Miscellany & Poetry - On food, wine, film, lit & then some.

A Response to B. R. Myers’s “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies,” Part 2

***Continued from Part 1. I’m sober now.***

Speaking of elitism: I don’t know where Myers lives, but it’s wherever this claim can be made without eye-blinks or back-ups: “Restaurant reviews are notorious for touting $100 lunches as great value for money.”

Among whom are they “notorious”? The same “foodies” who actually read them, whom the entire article otherwise indicates are brainwashed to swallow them whole? Implicit contradiction aside, I’ve never read, back in Boston or here in Denver, a review calling a $100 lunch a “great value.” Even assuming there are 1 or 2 such write-ups out there, they’re far from the rule. So what’s his point? Well, mainly it’s just a segue for the claim that such “doublespeak now comes in more pious tones, especially when foodies feign concern for animals.”

Myers takes to task postindustrial “foodies'” newfound appreciation for/attempt to understand the cycle of food production by, for example, choosing to experience the slaughter & preparation of animals firsthand. His take is that it’s at once a bloodthirsty & self-congratulatory celebration of “the biblical idea of man as born lord of the world.” Why? Because Bourdain, the ultimate tongue-in-cheek controversy-courter, gleefully says as much. Because according to Pollan, “We have eaten them for so long that meat-eating has shaped our souls.” (This quotation is offered completely out of context; never mind that Pollan’s entire body of work is shaped by his struggle with the limits of carnivorous behavior.) Because he’s read an essay that portrays “children clamoring to kill their own cow—or wanting to see a pig shot, then ripped open with a chain saw: ‘YEEEEAAAAH!’”

Not once does Myers entertain the notion, except sarcastically, that bearing witness to an animal’s death might, in fact, furnish a mature adult, capable of thinking for him/herself—or even a child who reaches a point of retro/introspection—with a valid opportunity to reflect on the meaning of meat-eating, to develop new respect for the process & the creature’s role therein. The very real possibility that such moments might indeed be teachable ones, leading to a reduction in meat consumption &/or a determination to consume more ethically & sustainably, receives only this pooh-pooh: “Note that the foodies’ pride in eating ‘nose to tail’ is no different from factory-farm boasts of ‘using everything but the oink.’ As if such token frugality could make up for the caloric wastefulness & environmental damage that result from meat farming!”

Again, I’m not sure what his point is—implicitly he’s pro-vegetarian, but he doesn’t bother to construct any thesis to that end. He’s also of course implying that “foodies” choose to remain blissfully unaware or defensively stubborn regarding the consequences of their carnivorous practices—which simply isn’t the case. But the ambivalence central to Pollan’s work, the concerns expressed by interested eaters in all manner of forms & forums about balancing the welfare of animals with the practice of eating them, don’t fit his narrative, so he simply ignores them. As for conscious nose-to-tail eating: just because he says it’s no different than the factory method of throwing every last bit of carcass into processed meat products doesn’t make it so. The qualitative differences—the way the animals are fed, housed & butchered, the way they’re treated in every sense of the word, alive & dead, medically & chemically—are quite simply & obviously enormous. In short, he’s not arguing, he’s just bitching.

Another specious excuse for meat-eating, Myers says, involves its association with tradition—with concern for & interest in traditional foodways: “Enjoinders to put the food provider’s feelings above all else are just part of the greater effort to sanctify food itself.” To prove it, he cites a few works by authors (again, the ones he has chosen to represent “us”) who claim to put food before faith—including an essay by Dana Goodyear that “tells how a restaurant served head cheese (meat jelly made from an animal’s head) to an unwitting Jew:

One woman, when [chef Jon] Shook finally had a chance to explain, spat it out on the table and said, ‘Oh my fucking God, I’ve been kosher for thirty-two years.’ Shook giggled, recollecting. ‘Not any more you ain’t!’

We are meant to chuckle too; the woman (who I am sure expressed herself in less profane terms) got what she deserved. Most of us consider it a virtue to maintain our principles in the face of social pressure, but in the involuted world of gourmet morals, constancy is rudeness. One must never spoil a dinner party for mere religious or ethical reasons.”

Now, I haven’t read this essay; I don’t know what readers are “meant” to do in context. But personally, I find the deception portrayed therein horrifying, not funny. I suspect if one surveyed any group of people, “foodie” or otherwise, one would find that some deem the scenario comical, some appalling, depending on the sociocultural mores to which they adhere. Do I sympathize in general with Bourdain’s cited observation that “taking your belief system on the road—or to other people’s houses—makes me angry”? Yes. Does that mean I don’t recognize exceptions to the rule, even if Bourdain doesn’t? Absolutely not. (Yet again, much of Myers’ argument depends on the assumption that all “foodies” agree with every word ever written by the authors he has chosen to represent our views.) And one major exception to the rule would involve deception. There’s a huge difference between deciding of one’s own volition to break a dietary law—for the sake of experience, for the sake of communion with another human being, etc.—& learning after the fact that one was tricked into doing so. But Myers doesn’t acknowledge that he’s conflating the two scenarios with the above example.

