Imagine the scene: a table with friends in a small Spanish restaurant tucked away in the corner of a Czech courtyard. An almost-empty pitcher of sangria, laughter and the sense of satisfaction that comes with eating more than enough (but not too much) paella. And then a plate loaded with cake passes before our eyes.
Not just one piece, but two. Not small pieces, but generous portions. Not a small plate, but a large one. This wonder of a dessert is delivered by the chef and placed on the adjacent table. We watch and wait, hoping that perhaps the restaurant gods have decided to grace us with a little more sweetness for the evening. Ah, how easy it is to delude oneself.
We watch in wonder as the restaurant's owner appears with a can of whipped cream tucked under his arm and sits down before the cakes. He applies whipped cream generously to the naturally creamy confections, picks up his fork and tucks in. Sometime after the second bite, he looks up and catches our baffled gazes. He smiles, somewhat sheepishly, and then explains, "tonight is a two piece of cake (and whipped cream) kind of night."
Somewhere deep down in my mind, I wonder why he chose cake (and whipped cream) and not a hard drink. After all, I've spent enough time in the restaurant world to know that the owners pour a stiff one, when needed, and cope with their stress in that way. Maybe not healthy. Okay, definitely not healthy. But certainly typical. So, why is this guy consuming cake?
He explains: Effective three hours earlier that evening, at 7:00 p.m., it became illegal to buy or sell hard liquor in the Czech Republic. Prohibition will be in place for the next three to seven (or more) days. The stated purpose of this legislation is to protect the people from contaminated hard liquors, the consumption of which has placed an alarming number of unsuspecting adults in hospital. It seems that something in the booze (perhaps methanol) is poisoning the people. In other words, if pour yourself a stiff one, and you might go blind or even die.
That's tragic and troubling to say the least. And a swift public health response is warranted, but so too is the recognition that there are unintended consequences to every action. Banning liquor provides some protection, but it also inflicts a heavy penalty on everyone who owns or works in a restaurant, bar and nightclub. That's stressful too, as the restaurant owner next to us pointed out. And, what better to do, in the face of such trouble, than eat cake? Two pieces. With the full container of whipped cream standing by.
Now the crazy thing is, all of us at that table make a living in the field of stress management. And none of us could offer any advice that was more suitable to the restaurant owner's predicament. What was there to say? He knew exactly what he was doing and he chose a relatively uncomplicated strategy to help himself feel better.
Cake, even two pieces plus extra whipped cream, won't kill him tonight. And not tomorrow. These days in the Czech Republic, hard liquor just might. And any day, anywhere, there are significant human and health costs to relying on a stiff drink to cope with stress.
Despite the tragedy and absurdity of the current situation, this short-term prohibition offers food for thought. Given the circumstances, Marie Antionette's notoriously cruel remark has a constructive current application. Right here, right now, its better to "let them eat cake."
As for us, we'd like to have two pieces with whipped cream, too.
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