Restaurants, Foodieism, Obesity, First-World Whining (My Own)

Yesterday, while chatting with my friend at the park about the need–again–to think up something for dinner that wasn’t sucky and wasn’t boring and wasn’t lame (I have the most trouble with vegetable dishes, and I was tired of frozen vegetables and leafy green salads), I had an Actual Thought about Society. I haven’t had one of these in a while, and I’m not sure why; maybe it’s because my exposure to news is so limited, or maybe because I am behind on my podcasts, but whatever it is, this Actual Thought sprang out of my head fully formed like the goddess Athena. It Made a Connect between seemingly disparate things, and even if there is absolutely no data available to support my thought, and it could be one of those random collections of observations that–should I be lucky enough–graduates to the status of Factoid and/or Urban Legend, I’ll be pleased.

I never did find any nice pictures to break up the wall of text that this blog post became, but I helpfully bolded key terms so you can skim the damn thing and more or less catch the gist of it. Meanwhile, enjoy this video clip that I promise is relevant.

The beauty of this is its simplicity. Once a plan gets too complex, everything can go wrong.

Here are the sources for the Thought:

  • Maybe a couple years ago I used to run into a lot of negative online nonsense about Rachael Ray, ranging from the usual (she’s so ugly and stupid and I hate her) to the misogynistic (she just cooks regular food like women do, not art or adventure food like men who are real chefs and have real personality). It puzzled me, because her whole dinner in 30 minutes schtick seemed handy, and she never really used a lot of pans.
  • The first food snobs I ever encountered were bakers, who eschewed mixes. Sure, their cakes were delicious, but not having a palate to match my appetite for baked goods, I was always more impressed with their time invested and their skill than the deliciousness of their products. These baking snobs were people I knew though, and had an admired hobby and their houses smelled good. I’ve run into some online snobs more recently with my sudden interest in learning how to frost cakes properly. I’d finally bought (and kept!) two six-inch layer cake pans because they were so cute and I totally wanted them (I’d bought and returned them before) and my search for how much cake mix to use to make a tiny layer cake put me in a den of obnoxious and mean people who were self-congratulatory about how easy they found it to bake cakes perfectly from scratch, and how people who claimed cake mixes were faster were totally stupid and/or smoking crack, and they could prove with their free-standing mixer that they had money to buy and enough counter space to store how much faster it was to make a real cake from organic ingredients. (Yeah, it touched a nerve.) (And the base model for those things starts at $500. Do you know how many cake mixes you have to buy before that thing pays for itself even if you account for “time saved”?)
  • As a participant in the diet and the sit-down restaurant industries myself, I have a perception bias for news that combine the two. But doesn’t it seem like all the conversations about national obesity get around to fast food and restaurants eventually? And then sodium, portion size, free refills, that kind of thing?
  • Participating in online communities has brought me into contact with more non-Americans than probably average, and I do hear a lot about how Americans work too much and drive too much. They eat terrible food and have no style. Yeah, it’s true. People do work a lot, and you mostly have to drive to get there. Fast food is easy to bring home. We have long days.
  • Within the past month, maybe past two weeks, I read an article that I should have bookmarked and cannot find now to save my life, about how people cook less and less these days not because they are lazy but because they are intimidated. I’m 70% sure I read it at the Pharyngula blog, but even Google isn’t revealing it. Maybe it was in a dream. Too bad, because I would have linked to it.
  • I had this fabulous dinner the other night with a really well-grilled steak, a basic tomato salad, and a boxed gnocchi side dish (Archer Farm’s Finest!). It took one pan and one bowl and one plate to transport the steak, and it was so easy to clean up.

Here are the threads of the Thought, all discombobulated because, you know, it’s not actual data and my paragraphs are getting too long. It’s also a collection of pressures that are probably unique to me, along the lines of Stuff White People Like with class issues to boot, but I’ve personally been bogged down in the kitchen with the prepping and the monitoring and the cleaning up after. Plus buying the ingredients for everything makes grocery lists complicated and shopping trips too long.

  • Food multiculturalism–So many delicious cuisines! Of course, the ones we all want to make at home are the ones we learn about in restaurants, with all the sauces and the sou chefs and the small amounts each of lots of different ingredients. A restaurant can get this food to you in eight minutes; you (I mean me) have to chop for hours before you can cook it all together for three minutes.
  • Food multiculturalism–Of course the foods we know best from other countries are the fancy occasion food people showcase, not the plain old boiled eggs and beef jerky. The one time I had the Chinese equivalent of yogurt for breakfast it came with a ginger sauce and it was the best thing ever, but it was ordered for me by a Chinese person and I don’t even know it’s name. I would eat that every day if I could, and could probably make batches of it, but I don’t even know where to start. I don’t even remember the name of the restaurant we were at.
  • Psychological Fulfillment–Perhaps it’s just the flip side of the conversation about why people eat so much, as a way to defend food for its emotional and social benefits when people who eat too much are being criticized as slovenly and gross (fat shaming is the word you are looking for). There are lots and lots of reassurances about how food is valuable, and meals with friends reinforce bonds, and how people who lose their sense of smell and/or taste can become depressed.
  • DIY Gone Wild–Everybody is supposed to want to know how to do everything now, all by themselves. I don’t know when this all started, exactly, but what began in home improvement has spilled over to every possible activity that used to be considered a non-event. Remember how people used to just put photos in albums? Now they have to self-edit digital videos or make scrapbooks. And you have to worry about reusing trash and not throwing small things into the trash if there might be some way to incorporate it in a future craft. How does this relate to food? Have you ever seen a phrase along the lines of “Grilled Cheese for Grownups?” Grilled cheese for grownups requires artisan bread and two cheeses, and three extra ingredients (at least two of which spoil in a few days) and a panini machine. Grownups who throw Home Pride and pre-sliced cheese onto a frying pan are disrespecting their souls, even if they butter the outsides of the bread before burning it.
  • Glorified Television (Male) Chefdom–So the Ace of Cakes goes dimensional apparently overnight, and you are bitching about making extra frosting for a crumb coat and planning far enough ahead and clearing out food to make space to let it chill in the refrigerator for half an hour before putting the real coat of frosting on? On your single layer 9 x 13″ cake shaped like a rectangle? And some guy can take a boat and a prop plane and make a gourmet meal from local ingredients in Viet Nam, but you can’t be bothered to peel your tomato before making ratatouille? Even though you have access to ice? Truly, Americans are lazy.
  • Foodies Chiming In–Maybe I can’t do math, but it does not seem to take just as much time to open a packet, add water, and boil food as it does to find recipes, collect the ingredients, mix stuff, and adjust to taste. It’s very rarely cheaper. Children aren’t as helpful at they claim. Everything foodies say about how much better the food is I probably agree with, but there’s no way the taste differential is anywhere near the effort differential.