To return to his ultimate point that “foodies” are single-minded, shallow, lacking the “self-critical [nature] & “dazzlingly wide range of interests” that, um, Motley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx shows in Heroin Diaries (this, by the way, is the guy who tweets such deep thoughts as “As we head towards midnight i ask you this: What do you want out of your life. Write it down…Make it happen…..So,what is it?”). In response, I can only to return to mine: relying on the words of a few food writers—for whom food is, yes, a living—as evidence that all “foodies” (whose careers may or may not be food-related) care only about food at any cost is just silly & pointless. Next time, Myers, try interviewing & researching the people you’re profiling, not reading a few articles you—not “we”—take as gospel. You might find that they’re as heterogenous as—get this!—any other group of people you could paint with a broad brush after reading a couple of books written by people with a particular agenda.

A Response to B. R. Myers’s “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies,” Part 1

***This will be written in 2 parts, as this article made me drunk.***

Who are the “foodies” to whom B. R. Myers refers in his article for The Atlantic, “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies?”

They are:

a) “as similar to each other as they are different from everyone else.”

b) “largely motivated by their traditional elitism.”

c) “feign[ers of] concern for animals.”

d) “certainly single-minded…& single-mindedness…is always a littleness of soul.”

As evidence for this handsome portrait, he mainly cites a few passages from a few contemporary food writers, among them the ever-controversial Anthony Bourdain, & makes passing reference to equally controversial groups like the Gastronauts, sans mention of controversy, thereby giving the impression that we “foodies” take their word as gospel—because we all “equat[e] eating with worship…with a straight face.” (On the contrary, see: Food Writing 101, by me & MC Slim JB.)

Let’s unpack this, shall we?

First of all, as a food writer myself, I don’t even use the word “we” with a straight face. The word “foodie” itself is a contentious one among—for lack of an agreed-upon better term—interested eaters. Many of us deplore it on the same grounds that Myers does. My theory is that the diminutive ending appeals to diminutive thinkers who throw money at the cutest chefs to dangle the most precious objects before their eyes…

My point is that “we” are a multitude. “We” come from an infinite number of places, of sociocultural backgrounds, of culinary traditions, with an infinite array of attitudes toward food, foodways, & eating. Jesus, spending half a minute on any Chowhound board, Myers might have seen as much—whether or not he would have dismissed any opinions that disproved his narrative or even accorded with his as payments of lip service, à la the assertion that “he [whoever ‘he’ is] even claims to believe that well-treated animals taste better, though his heart isn’t really in it.”

This statement is presented as self-evident proof that “an ever-stronger preference for free-range meats from small local farms” is “motivated by…traditional elitism.” Any logical reasons for the “rejection of factory farms & fast food” are, according to Myers, merely excuses whereby foodies “vaunt[] their penchant for obscenely priced meals, for gorging themselves, even for dining on endangered animals.” He adds, “Only rarely is public attention drawn to the contradiction.” Which public? Again, I suggest he spend half a minute on Chowhound or any other food forum, where debates on such practices rage constantly (take Louisa Kasdon’s article in ZesterDaily on Legal Seafoods’ hotly contested blacklisted-fish dinner). As for “us,” why do we ourselves spend more than half a minute on Chowhound? Myers says it’s because we’re single-minded. Had he bothered to read beyond the authors he, not “we,” designated our philosphers, our priests, he might have stumbled upon, say, this rationale by M.F.K. Fisher (no priest, simply a damned good writer):

“People ask me: ‘Why do you write about food, & eating, & drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power & security, & about love, the way the others do?’ . . . The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry….When I write of hunger, I am really writing about love & the hunger for it, & warmth & the love of it & it is all one.”

But the fact that food, as a life-giving substance, so often operates as a metaphor for life itself, for life experience, is given no credence here. After all, “we foodies” are literalists in his eyes: “Needless to say, no one shows much interest in literature or the arts—the real arts.”

It’s true. Take me. My MFA in poetry & MA in English literature are really just elaborate beards, hard-earned years in the making, for my obsession with food. Sarcasm aside, am I an exception to the rule? Or proof that he’s generalizing to the point of absurdity? As for “real arts”—talk about a phrase students of postmodern/postcolonial literature would chew up & spit out with relish. For someone who’s arguing on behalf of anti-elitist attitudes, he’s sure got some snoot of his own. Consider his take on Kim Severson’s praise of butchers in the NYT:

“We are to believe [such appreciation] is a real national trend here. In fact the public perception of butchers has not changed in the slightest, as can easily be confirmed by telling someone that he or she looks like one. ‘Blankly as a butcher stares,’ Auden’s famous line about the moon, will need no explanatory footnote even a century from now.”

Putting aside the unconfirmed claims regarding the effect of telling someone he or she looks like a butcher, now or 100 years from now (note that he didn’t try it himself, or at least didn’t report on the results): what’s the implication here? That butchers, to a person, are dumb & cruel, or at least that perception makes it so? According to, of all people, Auden (not that I know who he is, since poetry was for me purely a Band-Aid on my foodie cooties)? Who’s elitist now?

Continued here.

Food Writing 101: On Vocabulary—A Love Letter/Bitch Session, by Denveater & MC Slim JB, Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

Words/Phrases MC Slim JB Hates

Slim: “The food writing that most offends me reflects laziness: a reliance on shopworn clichés and the overblown yet vacuous language of restaurant-industry press releases.”

<Verb>ed to perfection. That’s not writing, that a lift from a Denny’s menu. Shame on you.

Washed down with. Nothing says “I really enjoyed that beverage” like calling it a lubricant for your food-chute. [Guilty, but then I’ve never been known for gracefulness at the table—Denveater.]

