If You Are Not at the Table Then You’re Probably on the Menu

Elizabeth Warren? Ann Richards? Julia Louis-Dreyfus? Cecile Richards? Pat Rusk? David Horowitz? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: If one wishes to influence a decision then one must be present at the negotiation table. If one is absent then an unfavorable decision is likely. Metaphorically, one’s rights and interests will be consumed by the other participants at the table. This notion has been expressed as follows:

If you aren’t at the table then you’re on the menu.

Politicians Ann Richards and Elizabeth Warren have each received credit for this remark . Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Many variants of this adage have evolved over time. Here is chronological sampling:

1993 Sept: At the Table or on the Menu?
2002 Jul: If you are not at the table, then you could be on the menu
2003 Mar: Instead of being on the menu, we have a seat at the table
2003 Jun: You’re either at the table, or you’re on the menu
2004 Apr: If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu

The first citation containing a strong match was recorded in “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” compiled by researchers Charles C. Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro. Boldface has been added to excerpts by QI: 1

1993 “Lebanon — At the Table or on the Menu?” Middle East Insight 10, no. 6 (Sep.– Oct.) 5 (commentary on a pending Syria-Israel accord).

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1979 consumer advocate David Horowitz published “Fight Back! And Don’t Get Ripped Off”. He included a discussion of the mistreatment of customers at restaurants which used the following chapter title based on the metaphorical framework under examination: 2

Restaurants: You Might Be on the Menu

The above instance was incomplete because it did not mention a table. The 1993 citation given previously did mention a table.

In 2000 an entertaining partial match appeared in the book “Maximum Success”. The following excerpt referred to business people as figurative zebras and lions: 3

You’re never going to be a lion, and that’s all right, as long as you can act like one when you need to. But right now, as a zebra among a group of lions, when the lions see you they start to think about lunch—and you’re not a guest, you’re on the menu. To avoid that, we want to design a lion suit for you to put on when necessary, so the other lions will think you’re one of them, someone to be respected and not messed around with.

In July 2002 “The Salt Lake Tribune” of Utah published the following from Pat Rusk, president of a teacher’s union: 4

“I am often reminded of the adage, ‘If you are not at the table, then you could be on the menu.’ If I am not getting out and having my voice heard by those who make decisions, I am not doing my job,” she said.

In March 2003 “The Sun” newspaper of San Bernardino, California quoted a politician who employed the saying: 5

. . . Rutherford said the league’s lobbying efforts have scored results, such as Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson’s decision to sponsor a bill to increase vehicle license fees, which are a major source of general fund revenue for cities. “Now, instead of being on the menu, we have a seat at the table,” she said.

In June 2003 Harry Elliott, a home builder in Sacramento, California, employed the saying with an anonymous attribution: 6

“We all understand there’s a need, and we all understand that we have to be part of the solution,” Elliott said. “As somebody once said: You’re either at the table, or you’re on the menu.

In 2004 a newspaper in Murfreesboro, Tennessee quoted a government administrator who used the expression: 7

I give a talk on this periodically, and one of the things I say is, “You’ve got to be at the table to be a part of management, because if you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu.”

In 2013 “The Gazette” of Montreal, Canada published a piece about the actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus who was starring in the comedy television series “Veep”. She delivered a comically garbed version of the saying during an episode of the show: 8

. . . she believes her skills have not been adequately tapped, “if you’re not on the menu, then you’re not at the table,” she laments. To which Davison replies: “Nobody wants to eat you.”

In April 2014 the “Toronto Star” of Canada attributed the saying to an unnamed political activist: 9

“If you are not at the table, you are on the menu,” said one female activist, from the stigmatized Dalit (formerly called untouchable) caste in India. In the wise words of comedian Sarah Silverman: “we have to be undeniable.”

A few days later, the “Toronto Star” issued a correction and attributed the saying to another person: 10

An April 9 Style Czar column about the Women in the World summit misattributed the quote, “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu,” to a female Dalit activist. In fact, this statement should have been attributed to Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood.

In September 2014 politician Elizabeth Warren used the adage: 11

Warren told the Emily’s List crowd, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.” In this system, no one will be eating the rich.

In 2017 a politician in Madison, Wisconsin attributed the adage to Ann Richards who had died several years earlier in 2006: 12

The Madison-area Democrat also recited a quote he attributed to the late Ann Richards, a Democrat who was the governor of Texas before George W. Bush: “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re likely on the menu.”

In conclusion, this anonymous adage can be phrased in many ways. It was circulating by 1993.The supporting evidence for a linkage to Ann Richards is currently weak. Elizabeth Warren did employ the adage, but only after it had entered circulation.

Image Notes: Painting depicting the “Interior of a Restaurant” by Vincent van Gogh circa 1887 in Paris, France. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Bill Flounders, Stephen Cirrincione, Dan Goncharoff, Steven Blumrosen, David Holland, and Dave Hill whose inquiries and comments led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to researchers Charles C. Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro whose reference work included the 1993 and 2002 citations. Thanks also to researcher Barry Popik for his efforts. Further thanks to discussion participants: Laurence Horn, Ben Zimmer, Joel S. Berson, and Jonathan Lighter.)

Notes:

  1. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 248, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1979, Fight Back! And Don’t Get Ripped Off by David Horowitz, Chapter 8: Restaurants: You Might Be on the Menu, Quote Page 128, Harper & Row Publishers, San Francisco, California. (Verified with scans)
  3. 2000, Maximum Success: Changing the 12 Behavior Patterns That Keep You From Getting Ahead by James Waldroop and Timothy Butler, Chapter 4: Avoiding Conflict at Any Cost, Quote Page 77, Currency/Doubleday, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 2002 July 30, The Salt Lake Tribune, New UEA Leader Says It’s Time to Be Creative by Shinika Sykes, Quote Page B1, Salt Lake City, Utah. (ProQuest)
  5. 2003 March 27, The Sun, Measure I renewal a concern at meeting by Matt Bender (Staff Writer), Quote Page Unspecified, San Bernardino, California. (NewsBank Access World News)
  6. 2003 June 30, The Sacramento Bee, Housing: 15,800 new homes in ’02; none under $175,000 by Mary Lynne Vellinga (Bee Staff Writer), Start Page A1 and A12, Quote Page A13, Column 5, Sacramento, California. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 2004 April 18, The Daily News-Journal, Biggest employer (Continuation title: Training employees for others not a negative) by John Callow (DNJ Staff Writer), Start Page E1, Quote Page E4, Column 3, Murfreesboro, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 2013 April 13, The Gazette, Her politics are comically correct by Bill Brownstein, Quote Page E4, Column 1, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 2014 April 9, Toronto Star, Working to unlock the female potential: Queens, ambassadors, activists came together for inspirational Women in the World summit by Karen von Hahn, Quote Page L5, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (ProQuest)
  10. 2014 April 11, Toronto Star, Corrections, Quote Page L5, Column 2, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (ProQuest)
  11. 2014 September 25, Ledger-Enquirer, High stakes in political money game by Francis Wilkinson, Quote Page A7, Column 3, Columbus, Georgia. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 2017 April 30, The Post-Crescent, Representative’s diversity comment mostly on mark by Tom Kertscher (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), Quote Page 8AA, Column 1, Appleton, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)