order three other flavors that sounded good to me. How could I make the experience more interesting? I girded up my loins and readied myself for high adventure: a mission to be surprised.
Anatomy of a Surprise
Here are the rules of what will become a semi-regular feature on this blog, the surprise experience. When the opportunity presents itself at a restaurant or other similar establishment wherein there are many suitable choices, I shall ask my host/server/proprietor to surprise me, and I will score the experience on four metrics outlined below: Audacity, Reaction, Discovery, and Satisfaction.
But firstly, a few ground rules.
I am allowed to rule out certain mundane options from the available choices, provided they do not meaningfully reduce the surprise factor. For example, when dining at Mo’s, I may specify “no burgers” when requesting the surprise, since although being served a burger at Mo’s would doubtless be surprising, I am loath to squander a rare opportunity to eat seafood on the beach.
I will only conduct the experiment in suitable locations. An example of an unsuitable location would be a Jack-in-the-Box drive through with a semi-literate person on the other end of the talking box.
I am allowed to set a price range if circumstances demand it. For instance, in my current state of fiscal affairs, I would rather not be surprised by a $200 bottle of wine.
Pursuant of consistency in the scoring of surprises, I will follow a script as closely as possible when requesting surprises. It goes like this:
(Waiter) And what would you like?
(Self) I would like you to surprise me. Anything on the menu is fair game. [Insert any applicable exceptions or clarifications here, such as “an entree” or “no hamburgers”.] [Optionally insert additional items to include, such as a surprise drink.]
The scoring scale ranges from -1 to +1. Each surprise will be scored on the following four metrics:
Audacity. This is a measure of the server’s willingness to be courageous and choose something bold he thinks I will like (or dislike), rather than trying to compromise on middle-of-the-road options. For instance, a server at a restaurant who delivers a sampler platter of their common foods would receive -1: weak sauce. A server who delivers a raw oyster shooter, on the other hand, knows what a surprise is all about and would definitely receive +1 for his sheer audacity.
Reaction. This is the server’s apparent willingness to play along. Any questions about my preferences after I request to be surprised (e.g. “Do you like X?”) will result in a -1. An eagerness to play along and/or general enthusiasm at the idea of choosing what to sell a customer receives +1.
Discovery. This measure is inversely proportional to the likelihood I would have ordered the surprise item myself. Thus, if the Tillamook Cheese Factory gives me a scoop of Brown Cow, discover would be -1. If they give me a scoop of “Grandma’s Cake”, they get +1, because nobody in their right mind orders a scoop of “Grandma’s Cake” ice cream.
Satisfaction. This measure is directly proportional to the likelihood I will ever order the surprise item again.
Thus, the Platonic surprise would receive a score of +4. An utterly mundane surprise delivered by a cranky nihilist would receive -4.
With the rules set and the scoring explained, let us proceed to our first surprise, conducted during my vacation at Cannon Beach.
Inaugural Surprise: Tillamook Cheese Factory
Following lunch at the Tillamook Cheese Factory, we proceeded to the ice cream bar where I proceeded to order several items for the children, and then my own turn came.
- And I would like a 3-scoop sampler, and I want you to surprise me with the flavors. (This was before I came up with a script.)
- You want what?
- Surprise me. Pick any three flavors, except no orange sherbet.
- Okay…how about I’ll pick my three favorites.
- Sounds fine.
- Do you like nuts?
- Nuts are fine.
With that, she proceeded to pick Marionberry, “Grandma’s Cake Batter”, and Caramel Butter Pecan.
Scoring Breakdown: Tillamook Cheese Factory
||This wasn’t really a good test, because I limited her to a 3-scoop sampler. However, her choices within that confinement were reasonably audacious, so she gets a score of neutral.
||She had to confirm that I wanted a surprise and she also asked about what I liked.
||I never would have ordered Grandma’s Cake Batter. No sane person does.
||Marionberry was okay, Caramel Butter Pecan was all right (too much butter and not enough caramel), and Grandma’s Cake Batter was downright horrible. I’ve never eaten a grandma’s cake batter when not otherwise baked into a cake, and I certainly have no inclination to start now. Good thing I was sharing my dessert with 2-year-old Knox, who had no apparent objections to eating cake-batter-flavored ice cream.
Overall, the Tillamook Ice Cream Surprise scores a flat zero: not bad for a first try, but nothing really out of the ordinary as surprises go.
The Unsurprising Conclusion
This is only the beginning. As I mentioned, my goal is to make surprises a recurring theme around here. I have two additional vacation surprises already catalogued and coming soon, but a rather practical problem remains beyond those: I rarely make these kinds of purchases when not on vacation, so opportunities for surprise may be few and far between. Nevertheless, I shall keep my eyes open for them. I hope to culminate this series someday in years to come with a “Surprise me” visit to a travel agency. When I do, you’ll be sure to hear of it.