The Original “I’ll Have What She’s Having”

“I’ll have what she’s having” may be the funniest line in the history of the movies. It’s what an elderly woman (Estelle Reiner) says, deadpan, to her waitress while watching a young woman (Meg Ryan) fake an orgasm at a nearby table where she’s dining with her former boyfriend (Billy Crystal) in Rob Reiner’s classic 1989 film, “When Harry Met Sally.”

In real life, however, those same five words,“I’ll have what she’s having,” can save some adults from public humiliation.

Let me explain: Recently I posted about a young woman who teaches First Grade on Martha’s Vineyard (MA) and moonlights three or four nights a week as a waitress.  The menu at her restaurant was all words, no pictures.

Here are three examples from the menu: 

Guinness Braised Short Rib $34 kale & leek mash potatoes, crispy leeks, Guinness gravy

Oven Roasted Cod $36 haricots verts, pine nut & black currant salad, citrus  beurre blanc, mashed potatoes

Cheeseburger & Fries $22  7 oz. Angus burger, cheddar, brioche bun

Just words, no pictures.  

By contrast, imagine you are eating at Burger King, MacDonald’s, a fast food place at an Interstate rest stop, or Denny’s.  At these places, photographs rule!  Here’s a sample from Denny’s:

Chicken Wings

Smothered Cheese Friesos

A few words accompany each photo, plus the price. 

If you’ve ever wondered why fast food restaurants and food courts at highway rest stops feature photos of all their food, well, it’s not simply to stimulate taste buds; it’s an acknowledgement that many of their customers are not readers. Those laminated full-color menus are an expensive accommodation, and they have to be reprinted every time prices go up or the menu changes.

That Vineyard restaurant–and all the other restaurants whose menus eschew pictures– are pretty much off limits for more than half of adult Americans, the roughly 141 million men and women who read below a 6th grade level, including a large number who are functionally illiterate.

For generation after generation, most Americans have not learned to read with fluency.  Today most Americans apparently read only when they have to.  The numbers are daunting: 

  1. Roughly 21% of American adults are illiterate, and another 33% read at or below a 6th grade level; 
  2. Americans between the ages of 15 and 44 spend ten minutes or less a day reading books;
  3. More than half of adult Americans haven’t read a full book in over a year, and 
  4. Young people are reading less than half the number of books that older generations read. (See here and here and here.)

More than 35 years ago producer Mike Joseloff and I traveled to Iowa to report on adult illiteracy for the NewsHour.  We chose Iowa, as I recall, because it had one of the highest-ranked public education systems.  There we spent time with a local businessman and his wife.  The man had his own successful plumbing business, but he could not read!  His wife handled all the correspondence and record-keeping, allowing him to live a lie, going through his days posing as a reader.

He had survived, he told us, by using his wits. He would carry a newspaper and pretend to read it while drinking his coffee, and he kept up with the news on local radio and TV, in case his customers wanted to talk about current events. 

As for dining out, he always went to restaurants with picture menus: Denny’s, Howard Johnson’s, MacDonald’s and so forth.

If he and his wife went out to dinner with friends and somehow ended up at a restaurant with a ‘words only’ menu, he said he would pretend to read his menu while listening carefully to what everyone else was ordering.  He made sure that he would order last, and then he’d say to the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

When we met him, he had decided he’d had enough of living that lie. He had just enrolled in an adult literacy class, in part because he wanted to be able to read to his young children. 

Perhaps most non-readers don’t have the courage or the opportunity to learn to read as adults.  That man was doubly fortunate: a loving and supportive wife and the courage to ‘come out’ as illiterate.  It seems likely that the majority of non-reading adults lead lives of deception, fewer opportunities, or narrower horizons–the direct result of our failure to teach them to read with confidence and comprehension when they were young children.

Mike and I did that story for the NewsHour a few years before “When Harry Met Sally.” Sadly, we probably could do it again, in Iowa or in any other state because American schools continue to do a poor job of teaching reading.

Let me leave you with a conundrum: FIRST, We know that reading is the fundamental building block of education, AND we know that competent readers are more likely to finish college (and beyond), AND we know that educated citizens earn more money, live in nicer places, have access to better health care, and live longer, healthier lives.

SECOND, we know how to teach reading effectively to virtually all children.

THIRD, despite our awareness of reading’s importance and despite our knowing how to teach reading effectively, we do not provide the necessary resources to teach all poor children and children of color to read confidently and with understanding.

WHY? Is the system set up to maintain the status quo, even though education is supposed to be a ladder up? Is it inherently racist and classist?

