Over a decade ago now, the populace was buzzing about Stella Liebeck’s suit against McDonald’s. You may remember the case. Liebeck was handed very hot coffee through a drive-up window in one of those flimsy cups, and suffered second-degree burns when it spilled in her lap. The incident spawned a documentary movie and even a New York Times retro report a couple of years ago. No doubt the injury was serious enough to cause medical treatment including skin grafts, and McDonald’s does, as we all know, process its customers just like it processes everything; you can’t serve over 100 billion burgers and be the world’s second largest private employer without process. Food injuries in a world of business feeding can be serious. “Eating out” is a way of life for many and when people eat out they take their religion with them. That’s why Hiram Jimenez’s case is so interesting.
According to the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Jimenez decided to bow in prayer over a plate of sizzling steak fajitas at Appleby’s. For those who’ve never witnessed fajitas being served, they are an attention-demanding dish, served loudly steaming and popping with smoke rising up forever and heads being turned. I suspect that’s part of the appeal. According to the paper, Jimenez bowed over his food and the grease popped, burning his face, causing him to knock the plate of food onto his lap. None of the burns left scars, and a Superior Court here in New Jersey found the restaurant not negligent as the danger was “open and obvious.” What makes this story so interesting is not the injury but the cause behind it. Food being hot is somewhat universal. Praying in restaurants, however, is an evangelical cultural practice.
Growing up with evangelical friends, I learned to pray in restaurants. (My family was of rather humble circumstances and we didn’t eat at restaurants.) Partly it was in actual thankfulness, but clearly it was partly also in show. We were witnessing by invoking our gustatory gratitude. For being literalists, we didn’t take Jesus’ injunction to go into the closet and shut the door before praying too seriously. The culture around public prayer involves bowing. The bow is a mammalian display of submission. Thy will be done. In the biblical world being thrown into a blazing furnace for public displays of faith didn’t lead to lawsuits. Everyone knows infernos are hot. I can’t help but wonder whether a martyr complex is at play here. A praying customer is doing what his religion demands and gets burned for it. Yeah, I know what that feels like. And, I suspect, so do countless others who find no hearing in courts at all.