Mouth-watering. Salivation is like an erection: essential to the process of enjoyment, and a universally-understood signifier of excitement. But while I appreciate my own, I don’t care at all for descriptions of yours.

Drool (as an interjection). Mouth-watering, as said by a teenager in a text message.

To die for. Cute when your Yiddish grandma says it, a deathly cliché when you do.

So good. Empty and stupid even before “Sweet Caroline” became a sports-arena staple.

Foodie. Bad enough that it’s infantile. But it has been coopted by so many ridiculous people who think their love of food somehow makes them extraordinary—from the odious I-got-to-the-It-Place-before-you type to the I’m-pickier-about-my-Cheesecake-Factory-selections-than-you idiot—that it deserves banishment.

Homemade. That should be house-made, unless it was actually made in someone’s home.

Ethnic or authentic. When you say ethnic, I suspect you mean “food from a tradition other than white bread, mid-century American,” which does not reflect well on your worldliness. When you say authentic, I suspect you mean “Just like I had that one time I went to Bangkok for three days”, or “Just like my third-generation Italian-American mom made”, meaning you’re claiming some authority you probably don’t have. Traditional is generally safer and more accurate in both cases.

Crispy (should be crisp). Okay, this might be pure pedantry on my part.

Finger-licking. Unless you mean to say that the venue serves finger food but does not supply napkins, this does not reflect well on your table manners.

From hell. If you’re aiming to describe capsicum heat, or badness, you can do better.

Indulgent. This word makes me think of TV ads trying to glamorize flavored instant coffees. Let’s take it as given that paying to have food prepared and served to you by professionals is already an indulgence. If you mean there’s a lot of fat and sugar in your dish, please be more specific.

Scrumptious. I admit to falling back on simple superlatives and synonyms for delicious on a regular basis. There’s just a glimmer of eye-twinkling in this one that irks me. [Another one I’m partial to, I think because it sounds like the way I eat: scrump, scrump, scrump…Denveater]

Words Denveater Hates

Chowdah, etc. Real accents are charming; feigned, transcribed accents are just embarrassing. Forget “chowdah.” Forget “N’Awlins.” And for God’s sake forget “fuhgeddabouddit.”

Food porn; also crack, orgy, etc. Enough with the faux-edgy references to sex & drugs—yawn. Unless the food you’ve photographed contains actual boobies or you’ve literally been shooting up schmaltz in a back alley, eyes rolling back into your skull, the slang has long since ceased to shock.

¡Olé!; also Opa!, Mangia!, etc. Please, oh, please refrain from the belabored, ethnically stereotyped interjections. Do you actually let it fly during your meal? Does anyone actually shout it at you while serving your meal, outside of the Epcot Center? No, because it’s not a small world after all, it’s a big, bad one where the only proper response to such forced conviviality should be a cold black stare.

Heavenly; also divine, sinful etc. Leave the moral discourse to Sunday sermons & Family Circle. Not only is it not very useful—what exactly does heaven taste like? Ether? The simultaneous ejaculation of 72 virgins?—it just smacks of an era when euphemisms were power plays, when all the ladies wore aprons & stood sobbing quietly in their state-of-the-art kitchens before gleaming refrigerator doors with signs like “A moment on the lips, forever on the hips.” Depressingly prim.

Sammy/sammie. The infantilization of the word “sandwich” is irritating beyond belief not least because it’s pointless as a shortcut—the number of syllables still adds up to 2! Granted, if you’re regressing to toddlerhood as thoroughly as your vocabulary suggests, you may no longer be able to count to 2.

Stoup; also choup. This one goes out to Rachael Ray, who is as much a writer as she is a chef, which is to say not at all. Even “TV personality” gives her too much credit; in fact, it’s her lack thereof that confirms the suspicion that she’s probably a robot built by the Food Network to take over the world one brain-melting slice of microwaved bacon at a time.  That would explain her programmatic abuse of the English language. She defines “stoup” as “thicker than a soup but not quite a stew” (and, even stoupider, “choup” as “thicker than a stew but not quite a chowder”). It’s like that old joke, “Waiter, there’s a hair in my soup!”—I don’t want the hairs she’s splitting (for the sake, I assume, of trademarks) anywhere near my bowl. Depending on the ingredients, a thick, chunky soup is a stew or a chowder; there’s no need or room for an intermediate stage. Longest 15 minutes of fame ever.

MC Slim JB concludes: “I hope readers understand that we’re not being prescriptive here: we want you to write as you write, not as we write. I admit to having committed most of these sins over the years myself. But if you want readers to keep coming back, my advice is to be vigilant against the trite, the vague and the cutesy. If you want to be read like a pro, you’ll have to rise above the level of the typical lazy Yelper. There, we summarized that to perfection, and it was more outrageously awesome than a barrel of vivacious monkeys, LOL! I think we’re done here. ¡Olé!

