Alinea vs. the Pope

sistine chapel

Over the weekend, the Alinea baby controversy hit the fan in Chicago. Local social media blew up after a mother brought an eight-month-old infant to a seating at the city’s famously expensive “molecular gastronomy” restaurant. Some diners complained that they had paid too much money (Alinea seatings cost hundreds of dollars) to have to listen to a crying baby. Chef-owner Grant Achatz sided with them, and lots of other people–including me–begged to differ.

Making matters more interesting is another thing that happened over the weekend in Rome, also involving infants. And Popes.

On Sunday, Pope Francis told mothers holding babies waiting to be baptized in the Sistine Chapel that if they needed to nurse their children, they should feel at liberty to do so right then and there. No need to feel inhibited by being in a church, or to fear that others nearby might not approve. The important thing, for Francis, was for mother and child to be able to mother and child, wherever they happened to be.

Achatz original tweet said the following:

That hesitation later morphed into discussing the potential to personally remove children from the dining room himself–and a Monday morning appearance on Good Morning America.

Let’s unpack that. Achatz’s original hesitation is informative. It’s a big thing to tell someone that their children aren’t welcome. An understandable thing in a clearly adult situation like a bar, or a place where hearing clearly is a key part of the experience. (For example, the theater experience Achatz noted in his tweet.)

However, no on has to strain to hear their dinner. To me, that’s where the argument of the diner-complainers breaks down. Some people who sided with them said the baby didn’t belong in the dining room because it showed bad parenting. How could a baby enjoy the high-minded meals of a restaurant like Alinea? How would a baby sit still for a multi-hour seating?

Those answers aren’t really their business, though. It’s up to parents to decide–really, to do their best to know–what environments their kids can and cannot handle. Even if you think they may be wrong, from a distance you don’t know them, or their children. Most importantly, they aren’t what the Alinea diners who complained were complaining about.

The diners who spoke out were annoyed that the baby was crying. That’s it. Merely doing what babies do when they need to and nothing more. Sitting on mom’s lap, and crying. And Achatz agreed that babies acting like babies might need to be banned from Alinea. In the same weekend that Pope Francis declared that babies acting like be babies should be welcomed in our holiest places. (Christian or not, that’s a universally heart-warming teaching.)

The Alinea baby controversy is a great example of what people who think issues likes this reflect astounding self-entitlement on the part of those who raise them call “First-World problems.” Diners who have so much recreational money that they can afford to spend hundreds of dollars on a single meal at an establishment that transforms human sustenance into a commodity of exclusion complain that their ability to do so should allow them to edit out of their presence other human beings whose mere presence they find offensive.

We’ve been here before often enough. Can you say segregation? Racism? Sexism? Ageism? Body fascism? I don’t like the way you look, or sound, or fundamentally are, and I’d like you out of my presence please. As Foghorn Leghorn said, “Go away, boy, ya’ bother me.” Do the shallowest among us really need to go there with children?

There are many reasons parents might bring an infant to a restaurant. The sitter canceled. The reservations were non-refundable. My child’s usually quiet. I had no other choice. (And who are you to know for a fact otherwise?) But whatever the reason, it isn’t the point. Because the problem is never an infant brought to a restaurant or anywhere else.

The problem is the adults who should know better forgetting where they, themselves, came from.

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What do you think?