Olive Garden as a metaphor for life

I really love Olive Garden. It’s where I’ve celebrated my birthday for many years, where my parents and I stop on vacation for a nice meal, where my family dined the night before I left for college — the list goes on, but many important moments in my life have been commemorated in the company of free breadsticks. Sure, in recent years, I’ve gained more of an appreciation for trying local food and expanding my palate, but there’s just something so heartwarming about the predictability of a chain — especially one that showers you with freebies.

It was with this in mind that a group of friends and I arrived at the Brier Creek Olive Garden at around 5:30 p.m. one evening at the end of November, which was the last weekend of their “Never Ending Pasta Bowl” promotion. We were met with the wistful hum of planes taking off from RDU in the background, the shouts of children as they raced to the door and excitement in the air. One could almost imagine we were in a bustling Italian market if not for the Hobby Lobby across the parking lot. Unfortunately, there was a 45-minute wait (the Venn diagram of people who like Olive Garden and people who eat dinner before 6 p.m. borders on a perfect circle), but the delay only intensified my longing for pasta. 

Once seated, we were eagerly greeted by our waiter Sirus, who would certainly earn his keep by responding to our incessant requests for more food throughout the rest of the evening. As we scanned the menus in front of us, my eyes were drawn to the special card on the table devoted to the reason for the season: the Never Ending Pasta Bowl. This, like most entrees at Olive Garden, comes with free breadsticks and either a free salad or a free soup. But here’s the catch: If everybody orders the free salad, a big, communal one is just placed in the middle of the table — the same size that would be served even if only one or two people ordered it. Thus, most of us made the wise and calculated decision to order free soup, while someone took one for the team and ordered a free salad with the promise of a spoonful or two of soup getting slipped their way. 

Perhaps it’s sad to be in your mid-20s and have a well-honed strategy for getting your money’s worth out of a chain restaurant, but I choose to think of it as one of my charming qualities. 

Soon the free soups, salads and breadsticks started to flow. The first order of breadsticks quickly disappeared. We asked for more. Our waiter said that there was a backlog but that he would fight to get the next batch for our table. I have no clue whether any of that was true or if it was just a ploy to increase our tip, but either way, it worked. 

Like royalty, we feasted on the continuous assemblage of carbohydrates brought before us, dishes replaced as soon as they were whisked away. The feeling of fullness started to set in before long, but at Olive Garden, satiety must be brushed aside. After all, it was now time for the main course: the Never Ending Pasta Bowl. The phrase seems silly to capitalize at first, but after consumption, it becomes clear that every single capital letter is well deserved.

Many of us struggled to get through the first plate of pasta, and I barely managed to advance to the second. Face-to-face with yet another pasta bowl, even if somewhat smaller than the first, I had to call it quits. Fortunately, we were able to take the rest of our pasta and breadsticks (along with a box of free tasty mints) to go, but I was racked with what-ifs. What if I’d had one fewer breadstick? A less hefty tong-full of salad? Fewer slurps of soup? Maybe I would’ve been able to enjoy more never-ending pasta if I had just planned and calculated better. But, as everything in life is wont to do, the Never Ending Pasta Bowl eventually came to an end.

In an effort to extract some sort of lesson from Olive Garden, I’d like to point out a few commonalities between my Never Ending Pasta Bowl experience and life. We can spend our time in so many ways, but are ultimately constrained by the finite hours in our day. Just as we can’t have endless soup, salad, breadsticks and pasta in one sitting, we can’t cram a lengthy essay, dinner, a movie with friends, errands and everything else we might like to do into a single day.

Life constantly pushes us to re-evaluate our priorities — and they don’t always have to be the same from day to day. One Olive Garden trip could be a pasta occasion where you show impressive restraint with all the free appetizers to save room to indulge in several bowls of pasta. The next trip could be the time to eat all the soup and breadsticks you want, just to take most of your pasta entrée home. Likewise, life is all about a tasteful blend of activities, with some days more focused on work, others dedicated to fun and most somewhere in between. 

If the person next to you is going ham on the soup while you’re waiting for the pasta, there’s a chance you’ll question if you have your priorities straight. But I’ve realized that sometimes people are just hungrier for soup in the moment, and at the end of the day, it all evens out in life.

Nathan Luzum is a third-year medical student and a member of the DSPC Board of Directors. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. 

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