What do you think?

11 thoughts on “The Original “I’ll Have What She’s Having”

  1. I am convinced that Emily Hanford is an uninformed hack doing the bidding of the Science of Reading mob. Many of America and Canada’s top reading scholars loath her biased accounts that push a 1930s approach to reading education and ignore any evidence that does not fit that scheme.


  2. It’s not just restaurants! Recently my go-to news source, Google News, “aggregated from sources all over the world”, joined all the others in adding photographs and removing sources on their website. I tried in vain to find an alternative where I could choose what to read by source and headline, but they all feature splashy photographs now which dominate their presentaion. In addition, whenever I visit any of them, they want me to sign up for “the news you need today” or something similar. I much prefer a thousand words to most any picture, but I never read comic books beyond 4th grade or played video games.


  3. This is such a sad and not very well-informed comment. We don’t know each other, but if you’re interested, I would like to know more about your thinking on this issue and share with you some of my thoughts and some information you might fine useful, or at least interesting. If you’re so included, you can reach me at Hope to hear from you.


  4. great article.

    As a retired teacher I can tell you literacy has been gradually and continuously declining in America since the 1920s and 1930s. My grandfather, for example, had very little formal education. He went to sea as a boy apprentice circa 1894 at age 8. Of course, in those days on British merchant ships the boy apprentices slept apart from the sailors and were tutored by the captain in reading, basic math and navigation. They read the King James Bible, Scott, Shakespeare, Dickens,
    and Burns. One thing the did not do much of was writing so my grandfather was ashamed that he could not spell and write fluently. He often would have a friend write letters for him and then he was copy them out line for line. I suppose that way he improved his writing gradually over the years. He had a very good looking signature. But I don’t think he ever read a book in his entire life. He was an avid newspaper and magazine reader, however. He loved to study maps and atlases. He knew all the classes of naval vessels (he built a few) and he knew British aviation and German aviation and American aviation and production figures. My father was a college graduate but he always believed his father had deep experience, knowledge and wisdom even though he lacked degrees and diplomas. I remember as a boy he read two or three newspapers every day (Daily News, Post, Herald-Tribune plus LIFE magazine and National Geographic). He could smoke and read quietly for hours. Of course, he read to me. He read Kipling, he read comic books (Superman and Classics Illustrated), he read Greek Myths, He knew some Gaelic but was almost completely illiterate in that language. Similarly he knew Scots very well but could not spell or write the way he spoke. But my grandfather was no unusual. His working friends all avidly read newspapers and political tracts (some were pro-Communist). Similarly my father’s mother probably never read a single book in her whole life But one book she knew very well was the Bible. She was devout Christian in the Roman Catholic tradition and it was not unusual for her to attend Mass seven days a week . What she knew about art and music she mostly got from the church. She had relatives who were teachers and priests and she had great respect for learning. She was a very humble woman. My father was greatly influenced by his uncle who was a teacher and later by his Jewish teachers and professors at Manual Training HS in Brooklyn and Brooklyn College. Unlike his father, my father was a very serious reader and an amateur linguist as well. He studied Latin and French in High School and German and French in College. He taught himself SPANISH, TAGALOG, Italian, Ancient Greek and Modern Greek, as well as Russian. His reading endurance was remarkable. He read all of Dickens, all of Shaw, all of Stevenson, all of Twain. All of Shakespeare, All of Dante all of the Greek playwrights all of Cicero, all of Caesar, all of Xenophon all of Homer, Cervantes, all of Zola. of Balzac, all of Victor Hugo. All of Dante, all of Will Durant, All of Barzun, All of Gilbert Hight all of Orwell I could go on. I was lucky enough to inherit most of his books I still have a long way to go but in 50 years have made some progress.
    My wife is a reader my cousin is a reader we all read the newspapers and Reader’s Digest (for light reading) My daughter a k-6 teacher reads dozens of books every year and belongs to book clubs. Like her mother she reads in Spanish and English. Her small children are already playing with books and being read to. They see their parents and grandparents reading, My four year old granddaughter was going over a book of dinosaurs and animals and recognized dozens of animals in English and Spanish EXCEPT Cheetah or Guepardo. She said it was a leopard and I pointed out how big cats were different Jaguars, Leopards, Lions and Pumas . She has a little toy Noah’s Arc and she lines up the animals and compares and contrasts them. She knows colors and the things animals eats. This is how one develops readers. By example and by reading with them and to them.