Food Writing 101: On Vocabulary—A Love Letter/Bitch Session, by Denveater & MC Slim JB, Part 1

Every so often, some Chowhound starts a particularly juicy, funny, & unnerving thread (like this one) about foodie terminology that either tickles or rankles — usually the latter (including “foodie” itself). Without meaning to come off like a Teen Talk Barbie, I can’t help but whine a bit as I read them about the fact that food writing is hard! insofar as there are only so many words to describe the sensation of taste. Play it safe, & you’re bound to bore everyone out of their skulls, yourself included; jazz it up, and you’re sure to raise the howling specter of Restaurant Girl, the New York Daily News’s infamous erstwhile critic whose prose prompted my Boston-based food-critic pal MC Slim JB to host what remains one of my favorite snark-parties ever on the boards. A taste of Danyelle Freeman’s work:

“Even better, the homemade ravioli look like a store-bought sheet straight from a box. It’s a deceptive maneuver with criminally delicious returns: Each doughy pocket gets plumped with a vivacious mix of four cheeses and spackled with a silky lettuce sauce.”

Still, preferring the sound of laughter, however derisive, to that of steady snoring, I know I err on the side of exuberant overwriting myself. Slim agrees: “My food writing tends towards the rococo, especially when I’m trying to communicate emotions inspired by food. If you want to go beyond food reporting (‘Here’s what was served, how it looked, the ingredient list’) and give readers a flavor of the experience of pleasure in eating, it’s tough not get a little florid at times.”

Slim goes on: “The reality is that writing, not just food writing, truly is hard, even for people who ostensibly have the tools. For example, the notorious Ms. Freeman went to Harvard, wrote for the fourth-largest daily in the US, understands grammar and syntax, and has a high-SAT-score vocabulary. Nevertheless, she’s just an appalling writer, almost unreadable in her awfulness. But she’s an extreme example. The sins that offend us daily are more garden-variety: crimes against diction, thudding clichés, unnecessary neologisms. You don’t have to be Restaurant-Girl-horrendous to make us wince, eye-roll, or wish you’d done one more revision: just use hackneyed, empty phrases like ‘cooked to perfection.’”

Words, we recognize, are like anything else we humans use to communicate who we are & where we stand—gestures, clothing, hairstyles: they’re a matter of taste (in the broad sense), which means not everyone is going to like them. Hence, while we’ve been dishing for years on our own pet phrases—haters be damned!—as well as the clunkers & clichés that make us cringe, we don’t agree on everything. All part of the fun learning curve.

Here, then, is our signed manifesto/confession/defense.

Words MC Slim JB Loves

Says Slim, “I’m not offering these as Words Food Writers Should Use, just examples of Words I Love. I culled these from the sixty professional pieces I wrote this year. I sweat hard over word choice; few editorial decisions annoy me more than the substitution of an insipid, ninth-grade-reading-level word for one I painstakingly chose for its dense or allusive or narrow meaning. Saying a flavor is assaultive is not the same as calling it strong or intense.”

Describing qualities of food: toothsome (properly used to describe a certain texture, typically of pasta), luscious, velvety, zippy, lusty, miserly, parsimonious, prosaic, lyrical, zingy, bedecked, cunning, vivid, eye-goggling, acerbic, insipid, high-craft, icky-sweet

Describing a venue or its atmosphere: dumpy, seedy, ramshackle, a hog trough, boîte, hell-hole, soigné, crepuscular, dingy, gouging, a swindle, frippery, glowing, low-fuss, glossy, faux glamour, theme-parky, kitschy, hokey

Describing servers and chefs: convivial, stony, sassy, sweet-natured, cherubic, toque, seminal

Describing customers: food nerd (my coinage to replace foodie), white-bread, inky-hipster, multi-culti, philistine, nutbag, ding-dong

Intensifiers (positive): dizzying, ravishing, rough-and-ready, beguiling, righteous, serviceable, precious, gobsmacking, jaw-dropping, breathtaking

Intensifiers (negative): shameless, harrowing, appalling, sullied, dubious, benighted, fraudulent, egregious, grotesque, bastardized, grating

Slim, in reviewing this list: “Pretentious? Possibly, though I’ll defend foreign words like recherché when English doesn’t have pithy equivalents. Forcing you to consult dictionary.com? Occasionally, though I never choose a fifty-cent word when the nickel one will suffice; nobody likes a showoff. [Except me.—Denveater] Saying precisely, pungently what I mean? That’s the ultimate goal, the rationale behind every word choice.”

Words Denveater Loves

Boîte. Yeah, yeah, yeah, French throwaways are pretentious. But the English equivalent, “nightclub,” is a snooze. And where would you rather be—in the tiny, twinkling café, drinking wine & eating cheese by candlelight to the stylings of a beret-topped guitarist, that “boîte” evokes, or in the strobe-lit slaughterhouse of a “nightclub,” surrounded by screaming, stumbling, puking also-ran-tweens? Exactly.

Crispy. Slim’s right (see below); crisp does the trick. But the diminutive -y suffix is just so damn cute, taking me back to Prague circa 1998, where the bathrooms were marked Toilety

Eatery. Why this term strikes people as cutesy is beyond me—it’s really about as straightforwardly all-purpose as they come. Not every place that serves food is a café (which implies a degree of informality) or even a restaurant (Italians, at least, reserve ristorante for a high-end establishment), much less a taqueria/trattoria/tapas bar/bistro/barbecue shack/izakaya et cetera. But they’re all eateries.