As the immortal Walter Sobchak once said, Fuck it, Dude. Let’s go bowling. But by go bowling I mean go out to eat, where I can feed my stomach and my soul with rich flavors that aren’t bad for me, where I can meet my friends halfway as they come home from work and we can spend time talking face to face instead of me in the kitchen hollering above the noise of the saute. We can walk away from the mess and promise ourselves that we’ll only eat half and have the leftovers for lunch the next day. The days are too tiring to do all those dishes after the kids go to bed, and sitting down to relax that evening only means that you’ll have to spend time cleaning the kitchen the next day before you can mess it up again. And, yes, you eat more and pay more at restaurants than you would eating simple food at home. But if “simple food” is categorized as “not for adults,” and people shit on chefs like Rachael Ray but watch avidly as adventure chefs one-up each other, well, frankly, you have to pick your poison. Do you want Americans eating foodie food because it is worldly and shows a global consciousness, which is most easily accomplished in restaurants that will probably make them fat, or do you want them to infantalize themselves with boring food that demonstrates how uncultured they are? If you reject this false dichotomy and make the claim that food doesn’t have to be boring to be tasty and healthy, well, put more one-pan, five-ingredient recipes on TV. And stop shaming the people who just don’t want to put up with the crap of gourmet cooking and go out to eat with all that crap about oh, oh fat people and socialized medicine and obese children should be removed from parents and American women are so lazy and entitled that they don’t want to come home and cook. Just let them make reservations for dinner if they want to. Who cares?

I like to frame restaurant patronage now as a quiet rebellion of people with disposal income against people with disposable time. So there! It’s probably really just a capitalist scheme that exploits labor, but I have to wrap up this glurge somewhere. And they always refill your Diet Coke before you ask.

Mostly I’m stuck with what to serve for dinner tonight, and chose to write about it instead of act.

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  • Lauren C.  On July 28, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    Everything I was served by my baby boomer single mother came from a box or a can. Foodie-ism (or really quasi- in my case)—creating something authentic, and possibly complicated, from scratch—is a form of rebellion! I’ve learned not to post the menu on Facebook, though. Is the latest white whine really feeling guilty about eating out?

  • Karen  On July 28, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    If I can be said to represent the latest in what white people whine about, then yes! But actually, I don’t really feel guilty about going to restaurants except for the part about the money. Mostly I hate that I spend 90 percent of my day thinking about food, from procuring it to preparing it and cleaning up all the mess after. Yet when I eat boring dinner I do get into a bad mood, which gets worse when I still have to clean up afterward.

    So you see why this is such a problem. But I did manage to not say (despite all those things I said) that maybe just being overworked and driving too much is not why people are going to so many restaurants now (and getting so fat).

    Also, and I was getting at this by the end, but my thoughts since then have clarified, women with children are staunchly criticized when they don’t make food that is organic, healthy, and interesting for their family. Meanwhile, the chefs who present the kind of interesting, fast, one-pan meal that would save them time are devalued and the chefs that are valued cook in basically ridiculous situations.

  • Lauren C.  On July 28, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    Ah, I hear you. I blame mixed feelings over the new wave of (voluntary rather than societally mandated) stay-at-home moms and and the politicization of food. However, I think the real reason people hate RRay is because she’s so chipper (which is a whole other discussion that possibly also loops back around to feminism), but personally she bothers me because those recipes take waaaay longer than 30 minutes–they reliably take over an hour. It would take at least two margaritas to unpack all those topics, though.

  • Karen  On July 28, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    I would love to have two margaritas with you, even if we don’t unpack all those topics!

    I honestly don’t even cook from Rachael Ray’s recipes, unless they show up in an online search (the Internet is my cookbook), so I didn’t know that about time. I’m just happy to hear that I’m not the world’s slowest vegetable chopper, because recipe prep times are never accurate for me, and I internalized it as me being bad in the kitchen.

    I have many problems, I guess. But tonight’s dinner was good, and utilized carrots I cooked yesterday, and all the dishes are done with leftovers for tomorrow. Happy ending!

  • eurobrat  On July 29, 2011 at 6:53 pm

    Thanks for a great blog about the problem of food :) I happen to have the issue (although I don’t consider it a serious one) in that I absolutely love to eat, but don’t have complex food tastes. So the foodie thing tends to go over my head altogether. That said, I love to go out to eat, but can be just as happy opening a can of something at home. I try not to spend my time cooking, as it takes away from more important activities like my blog :) I’m guessing I would feel slightly guiltier about that if I had kids.
    Anyway, as you can tell from this comment, thanks again on touching on so many dilemmas in one blog ;)

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