Rendered Fat Content


I rarely ‘eat out.’ I long ago grew weary of the blind man’s bluff game the so-called hospitality industry plays. What other industry demands that its customers choose from deliberately misleading lists of possibilities featuring the vaguest possible descriptions of their products, expecting their customer to select satisfying results? Who could possibly know what passes for hash browns here? Or home fries? Or even mashed potatoes? No way to know without sleuthing around to other customers’ plates, but even then, looks can be so deceiving.

Ask the poor (literally, slave-waged) server. Who knows what s/he might recommend? Just try and often fail to anticipate what the budding food artiste in the kitchen will produce from what the food accountant says he can spend. Even assuming the chef can cook (not a universally safe assumption), the result amounts to a crap shoot.

These days, trends twist the possibilities. I can be pretty sure whatever I might order will have been enlivened with the addition of some form of the infinite varieties of kale. There will probably be pork belly in there, too; and/or bacon. Urp.

The most reliably satisfying restaurants for me have been the one-hit joints that pretend to be no more than what they say they are, though one must always be alert for the artisanal variations on the old reliable themes. Pizza is not simply pizza anymore, but might mutate into ‘stuffed’ varietals or ‘apizza’ with shortening in the dough; even authentic carries infinite meanings now. Peruvian Charcoal Roasted Chicken proves fairly dependable.

Steinbeck claimed in Travels With Charley that one could find a decent breakfast anywhere in America. No more. The meaning of decent has shifted to be synonymous with decline, as in ‘descending the staircase.’ Even a breakfast menu will disappoint about 80% of the time now.

Food carts used to be reliable alternatives to the sit-down places, but even these have now taken on airs. What might have previously been three certifiably hand-made tacos will likely prove now to have been house-made, which means an artiste got involved and boogered up perfection, and will cost more than the sit-down alternative. This seems especially tragic when the greasy special sauce dribbles on my lap, which by necessity, I’m using as a surrogate table.

For the visitor these days, the post-modern smorgasbord suffices. I find these at Whole Foods or Seasons, sometimes even Safeway. These include a reasonably well-stocked salad bar and a row of steam tables, sometimes a deli-like take-out counter. From these, I can co-opt the usual restaurant guess work, selecting just what I want after sniffing and probing with the conveniently-provided, enormous slotted spoon. These installations prove less expensive and more satisfying, and also less encumbering.

The restaurant experience has become for me, like the movie experience, more akin to a hostage-taking than renewal or entertainment. One enters a trance-inducing, programmed entertainment, with acts and intermissions, previews and credits, to be consumed in strictly-prescribed sequence. One must wait for a table, then be escorted like an untrustworthy parolee to a table not of my choosing. Then one gets greeted with crocodile cheeriness, perhaps receiving a glass of water, maybe even a menu, though the tonier places turn this simple event into three separate ones.

By the time the water’s gone, or well after, the ‘server’ arrives, oozing unction, to describe inaudibly and incoherently, the so-called specials, which invariably sound like something you’ve eaten before but always, always, always disappoint. What sounded like Thanksgiving Dinner arrives as a small-plate interpretation of a feast, enough to almost satisfy any anorexic squirrel, and deliberately no more than vaguely reminiscent of actual food. Additional water rewards the successful completion of the ‘ordering’ phase.

Delivery of the actual dinner, or, more often, the vague reminiscence of an actual dinner, arrives with considerable fanfare. Cheer venting from every gasket, the server takes on most of the theatrics of the weakest cast member in a children’s play. You’d think that delivering your plate had won them the lottery. Once I manage to chase the server away, I can survey the damage. The veg might most closely resemble what I thought I was ordering; the meat, almost never. The starch will have been ‘improved’ to the point of distraction, often rendering the rest of the plate unpalatable.

By then, of course, I’m well into an hour invested in this event, so I’m unlikely to come to my senses and just leave. Now I’m obliged to eat, obligated to claim that everything’s ‘sth-fine,’ when the smarmy server interrupts me in mid-bite to ask. The main course lasts longer than anyone hoped, punctuated not by sparkling conversation with the evening’s companion, but by failed attempts to hear anything over the thoughtfully-provided, deafening sound system, which plays, you guessed it, unerringly cheerful music. Poisoned, then, by the saccharine surrogate for supper, I await ... and await ... the return of the endlessly hopeful server, bearing the dessert ‘offerings,’ a term aptly chosen to reflect what one might sacrifice to a pagan god. The choices will not disappoint on that count, an array of confections suitable for immediate ignition. Most would smoke quite pleasingly, perhaps even reverently. I never order dessert in a restaurant. It’s a course for suckers who have not learned their lesson through the salad and main courses; dinner expressly designed for dummies.

I will drink wine, however, still the reliable nectar of the gods, even with the 40% mark-up. It’s damnedably difficult for any server or artiste to hose up the wine, though the more dedicated try. I just reflect that even served in a red solo cup, a decent burgundy remains a decent burgundy.

I’m heading home now, missing my kitchen and impatient with the slow pace restaurants insist upon. I spotted a ratty trailer behind the Conoco station, and I’m confident that the smoky guy who’ll greet me will part with a sublimely-finished, authentically rustic roasted chicken for the price of what passes for an appetizer at the restaurant down the street. I can grab a couple of beers from the reach-in at the gas station then head back to the hotel. That desk will prove a touch better than the best table in the downstairs restaurant, and I will savor every bite, and even be able to hear myself think and taste and know when I’m satisfied without any placating cheerleader of a server to coerce my response.

After nearly a fortnight of traveling, I’m anxious to be home where nobody treats me like a suggestible child and nobody else but me gets to decide what I eat for supper. What I once experienced as the freedom of the road feels more like an indenture now. I can and do adapt, and I’m very aware that I am adapting when I order that small container of roasted beets at the Whole Foods deli counter. I will do much better at home, Gratefully, I’m JustVisiting here.

©2014 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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