Gastropub. I get the complaints, but I don’t agree with the complaints. The word was coined in the UK more than a decade ago under perfectly reasonable circumstances: to convey the fact that the word “pub” no longer needed be synonymous with “greasy grub” whose sole purpose was to absorb alcohol as quickly & unremarkably as possible. A chef-led movement toward food that was deceptively simple rather than merely honest, hearty, & every bit as delicious as the ales & ciders they accompanied was underway; that movement has turned out to be a revolution, & its stateside variant is to be applauded. Accordingly, the prefix “gastro” strikes me as sensible; those who object to it on the grounds that it reminds them of stomach ailments then must also do away with “gastronomy,” a word that dates back to 4th century Greece. The fact is, eating doesn’t begin & end with the mouth; it involves the whole digestive system. If Americans accepted that more readily—the processes and consequences of food intake—maybe we’d be in better shape.

Quaff. Okay, it’s a little goofy, but we English speakers have far too few opportunities to use the letter “q.” And the fact that its coinage dates back to 1523 speaks to its antiquated appeal: it makes me think of toddies & wassail & other such festive bygones.

Succulent. A sexy alternative to “moist” or “juicy.” Some people say you shouldn’t use $2 words when 10-cent words are available; I say those people are linguistic cheapskates. (Slim excepted.)

Unctuous. It’s true that the word has negative connotations—but only when used in its figurative sense, to mean “ingratiating.” Used in its literal sense, as a synonym for “oily” or “fatty,” it’s not unpleasant to me; in fact, unlike its synonyms, it suggests a softness or smoothness that may have to do with the fact that unction is a healing ritual. Think of it, then, as implying that butter makes you better, & slather it on!

Part 2, on Words We Hate, here

A Few Foodie Gems from Earth (The Book)

Honestly, where do Jon Stewart & The Daily Show staff find the time? Subtitled A Visitor’s Guide to the Human Race, their latest tome furnishes the alien invaders who will surely arrive on our planet after we’ve wiped ourselves out with an introduction to the former human race: who we were, who we thought we were, what we did, what we didn’t do. And, of course, what we ate. Here’s hoping the below excerpts constitute fair use insofar as they’ll surely inspire you to pick up a copy of your own. You’re gonna need it, just in case you’re the last living being left & have some explaining to do.

51Qf2TGhHcL._SCLZZZZZZZ_AA250_The-Daily-Show-with-Jon-Stewart-Presents-Earth-The-Book-A-Visitors-Guide-to-the-Human-Race

BY THE NUMBERS: LIFETIME FOOD CONSUMPTION

Purposeful
Ranch dressing: 285 gallons
Edible underwear: 3.2 pairs
Uncut heroin: 1/12 condom
Jesuses: 95.4 wafers

Inadvertent
Pubic hairs: 876
Pieces of own tongue: 8 lbs.
Waitstaff saliva: 4.3 gallons
Fresh vegetables: 40 lbs.

THINGS WE LIKED: TREATS

Spices
What They Were: The ground extracts of seeds, leaves, buds, twigs & stumps
Why We Liked Them: Satisfied human need to add pinches, dashes & half-teaspoons of things
What We Used Them For: Making bland food taste good; making rotten food edible; making cartoon characters sneeze
What We’d Do for Them: Cross the Gobi; circumnavigate Arica; enslave millions

Caviar
What It Was: Roe killed legally in the womb, as per Roe v. Wade
Why We Liked It: Because “they” told us we should
What We Used It For: Spreading on crackers; mocking the homeless

Honey
What It Was: Delicious, delicious bee vomit
What We Used It For: Condiment; wound disinfectant; term of endearment; Pooh-baiting
What We’d Do for It: Get stung by swarms of insects; tolerate the existence of beekeepers
Where We Found It: Honeycomb; also available in “Bit o'” form
Where You’ll (Still) Find It: Plastic squeezy-bears; any surface it once touched

THINGS SOME OF US LIKED: DELICACIES

Haggis
What It Was: A sheep’s heart, liver & lungs stuffed & boiled inside its own stomach
Why Others Found It Gross: Preferred ground pig snouts & anuses served in intestine casing on bun with ketchup

Hasma
What It Was: Frog fallopian tubes boiled in sugar water
Who Ate It: The Chinese. For dessert.
How They Came Up With It: What other female frog part were they supposed to eat? The clitoris? It’s all gristle
Suggested Beverage Pairing: Anything alcoholic, but lots of it, & beforehand

Peeps
What They Were: Hypersweetened marshmallow candies shaped like baby animals
Who Ate Them: Americans & marshmallow snakes
How They Came Up With It: Railway disaster involving Necco Wafers, plumbers’ caulk & spent fuel rods
Why Others Found It Gross: Even on the molecular level, did not contain the building blocks of food
Suggested Beverage Pairing: Key lime–flavored Mad Dog 20/20

When Two Ingredients Make Sweet Sweet Love: A Top 10

Vanilla & chocolate. Meat & potatoes. Beans & corn. Gin & tonic. While most foods go with many things—in a wacky little process we call cooking—some have soulmates. How my heart spins like a pinwheel, how my breath blossoms into sighs when my mouth becomes like unto a pink-silk-strewn circular waterbed for the consummation of their edible romance! Behold the stunning couples that (in no particular order) grace my Top 10.

Spinach & bacon. Iron & smoke, from the edges of bitterness to the heart of unctousness.

Lemon & butter. The yellows of slow sunlight, soft & sour, melting into pure bright shine.

Fish & vinegar. Ceviche. Pickled herring. Escovitch. Swoony Venetian sarde in saor. There’s a reason everyone everywhere has marinated fish in vinegar for centuries. Okay, it’s a preservative. But besides that, it has its own seawatery strength; it brings the zing to the cream of the flesh.

