The last piece of food always seems to linger at a Minnesota gathering. Photo: Greg Mees, Star Tribune

For the love of Prince, why won’t anyone take the last piece of food?

It was one of those moments that replays in slow motion in your head, like an unfolding disaster on a movie screen.

Randy Fordice was at happy hour with co-workers from his new job, the one he’d moved here from Iowa to take.

The last piece of quesadilla had been sitting on the plate for an hour.

He picked it up.

Sixteen years later, the memory still burns.

“It was like time stopped, and the entire restaurant turned around to see me taking a bite,” said Fordice, who lives in Brooklyn Park.

“I was shamed,” he said. “I had lived here about two weeks, and I thought I was going to have to move out again.”

That experience led Fordice to ask Curious Minnesota: Why won’t anyone take the last piece?

It comes down to basic politeness, said Estelle Thielen of Eagan, who would never dream of taking the last piece.

“It’s Minnesota Nice,” she said. “If you take the last piece, nobody else can have any.”

Nikki Hanna of St. Cloud agreed.

“If someone comes late and they haven’t had a piece and you’ve already had one. ...” she said, letting the listener fill in the well-mannered blank.

But what about when everyone has already had their chance to get a piece, and they give you the side-eye anyway?

That’s what happened to Jake Spano, mayor of St. Louis Park.

“Jar of Starburst at work & no one but me likes yellow but 8 weeks ago I take the last yellow and ppl are still giving me a hard time abt it,” Spano tweeted. “First thing they said, ‘Well, it’s clear you didn’t grow up here!’ ”

You’d think that hungry Minnesotans might get a little more grabby at a big party, when nobody is watching.

Not so, according to Tiffany Lange of Common Roots Catering in Minneapolis.
Many’s the time Lange has watched a lonely morsel sit on the platter while the party goes on around it.

“That’s definitely something that happens often,” she said with a laugh. “Honestly, I think it’s just because of courtesy.”

Lange will even make the rounds, offering the last piece to guests.

“I’ll actually bring the tray around, like, ‘I have one extra piece — would you like it?’ And they’re like ‘No,’ and then I ask a second time and then they take it.”

There’s been some actual scientific research on the subject. Basically, we operate with an unspoken assumption that nobody should get more than their share. It’s called an “equality norm.”

And when there are more people than there is food, we become extremely conscious of that norm. We’re petrified that we’ll look greedy, that others will think we’re taking more than we should.

Thus, a study in the “Journal of Experimental Social Psychology” found that people frowned more on someone who took the last piece than on a person who took the next-to-last piece. When a fictional character in the study named “Jerry” took the last piece of chocolate — well, let’s just say Jerry won’t be getting invited to the next potluck.

Another study confirmed that the more people there were, the less likely anyone would take the last piece. It’s a phenomenon called “diffusion of entitlement.”
That principle has led to an ingenious Minnesota strategy for getting around it.

Who hasn’t seen the last doughnut at the office cut in half, then halved again and again, until only a sliver is sitting on the plate?

Everyone keeps getting another (tiny) bite, but no one bears the shame of taking the last piece.

That nibbling action is tied up with food guilt, said Tanya Mark, an eating psychology coach. Diet culture, she said, makes it hard for us to enjoy “bad” food.

“This diet mentality makes us feel guilty for eating the whole thing, and perhaps less guilty for having a bite or two,” said Mark, who lives in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Sara Radjenovic of Minneapolis, who grew up on the East Coast, has her own theory.

“They’re either sacrificing it to the Lutheran gods or they’re waiting for everyone else to go for it,” she said.

Our favorite explanation is one that’s not likely.

But it’s lovely.

It came from an anonymous Twitter user, who simply said, “We leave the last piece for Prince.”

---

If you'd like to submit a Curious Minnesota question, fill out the form below:

Read more Curious Minnesota stories:

Why does the Minnesota Legislature so often need a special session to finish its work?

Is Minnesota’s tiny Lake Itasca the true source of the Mississippi River?

How much are electric vehicles affected by Minnesota's extreme cold?

How did Nicollet Island become parkland with private housing on it?

Why are Minnesotans the only ones to play Duck, Duck, Gray Duck?

Where did the term Minnesota Nice come from, and what does it really mean?

Why isn't Isle Royale a part of Minnesota?

Why does Minnesota tax Social Security benefits?

Why is Uptown south of downtown in Minneapolis?

Why can't Minnesotans figure out how to zipper merge?

What percentage of Minnesotans spend their entire lives here?

Were Minneapolis' skyways first created to combat the cold – or something else?

Why hasn't Minnesota ever produced a U.S. president?

How did Minnesota's indigenous people survive the extreme winters?