Friday, March 2, 2018

Fear of a Bad Meal

Americans are paralyzed by fear - fear of a bad meal!

One reason sites like Trip Adviser or Yelp! exist is that Americans are, in a culinary sense, very timid people.  As I noted before, our generation in particular eats like children at a 6-year-old's birthday party - hot dogs, hamburgers, fries, pizza, birthday cake, ice cream.   Today, that is the standard fare at most fast-food and "fast casual" restaurants - or even the modern variations thereof.   Starbucks started out as a coffee chain (believe it or not!) before they morphed into an upscale version of Shake Shack - serving "coffee drinks" that are more ice cream than coffee.

I don't know how many people I've run into these days who seem proud of their food ignorance, while at the same time, calling themselves "foodies" (a term that makes me throw up in my mouth) which is an entirely different thing than gourmand, of course.   "Foodies" are someone who watches television shows about food, but doesn't prepare food themselves, or even enjoy anything more adventurous than steak and fries.

I used to go to Les Halles, the "French Bistro" with friends in Washington, DC, before it closed.  It was founded by chef Anthony Bourdain, who is now retired and just jets around the world having a ball and making videos for "foodies" to watch (UPDATE:  He killed himself, and I think I understand why - the "foodies" who followed him just never got it, did they?).   What was striking about the restaurant is that the most popular item on the menu was steak au poivre with pommes frites, which people would wash down with a nice Belgian beer.   Good food, to be sure, but it was basically steak (with a pepper sauce), french fries, and light beer.   Hardly adventurous fare!

I have to admit that my food palette was pretty limited until about age 40.  At that point, I realized that I was missing out on the greater part of life by deciding that I didn't like foods I had never tried.  When I stopped being a child and tried new things, I found out there was a lot of things I liked and had been missing out on.   But you have to try - and trying means risk.   But the risk here is trivial - that you might have a bad meal or try something and decide you don't like it.

Americans shiver in fear of this happening to them.

Let me give you some examples of what I mean.  Like I said before, Trip Adviser and Yelp! exist because of this fear - and the types of people who consult these sites are the types who are afraid of food.   As a result, a five-star rating on either site is usually a mark of mediocrity - their food appeals to the vast majority of Americans, meaning it is loaded with starches and salt and sugar and meat - Bon App├ętit!

But getting back to our example, a couple we know, who are nice people, decide to go out for breakfast.   This seems like an odd choice to me, as breakfast is so easy to make, and getting up, getting dressed, and then driving 20 miles for breakfast seems difficult, to say the least.  I like my breakfast early, unless it turns into brunch.

Anyway, they wanted pancakes at iHop, so they drove at least 15 miles one-way to get to the iHop.  In the time it took them to leave the island, I could have made them pancakes with real maple syrup, much better than iHop.  In the time it took them to get to the iHop, I could have made them egg pancake, Maine style.  And I could have done this for for a few dollars at most - pancakes are some of the cheapest and easiest food to make.  And that's including the bacon and sausage on the side!

As we noted in previous postings, it costs about 50 cents to a buck-a-mile to run a car, so these folks were spending about $7-$15 just to get to their destination, before even paying for the meal.  We're talking as much as $30 round-trip!  Ouch!   As an economic proposition, it makes no sense.  Figure on $10-$15 for a basic breakfast meal (even at McDonald's!) including tip, plus the cost of running the the car, and you are looking at a 10x-20x cost delta for breakfast.   And its not even much of a breakfast at that, not like brunch at the club or anything.

But the story gets funnier.  They get to the iHop and it has been closed.   It is no longer an iHop.  Someone bought the building and re-opened it as a diner.   Our friends decided to move on - they wanted pancakes for breakfast!   And "Diner" - what the heck was that?  I mean, what kind of food would you expect at a "Diner" after all?  For breakfast?

Oh, I dunno, maybe bacon and eggs or.... pancakes!

But the risk was too great.   You can't just go into some place with a "Diner" out front and know what to expect, right?   You could have a bad meal, and that risk is just too much to take!  So they drove to Cracker Barrel.   I know, adventurous cultural gourmands, right?   Because you always know what to expect at Cracker Barrel.  No mysterious foods or "foreign" cuisine.  Just good old-fashioned American food - all of it brown.  You know, what the President likes!