Brown sugar & sour cream. I’m not saying they don’t need fresh strawberries or sliced banana to be complete. But I’m not saying they do either.

Cheese & honey. Enough said, I think. (Okay—pecorino e miele. Now I’ve said enough.)

Nuts & honey. Ditto.

Cheese & nuts. Ditto.

Raisins & olives. As in Latin picadillo. As in Sicilian caponata. As in many a tagine. In short, as in myriad dishes that exhibit Moorish influence. The chew, the deep salt & the dark sweet.

Chocolate & eggplant. If you don’t trust me, trust southern Italy. Two bitters don’t make bitterness.

Fino sherry & oysters. If champagne & shellfish are a celebrated marriage, sherry & shellfish are the quietly enduring affair.

Tactilophile: Top 5 Eats According to My Fingers

1. Nuts in the shell
Peanuts
from Nuts Online

Peanuts or pistachios, walnuts or pecans, filberts or Brazils, with unaided fingers or with a nutcracker depending on the type, day in & day out, the sense of accomplishment I derive from opening nuts is all the more joyous for being so fleeting. Whatever that may say about the scope of my life’s ambition isn’t the point; the point is the clean, sharp sound of the crack, especially when it occurs straight along the seam; the tiny bits that go flying; popping or picking out the pieces of nutmeat 1 by 1; licking the salt & bits of skin off your palm…

2. Coiled pastries
Sticky-buns2
from somebody’s high-school reunion

From savory, meat-filled burek to sticky buns & cinnamon rolls, it’s all about peeling away the soft, flaky strip of dough hunk by hunk to reach the tender heart of the spiral.

3. Meat on the bone
Thanksgiving-turkey-leftovers

Photo notwithstanding, I don’t know why anyone ever bothers to put Thanskgiving turkey on a platter & go through the whole carving rigmarole. Left to my own holiday hostessing devices, which surely for the better I never am, I’d just set the bird in the pan on the kitchen counter & let everyone stand around tearing into it with their hands—digging for the meat between the bones, yanking off satisfyingly fat chunks or long twists, sopping up the gravy, snatching swatches of crackling golden-brown skin. Same goes for roast chicken. And then there are barbecued ribs—the gnawing, the bone-sucking, the finger-licking, the repeating…

4. The corner piece of cake
Cake_sheet_bday_reg_med

Speaking of improving on tradition, when I reach good old Elvira’s gilded age, I hope someone gets me a classic yellow sheet cake just like this, with 1 twist: each corner piece would be replaced by a block made entirely of frosting, the worst kind—just sugar, shortening & coloring—& I would get them all, no fork necessary. Then I’d scrape up the frosting left on the bottom of the serving board with my index finger. Then I’d fall asleep in my chair, snoring, while everybody tiptoed out.

5. Anything baked in a crust
Pecan Pie_2
from Hope, Faith & Gluttony

Pie, quiche, kulebiaka, b’stilla, you name it—it’s a scientifically proven fact that grabbing a slice with 1 hand & eating it like a sandwich actually enhances the flavor. Especially if your other hand has been holding a few too many glasses of wine.

Awfsome! My Top 5 Happy-Sad Snacks

Of all the words I wish I’d thought of first, awfsome’s #1. I mean, it’s such an elegantly simple portmanteau, one letter bridging the gulf between what sucks & what rocks. And there’s so much in the world that simultaneously sucks & rocks. Like the smell of grandma’s house. And “Too Shy” by Kajagoogoo. And excess phlegm.

And, of course, all manner of foodstuffs. Here, a few of my awfsome faves (in no particular order).

1. Chopped Liver
800px-Chopped_liver
From Wikipedia

Be it chicken or beef cooked with onions, eggs & schmaltz, chopped liver’s the bomb in every sense of the word. If ever there was hard evidence for the old stereotype that we Jews aren’t the sexiest bunch of so-&-sos, this is it: when a schmear of the stuff detonates in your gut, the gooey shrapnel’s embedded for days & renders you literally incapable of moving, let alone, you know, moving. (My take on New York Deli News’ version here.)

2. Mudslides
Mudslide_01

Recipes vary, but some combination of vodka, Bailey’s, Kahlùa, vanilla &/or chocolate ice cream, chocolate syrup & whipped cream about covers it. What doesn’t vary: the utter disdain of any self-respecting cocktail connoisseur for such kiddie sludge. The experts are absolutely right, of course. And yet—just look at that face! So pretty! So innocent! So ideal for topping off a meal of anything with the word “pop,” “blast,” or “load” in its name, preferably followed by a ®.

3. Port Wine Cheeseballs
Chsball

Sure, those fancy folk on the public radio can make ’em all nice & gourmet. But if you ask me, cheeseballs are their best at their worst. That’s why they’re called “cheeseballs.” The theory that these freaks of Americana can trace their origins to, like, real cultures is expounded on here, where the author points out that the tradition of combining—incorporating or pairing—cheese, wine & nuts is after all long-lived in Europe.

4. Seafood Dynamite
SDdynamite
Takeout dynamite from Sushi Den

It may have spread to the East Coast by now, but when I first moved to Denver in ’07, I’d never heard of dynamite, and from all the info I can glean it does indeed seem to be a West Coast invention, probably via Hawaii. Like so many ingenious culinary creations—croquettes, ribollita, cold turkey sandwiches—it began as a vehicle for leftovers, quickly becoming popular enough to warrant higher-end variants.

