Wonderful vignette Fred!
I love the phrase: "not being in charge of anything, just being useful."
The unspoken "requirements" of buttoned-down careerism are routinely antithetical to usefulness. Just think "meeting." (Chesterton's persistent elevation of the "amateur" over the "professional" is also to the point.)
If there is no devil, careerism invented one.
When I was a kid, I saw neckties as an expression of a man's willingness to put a noose around his neck to prove he knew his place in the dominance-submission hierarchy.
Elsewhere... your splendid description of Barbara's dinners brought to mind the 4-part Netflix documentary "Cooked" based on the eponymous book by Michael Pollan who narrates the film. Its audio and visual components are both so good you can turn off the volume and delight in the images alone. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooked:_A_Natural_History_of_Transformation