    I told my students that you don’t get vocabulary by watching TV shows like “Friends” I made a charter of vocabulary, and verb tenses of three different works #1 was a random “Friends” episode #2 was a play by G B Shaw #3 was the vocabulary in a book like Tale of Two Cities, Tom Jones, For Whom the Bell Tolls or 1984 by Orwell. One could spend MONTHS studying and commenting on the vocabulary and cultural allusions of the books. Years even. Pyramus and Thisbe we see in OVID, FIELDING, Cervantes , SHAKESPEARE, for example
    “Friends” had zero biblical allusions zero historical zero literary allusions and less than 8th-grade vocabulary. Mostly it had low-brow off-color humor. But it was very clear the education and vocabulary one would receive from a TV show like this would be very limited. Of course, one could watch something a little higher up on the cultural scale, Laurence of Arabia, Great Expectations, the King’s Speech. But it is not a coincidence that some of the greatest films are derived from plays and books.
    So one should read to gain vocabulary, facts and information. This could be the nutritional value of foods or the rules of a game or how to plant a rose bush or olive tree. This could be on how to maintain basic hygiene to reduce illness and avoid the flu, VD or Covid 19.
    One should read to sharpen your mind and learn from the experiences of those in history or stories. Years ago I saw the FILM ENCHANTMENT with David Niven and Teresa Wright. My mother encouraged me to read the book which I did the Rumer Godden novel, “Take Three Tenses” This book was very important for me and for my life because it taught me a very important lesson: When you find love and happiness don’t let it pass your by. Take a chance and tell the person how you feel don’t be full of regrets like the Old General who lost the love of his life basically so he could advance his career. A few times I met women who were really worth while and special women. Sometimes the mutual chemistry and magnetism was not there. So the relationship never developed or we broke up. But when you fine that love, that friendship, that laughter that joy, that trust you have to take a chance. You can’t put off love forever do it by your 20s or early 30s at the latest. Rummer Godden may not be greatest author in history but she knew about some important things and she woke me up to the fact what was I doing wasting my life with people and women who could not make me happy? I knew who I loved and just needed to prove to her that I could make her happy and secure. So we fell in love and lived happily every after. And I thank my mother (and David Niven) an Rummer Godden for teaching me the way to make good choices. But it all started with reading.
    Reading teaching empathy and makes one more compassionate for the sufferings of others. I remember the book THE EDGE OF SADNESS and THE KEYS TO THE KINGDOM and saw the glory and the tragedy of the life of priests and missionaries. I had some interest in the priesthood and missionary work because I liked teaching and helping people. But I could never be celibate because especially when I was 17-25 I just loved women and wanted to be with them! I didn’t want all women however I would be happy with one.
    Sometimes I have to travel by myself and wait in airports. I once spent five hours on a layover in Dallas and eight hours at Barajas Airport. But neither were bad experiences because I had books to read. There were clean bath rooms, cafés restaurants and places to sit. So I read and drank coca cola or coffee and then strolled and then snacked and then ate a supper with a book or newspaper. Before I knew it I was on my plane. If I hadn’t anything to read it might have been dreadful but I aways have a supply or reading materials old and new. Reading is a great companion and sweet distraction. Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet was right when he said “literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life.” I once spent six weeks on Madeira. I had some hedonistic fun. But what I enjoyed most was reading every morning and most afternoons in the garden of the small hotel where I was staying. I had an entire suitcase of books which I carried around all over Portugal and Spain including one concise Oxford Dictionary and a small Collins Portuguese and Spanish dictionary. When I finished with books I mailed them by boat back to America and filled up my suitcase with books I picked up. The Casa Del Libro in Madrid, naturally had a magnificent collection of Spanish, Latin, Greek and French books but they also had an entire floor dedicated to English language books. They had a complete collection of Penguins and Everyman book plus many others. I must have read hundreds of Penguins when I lived in Spain. I still have a few by Walter Scott and Rex Warner and Michael Grant but most I gave away. They were just disposable paper backs after all. I still have paperbacks and I still enjoy reading print versions of magazines Commentary, National Geographic, Baseball Digest, Reader’s Digest but I mostly read electron version of newspapers and books unless I really want to study and read a book deeply. Some books I have on Audible books, a hardcover and an e-book version. I enjoy adventure tales and westerns and many I listen to on Audible books. But authors I meet on Audible books I often turn to and read their other books. If a movie or audible book encourages you to get to know an author that’s great. What one usually finds is reading is the most satisfying way to experience a book. I know I remember MORE when I read a physical book that when I read an electronic book or listen to a book. Having a physical book makes it easier to reference, write notes or re-read. I find I rarely re read e-books unless they are very special.


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