And why is it so popular? Because it’s disgusting, duh. Smothering perfectly lovely mussels or scallops or what have you in mayo, even mayo mixed with fish roe & chili sauce, is just a damn shame. But the thing about damn shames is that more often than not they’re magically delicious.

5. Buttery Butter Butter
Butter-briks

I don’t care if it’s potted European farmhouse goodness or salted stick stuff. Butter spread onto or mixed into anything it shouldn’t be is that much more glorious than it is on or in anything it should. Cold pizza. Peanut butter. Potstickers. Brie. Cheddar. Bananas. Hot black coffee. Mustard. Slices of roasted eggplant. Celery sticks. Crystallized pineapple rings. But especially cold pizza. And spesh-especially that last slice.

***
The Bonus Pack of Awfesomeness

Wasabi Snuff
Snorting a full hit of wasabi is insanely stupid. Unless you were the first guy to do it. Then it’s radically, brilliantly, brutally funny. So if you’ve never seen Steve-O pack it up in Jackass: The Movie, do yourself a questionable favor & check it out.

Gin Greasy
A couple weeks back, author Tom Robbins—you know, Still Life with Woodpecker, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues—officially rendered himself immortal not through his work, not through not dying, but as a guest star on the (just plain awesome) NPR game show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” where he wreaked havoc with a description of the blended gin-&-mayo cocktail he once whipped up when he’d run out of mixer (&, apparently, common sense). Necessity, my friends, is the MILF of awfsomeness.

On Feasts, Famine, & Existential Jams: The Flavors That Made Me Who I Am

Feast or famine: literal or figurative, the phrase has come to define my career as a freelance food writer. In fat times, deadlines & bylines swirl past me like front pages in an old newsreel, & the weight I gain is a pittance to pay for the sense of purpose & productivity I—don’t we all?—live for. In lean times, my savings depleting & my self-esteem plummeting (but my weight still increasing—wha?), I look in the mirror in sheer panic & sadness & wonder what the hell I’m doing, how I’ll survive, if I’ll survive.

Guess which times these are.

In August, I’ll be marking my 3rd anniversary in Denver—& my 40th year on earth. In the looming shadow of the calendar, I find myself dwelling on better days past—on the shining forks in the road that led to this one, the bite I took here or sip I took there that so struck me with the pure joy of discovery that I felt I was being consumed by it as much as the other way around.

Do I wax poetic? Well, so be it: it was poetry that food writing all but replaced in my world as a result of such moments, as they accumulated & coalesced into something meaningful—into a personal narrative of which I was the fat, happy heroine.

On a day like today, when that story looks short, the ending bitter, & those memories in danger of revision in the light of my own petty failures, I’m feeling compelled to record a few of them while they remain clear & dear.


Cream soda & half-sours: a Jewish deli in Paterson, New Jersey

Summer glared where my grandparents lived amid brick tenements, scorched concrete & basketball courts that seemed to echo all the louder when no one was around. I was 8. In those days you couldn’t get a bagel in my Oklahoma hometown, never mind the chopped liver & pickled herring my father’d grown up on. Here there was dust in the sunlight as it crossed the wooden booths, the display counter filled with cylinders & slabs in shades of gray, the slatted barrels lining the wall. Someone dipped into one & brought over a dish—pickles, only much brighter green than any I’d ever seen. The crunch rang out—they weren’t so salty—they zinged, zang, zung, curled the sides of the tongue. The liquid in my tumbler was tan, not brown. It wasn’t cola. It tasted like ice cream. Sour, sweet. Sour, sweet. I went back & forth, back & forth.


French vanilla & daiquiri ice: double scoop at Baskin-Robbins

Sour, sweet. Sour, so sweet. I didn’t go back & forth, back & forth. I got a little of each on my spoon, the orange-yellow & the pale blue-green, & let them mingle, linger. I was 8 & my friends wanted chocolate & vanilla, adjectiveless. I must, I thought, be sophisticated.


Broiled swordfish: Durgin Park, Boston

The flight of stairs was dark, narrow & creaky. But the dining room at the top was bright, sprawling & creaky—wood scuffed all over & long tables covered in red-&-white-checked cloths. So we’d be sitting with strangers, like in the olden days, whatever those were—scuffed faces & denim overalls. Our waitress sounded like she was made of rotting wood, her voice falling apart. I was 11. The skyline had gleamed golden-blue as the plane touched down & I’d known at that moment I would live there someday. I almost didn’t need to see the city. Then I read the menu: swordfish. Swordfish. Would it glint silver & poke me in the mouth? Did it swashbuckle in the sea?

It had crossmarks all over it, like the pictures of steak platters on the placemat from Denny’s I cut out for Barbie & Ken to eat. Sprigs of curly parsley. I must, I thought, be fancy.

It tasted a little like steak. It tasted a lot like the darkness of the sea. Like I was embarking on something. Like some door was opening & I could go in.


What doesn’t go together: a trattoria in Atrani, Campagna

It was early; the place was empty except for the man who emerged from the kitchen to seat us, smiling. Perhaps he was 50; I was 28 & in love with Alex, with Italy through Alex as he led me through Venice & Ravenna, Lucca & Lecce, introducing me to Amarone & Schiacchetrà (shock-eh-trah, shock-eh-trah), to lardo (don’t think about it, just eat it, he insisted), to gelato (look for banana. Is it grayish? It’s a go. Golden-yellow? A go-elsewhere).

