Sunday, November 21, 2010

To all the Girls I've Loved Before

Many of my greatest stories involve people I have loved and many of these stories do not portray them in a flattering light. When you tell a story in person you have control over your audience, you can tell who is in earshot, you can tell who you are talking to and usually know who they know. Word of a story can travel, but it usually not very far. With the internet you never know. Everything is public and this is frequently forgotten, but not by me. How can you tell a story about a pathological liar, when he could easily read it? How can you tell a story about someone afraid of food, when he will see the link and the subject to your food blog. Some people have a good sense of humor. Some people don't. One thing I never aim to do with my writing is hurt anyone, but what you think of as endearing or mean without offense, can attack someone's weakest point.

For six months I dated someone with cibophobia, fear of food. There was a list of food items he would eat, and he was terrified of anything else. Perhaps it came from his weak stomach and the fact that he would constantly claim to have food poisoning after meals that left me completely fine. Regardless, it meant that the idea of going to a new restaurant filled him with fear, loathing, and usually an upset stomach. He would scan the online menus of restaurants for items he could eat, he would order items without sauce and would stick to the mainstream chain menus that he had eaten his entire life. I couldn't cook for him, due to his fear that he wouldn't like what I made. Perhaps it was his grocery-store catered Thanksgiving dinners, perhaps it was constantly eating out, perhaps it was his lack of exposure to vegetables, but even the idea of a new sauce would send him into a frenzy.

He went to therapy for it, found that he still didn't want to eat cheese, and never went back. With one standard dish he could order at each type of restaurant, he could at least give lip service to eating out with friends, but the amount of plain burgers and substandard Jewish deli sandwiches, eventually began to drain me.

I never realized how much I enjoy eating new things and going to new places as much as after I stopped dating him. Once the worlds of Korean, Caribbean, Japanese, and all the strange foods that one can find in Los Angeles were re-opened to me, I found that life tasted sweeter, spicier, more bitter, more sour, and had much more umami*, and not just when it comes to food.

*a category of taste known initially only in Japan which refers to savory, brothy, or meaty. 

Monday, November 8, 2010

On Chain Restaurants

Last night I downed appletinis and fried green beans with "wasabi sauce", "pot stickers"*, boneless buffalo wings, and a chicken quesadilla at the flashy institution known as T.G.I. Friday's. No longer does TGIF mean the upcoming weekend or even ABC's Friday night TV line up that included Boy Meets World, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch and the latest incarnation of the Olsen twins, but a restaurant serving mediocrity.

I like to think that for the most part, restaurants have multiple locations because they are so good that one location can no longer serve their customers completely. In the case of corporate chains like Friday's, it's awkward sister Ruby Tuesday, Red Robin, Outback Steakhouse, etc etc etc. What they end up serving is consistency. It's the standardization of the menu, restaurant, and ambiance that draws the crowd. I will acknowledge that like all chain restaurants, there are better and worse locations. My mother used to live near the Denny's at Denny's corporate headquarters and swears that it was some of the best breakfast food she's ever eaten. However most locations of most national chain restaurants are incredibly mediocre.

Do people who live within 10 minutes of a coastline with restaurants serving up the daily catch go to Red Lobster because the food is good? Or do they go because they know exactly what the Cheddar Bay Biscuits are going to taste like. I'm referring to people who live in cities or places filled with good restaurants, not places where The Olive Garden is the nicest and most delicious restaurant around. I have been to these places. I have eaten at many Olive Gardens there.

Humans fear the unknown, in some cases to the point of phobia. There are people who refuse to eat at unknown restaurants or unknown foods, but for the mass of people who enjoy trying new cocktails, eating at new trucks filled with food, and finding the most authentic and delicious ethnic foods, what place do these restaurants have? An article on NPR which I can't currently find told me about a group of young professionals in the hip Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington DC who started going to happy hour at TGI Friday's ironically. They still go every week. "When does it stop being ironic and start being delicious?" asked the article. I'm not sure.

Perhaps it's the constant wave of nostalgia that pop culture rides. The never-ending re-makes, the T-shirts of characters we loved as children, and the restaurants that our parents dragged us to when we were younger? The restaurants haven't changed, but we're facing more and more crises; jobs or lack thereof, relationships or lack thereof, family or lack thereof, not to mention the stress of just existing. Perhaps the comfort of a place that still serves a never ending pasta bowl, is just what we need.

* quotations indicate mere passing resemblance to the food they are named for