What was even more shocking to me was that they told this story to other people, not as a source of embarrassment or self-depreciating humor, but as a source of pride.   They "held out" for Cracker Barrel and didn't fall for this "Diner" gag!  If a restaurant isn't run by some huge national corporation, you shouldn't ever go there!   There might be icky things on the menu, or they won't make the food exactly the same way as 1,000 other restaurants just like it.   Although with scrambled eggs and pancakes, I am not sure how much variation there could be.   Oh right, blueberry pancakes.   And they might have that "Maple" syrup instead of high-fructose corn-syrup with "real" butter flavoring!

The world is a vast and dangerous place, and you can't take too many chances out there.  After all, that $7.50 was hard-earned money, and you can't just squander it on some sort of "Diner" or something.   You could be hurt!

I touched on this subject before with regard to friends who consistently send food back at restaurants.   It is one thing to order a food and have it prepared badly, come to the table cold, or have ingredients that you are allergic to (which you asked to have removed), but another to send food back nearly every single time for reasons including "I just don't like it."

And frankly, to me, the allergy thing has its limits, even.   Ordering the peanut-encrusted chicken, when you are allergic to peanuts, asking the peanuts be removed, is idiotic.  Order a different chicken dish instead.  The same is true for "table chefs" who want to create their own original food creations, not in the kitchen, but at the dinner table, by making elaborate orders of food with ingredients removed and others added.   If you don't like what is on the menu, order something else or eat somewhere else.   Odds are, you are setting yourself up for failure by trying to second-guess the chef.

It is like the incident Mark had at his restaurant where a lady ordered the Garlic Chicken, but "without the garlic, please!"   Why not order a different chicken dish?   Or, like as Les Halles, how many people order the steak au poivre"but hold the pepper sauce."    In other words, they want a steak and french fries.   Would you like a shake with that?  Later on, they exclaim how much they like "French Food!"   Oy!

The problem with sending food back is that you disrupt the entire meal.  Now everyone has to sit with their food getting cold while they wait 20 minutes for your "special meal" to be made to your tastes.  In the interim, they are treated to you being a martyr, saying "go ahead and eat!  Don't wait for me!" along with a long diatribe about how their meal was all wrong, tasted funny, was over-done, under-done, cold, hot, too spicy, whatever.   All things that really enhance the meal for the rest of the table.   I know that for me, I really enjoy hearing about how unappetizing the food is and how shitty the restaurant is while I am eating there.

So why do people do this?   If you don't like food at a restaurant, why eat there?  Yes, the "send the food back" people often return to the same restaurant again and again, trying to get them to cook the meals to their tastes.  And sadly, sometimes restaurants cave in to this mentality.   I wrote before about a Tapas restaurant in Old Town that made a garlic spinach dish, lively with tons of roasted garlic.  Mark raved about it, as he went there with friends when I was out of town.   When I got back, we went, and the "garlic" spinach arrived, tasting like boiled frozen spinach.  No garlic at all.  When queried, the waiter said that "someone complained" about the garlic in the garlic spinach, so they took it out.   The restaurant closed within a year.

If you don't like the food at a restaurant, don't go back.   Trying to "fix" a bad deal is a waste of time, as I have noted before, whether it is buying a car, or buying a restaurant meal.   Walk away.  You can't make Smilin' Sammy's Used Cars into a good deal by hard negotiating.  You can't make a shitty restaurant into a good one by going back time and time again and complaining.   And it may be that they are not the problem but you are.  Try a different restaurant, one that serves food you actually like.

But why do people do this?  Why are people afraid to try new foods or send meals back?  It is the same thing in both cases - fear.   And fear is not an emotion to be trusted.  The couple who were afraid of the "Diner" were so paralyzed by fear, they ran to the comfort-food of the nearest Cracker Barrel.   Who knows what sort of rogues and villains would be eating at a "Diner"?  It could be like the Cantina scene from Star Wars!

Or maybe you go in there, and as the screen-door slams behind you, the folks at the counter all turn to look at you.  And the overweight sheriff at the end of the counter looks you over through his mirrored sunglasses, and drawls, "You-all ain't from around here, arya, boy?"   Yes, scary stuff, and it's been known to happen - in movies and on TeeVee.

