February 5th 2012
Diners are packing up the sweetener packets.
If you like to restock your stash of sweetener when you dine out, know that stevia-based sweeteners are so hot that some restaurants won't leave them out on tables.
I'm starting to believe that I might have been an annoying child on family car trips, because my parents developed numerous schemes to amuse me.
There was the counting cows competition: You count the number of bovines passed on your side of the car and hope you get more than someone on the other side of the car. If one side passed a graveyard, the rules stipulated that the unlucky counter lost all her cows.
When that game lost its appeal, or one of us passed too many graveyards and gave up in disgust, my mother would have me sort the sugar packet collection.
The family-style places where we'd stop to eat during road trips offered ample containers of sugar packets that had state flags printed on one side, and state flowers and other information on the other.
Our goal was to collect all 50 states. At each meal stop, I'd rummage through the packets on the table, looking for states we didn't have. We had no shame. We'd carry out handfuls of packets right in front of waitresses.
My mother believed, as many others apparently do, that by paying for a meal, you've paid for everything in the place that you can stuff in a purse. That's why, after she died, I found a quart-sized canister bulging with ketchup packets in her kitchen. She never used ketchup on anything, anytime. But those packets were on the tables, or in the McDonald's bags, and she was keeping them. They were hers.
The ketchup packets, crackers, sweeteners and other things that jump into coat pockets actually cost restaurants some serious money. Eatocracy, CNN's food blog, recently quoted the CEO of Alabama-based Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q as saying that table condiments cost the restaurant about $900,000 a year.
It's naturally sweet
Now sticky-fingered packet pilferers are going after the new stevia-based sweeteners. And those packets don't even have state flags on them. I've looked.
In case you're still stirring pink, yellow or blue packets into your beverages, stevia is a plant whose leaves are, well, sweet, but with no calories. As a natural sweetener, some consider it better than the other color packets.
I have no opinions on the difference. I just want my sweet tea sweet. And if I don't have an extra ear growing from my head by now, after guzzling Tab in college and gallons of tea my grandmother doused with liquid saccharin after she got the "high sugar," I never will.
Stevia-based sweeteners are so hot that some restaurants won't leave them out on tables. The Wall Street Journal recently wrote that some Whole Foods Markets are keeping packets of one brand, Truvia, behind the counters at their beverage bars. Desperate calorie counters must ask for it, speakeasy-style.
The problem is so widespread that the maker of Truvia is developing a dispenser that would limit the number of packets diners can grab at one time. Unless the dispenser has a lock with a retinal scanner and fingerprint recognition, that's not going to stop anyone.
Besides, if you think you've bought everything you see when you get a cup of coffee, why not forget the sweetener packets and pick up a chair or light fixture on the way out?
I confess that I do commit thievery, but not of edibles: I swipe restaurant matches. I don't smoke, and I just need a few books of matches around to light candles, ignite charcoal, set off sparklers, those sorts of things. Really, just a handful. Well, before the decline in smoking in restaurants, I did have a ceramic vase full of them.
But that stash ran dry months ago, after I used the final pack, which was from Sam & Omie's in Nags Head. It's the one place where I can still rely on finding a bowl of matches next to the cash register and very busy clerks who look the other way.
I had to actually purchase a carton of matches at the supermarket. It just felt so wrong.
They at least could have had state flowers on them.