Karen Clark gets to the office by 6 a.m. and eats breakfast at her desk a few hours later, when most of her colleagues are arriving for the day. That's when the comments start.
"Eeew, you're eating that for breakfast?!!"
Clark enjoys dinner food for breakfast. Her most important meal of the day is usually last night's leftovers. Steak. Spaghetti. Fried fish.
If you're thinking that's none of your business, Clark couldn't agree more. She believes her eating habits shouldn't concern her co-workers at a Baltimore financial services firm either. But they care. And they comment.
"It drives me insane," said Clark, 35. "I don't know why people feel the need to do that. It's not like it's smelly food that would attract attention. Half the time I eat it cold right out of the refrigerator. I could even be eating a tomato sandwich and somebody will find a reason to comment, 'Oh, for breakfast?' 'Yes, for breakfast!'"
From the messy break-room fridge to the stench of burned popcorn hanging over cubicles like the threat of layoffs, workplace eating has become a matter of office politics — one that can be quite literally sticky, especially with more people brown-bagging it in the down economy.
Lunch may be for wimps, as the "Wall Street" villain put it. But office eating is not for the faint of heart. Anyone who dares seek sustenance during the workday is likely to come across:
•Accidental composters, who forget their leftovers in the fridge so long that they're capable of sprouting new food.
•Space hogs, who bring in a week's worth of Lean Cuisines at once or pop out to the farmers' market at lunch and then try to jam a dozen ears of sweet corn into the communal icebox.
•Nutritional buttinskis, who are bent on saving colleagues from their over-salted frozen dinners.
And let's not forget the dreaded fish reheater, who helps the stunk-up microwave give all other comers an unwelcome umami boost.
It's enough to make co-workers start seeing each other not so much as colleagues, or "work wives" and "work husbands," but as that annoying college roommate who left smelly T-shirts on the floor.
"It's human behavior and whatever home habits they have, they bring them to the office," said Brenda McChriston, owner of Spectrum HR Solutions in Baltimore. "Every now and then you have to remind people this isn't home. This is a professional work environment. We're all chipping in to keep it the wonderful place it is."
McChriston's company advises others on human resources issues, office eating among them. But fridge politics flare up at times within her own 200-person firm.
There is the matter of breast-pumping moms who store their milk in the company fridge. Nature's most perfect food also happened to be a co-worker's bodily fluid. Got complaints?
"They hate it. They don't want to see it," McChriston said. "So we've had to be the mediator, to calm down the person who doesn't want to see it. It's also on the parent. … 'Why don't you put it in this [non-see-through] container?'"
The office kitchen in McChriston's company became such a problem that she was forced to shut it down at one point.
"It was horrible," she said. "Nobody would load dishes in the dishwasher. Coffee cups would be in the sink, utensils would be on the floor. We actually locked the room."
Employees, who greatly missed the kitchen, snapped-to after the brief closure. But McChriston said the company still has to send out memos about every two weeks warning that the refrigerator will be cleaned out and that anything left inside will be tossed.
"When folks lose their nice little Tupperware containers, things kind of turn around," she said.
While it's possible to train people in tidiness, you can't convince popcorn not to smell up the office.
"Burnt microwave popcorn should be punishable as a hate crime," a commenter named baltimoregal posted last week, when the subject of office food came up on The Baltimore Sun's Dining@Large blog.
Food aromas are such a fact of office life that back when Sheila Dixon was still Baltimore's mayor, the prankster behind the Twitter spoof FakeSheilaDixon used City Hall aromas for added verisimilitude.
"Someone should tell [then-Deputy Mayor] Andy Frank to cool it with the Indian leftovers in the microwave," @FakeSheilaDixon wrote last fall.
Frank told The Sun at the time that he enjoyed Indian food but that he'd never heated it up in the office, much less in the mayoral microwave.
But plenty of people do reheat their chicken tikka masala at the office. Things can get especially aromatic in an international setting like a Johns Hopkins medical research lab, the sort of workplace that draws scientists — and lunch tastes — from all over the world.
"Fermented fish soaked in fish on reheated fish" is how one Hopkins researcher described what sometimes comes wafting his way.
"For the most part, it's fun. You get to discover, you get to explore, you get to tour the world with your nose by sitting next to the microwave," said the researcher, who asked not to be identified by name because he didn't want to offend his co-workers. "But every so often someone will bring along something that's unrecognizable – and that's a good thing."
The researcher conceded that his reheated barbecue might smell just as bad to his foreign-born colleagues.
"At a place like Hopkins, what are you going to do? Are you going to tell someone whatever you're heating in the microwave is unacceptable?"