Or maybe it would be like the Diner scene in Pulp Fiction, and you'd end up being robbed.   Any way you look at it,  the risk is too great! 

On the other hand, the person sending food back is also afraid - afraid of losing control.   They want to keep the upper hand at the restaurant, so they can feel they are "in charge."   "I'm paying for this, so it should be just the way I want it to be!" they cry.   The "customer is always right" shopper strikes again - ruining things for the rest of us.   But there are some experiences that are best experienced the way they were meant to be - and most of the best restaurants will show you the door - Soup Nazi style - before they cater to your whims.  They have a line around the block, they don't need your special orders.

By the way, the friend who sends every meal back always expects the meal to be "compted" on the bill - even though the item was re-made for them and they take it home in a clamshell.   This tells me the real reason they are sending the food back - they are trying to scam the restaurant out of a free meal.  I have no respect or tolerance for this sort of thing.

The upshot in both cases is that fear ruins the experience, not only for you, but for everyone else.  Being a fussy food eater only makes other people unhappy, from the waitstaff, to the kitchen staff, to your own dining companions.

There are two ways to avoid this problem, perhaps three.  First of all, stop eating at restaurants so much.  Using a restaurant as a kitchen is one sure way to run up credit card debt and go broke.  Even though we "dine out" maybe once a week, restaurant meals cost us as much as our grocery bill, every month.   When you take the cost of food and multiply it times four or five, it gets pricey!

Restaurants should be an occasional thing, and not your kitchen.   I think one reason people go to chain restaurants or send food back is the cost. The chain restaurant has "cheap" entrees, but of course, the money you spend driving there may have cost more than the meal.   Sending food back is your mind saying, "I can't afford this - and at these prices, I should be allowed a food tantrum!"  Eat out less - that is what your mind is saying.

Making food at home isn't hard.  Certainly eggs and pancakes and other breakfast food is some of the easiest stuff in the world to make.   Even I can make a freaking pancake - you add water and stir and pour - how hard is that?   And if you do live in fear of unusual foods or unusual ingredients, at least you have the control you need.   And you are saving a ton of money to boot.

Second, stop sending food back.   There are very, very few instances where this is appropriate.  Steak over-cooked?   Eat it.   Sending it back to make a new one means your dining partners have to sit awkwardly while you wait.  It ruins the experience, and restaurant dining is more about the experience that just refueling your gut with food.  Don't go back, if the food is badly prepared.   If enough people do this, they go broke.  If not, then maybe the problem is you, not them.

Third, take a few food risks, you may be surprised.   That "Diner" may be a total shithole and you may never go back.  Or, it could be the best experience you've ever had, and you'll rave to your friends about it.   Why wait for "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives" to "discover" a place, when you can discover it on your own.  The risk to you is trivial.

Sadly, I know too many people who won't even think about going to an Indian Restaurant, for example, because they fear the menu.  "All that curry!" they say, as if curry was a spice and not a dish.  I know I was that way, until a young friend of mine took us to an Indian restaurant and introduced us to the hallucinogenic effect produced by a spicy Vindaloo washed down with a dry Riesling.   He also introduced me to shellfish - something I wasted half my life by not trying.

Yet so many are stuck in 6-year-old mode, as I was, eating only cake and ice cream and hot dogs and popcorn.  There is so much else to life - and you don't have much time left to enjoy it.   In fact, as we get older, our bodies often can't tolerate unusual foods, which is all the more reason to try them  now, before it is too late.

But sadly, it seems the majority of Americans are content to go through life driving a bland car ("Do you have this Malibu in beige?"), eating bland foods, and watching television five hours a day (more Fox News, please!).  I guess that is a way to live, but it is hardly living - being in fear all the time (Fox News terror alert - spicy food ahead!) and refusing to try new things - and objecting whenever something is new or different in your life.

And the sad thing is, we are all this way to some extent - even I.   It must be some sort of instinct, that is more present in some than others.  Or perhaps an instinct - fear of the unknown - that needs to be fought more often - perhaps squashed.