The man did not present menus. He asked us whether we’d like it if he cooked for us. We said yes. He beamed. He asked us what we liked—seafood? Pasta? We said yes. Then we would start with antipasto ai frutti di mare for 2 before moving to on the primo piatto—did we like this pasta or this pasta or this one? This sauce or that sauce or the other? This one, I said, with that sauce. He smiled again, sadly this time. He shook his head. Non possibile, he said, his tone apologetic but firm. They don’t go together. He suggested something else.

I don’t remember what it was; it doesn’t matter how it tasted. I was in love—with what lay in his refusal to pair a sauce with a shape that wouldn’t hold it, the gentle passion, the conviction, with all I had to learn. We returned the next night.


Arancini: a train station in Palermo, Sicily

August 15. My 29th birthday fell on a Sunday, but not just any day of rest—it was Ferragosto, a national holiday. Everything was closed. Everything. No one was around—no one. I couldn’t even get a gelato & I was bored & cranky. We wandered the empty streets shimmering with heat, passing the shells of bombed-out buildings as though it were 1943, the air raid had just ended & we were the first shocked, dust-covered survivors to emerge from our crushed homes.

A car slowed past us & came to a stop. The old man behind the wheel waved us over; after speaking with him a moment, Alex gestured at me to get in. I balked. I was not going to get in the car of a stranger in the headquarters of the Sicilian Mafia!

I got in. Come si chiama? the man asked. Ruth, I said. Brut’? he replied. Non è brut’. (“Ugly? You’re not ugly.”) Alex grinned.

We drove around Palermo. For two hours he guided us past landmarks—the operahouse, the mosque, La Martorana—describing what the Mob had done here to modernize the city or failed to do there to protect its own interests. That’s why there’s no bridge to the mainland, he explained—the Mob controls the ferry system. He pointed out his favorite restaurants & told us about his kids.

He asked Alex where we were staying & pulled up to the entrance of our pensione, bidding us ciao. Alex looked at me, then pulled out some lire. No, he said. Thank you for letting me show you my city.

He drove off, the lonely old man, & we made our way to the train station—we had an evening bus to catch to Siracusa. Even here, the café was closed. Alex approached a lone vendor selling snacks from a cart & returned with my dinner—a bottle of water & a paper bag. Happy birthday to me. Arancini, he explained. Deep-fried rice balls the size & color of oranges, hence the name.

The sun was setting as the bus emerged from the outskirts of town into low, green hills. It looked like Iowa. I pulled out a ball & bit in.

Crispy & melting, hot & oozing mozzarella. Tinged with saffron. My fingers orange. A rich brown ragù of chopped beef & peas spilling from the other.

It was the best birthday dinner ever.


B
istecca di cavallo: a trattoria in Trieste, Friuli–Venezia Giulia
It was early when we arrived; the place was empty. It was late when we left—the place was empty. If we’d known we’d be the only customers, would we have felt suspicious, uncomfortable, walked on by? No, not if we’d known with whom we’d be alone. A young man in a white shirt & black tie sat at the small bar in front, glued to the soccer match on a tiny old TV, antennae cocked. In back, half-visible through the doorway to the kitchen, a squat old lady, support hose drooping into her slippers, manned the stove. I was 32—was I still in love with Alex? Did it matter, since he (it was clear now; from the right angle, it probably always was) didn’t love me? Was this our last trip to Italy, the last time we’d wander quieter streets—Rome’s cobblestones, Perugia’s walled alleyways, Bologna’s arcades—in search of the place, just the place for our kind of romance—seated, eating—sharing too much wine with umbrichelli al tartufo, with vitello tonnato or zuppa di pesce or pizza con i fiori di zucca?

All I knew was that something more than mere curiosity, something urgent & somehow tender, sweet, already nostalgic, was compelling us to order horsemeat from the young man, our waiter, the only waiter.

The horsemeat was not tender or sweet. It was gamey & tough. It was what it was. We couldn’t complain. We definitely couldn’t complain. Our waiter cheered. His team had just scored. He came over with 3 shots of grappa & told us we should go to Croatia, where the beaches were beautiful, the nightclubs on fire. His team scored again; he brought another round. A third. He was his mamma’s only son. She was still back there cooking for no one in particular.


Fried oysters with pickled beef tongue: Neptune Oyster, Boston

If you ever order fried oysters & it turns out they come in a pile with shreds of pickled beef tongue, & then sauerkraut, & then melted gruyère, & then Russian dressing, don’t assume the chef just had a nervous breakdown over your dinner & ran out of the kitchen screaming. Eat it. It will change your life.

Good Signs, Bad Signs (You Know We’ve Had Our Share): A Deconstructionist’s Guide to Gauging Restaurant Quality

I knew the Director & I were in for a long night at the not-surprisingly-now-defunct Mark & Isabella the second we stepped inside & I saw the slogan on the back of a server’s T-shirt: “Got lasagna?” Faux-snark swiped from an ad campaign that had long since been borrowed to the point of grinding cliché did not bode well for the freshness of the dining experience—& sure enough, from the half-hearted service to the even-less-hearted cooking, the meal was a real drag. It occurred to me then that outside of roadhouses & shacks—clam, BBQ, burger, & otherwise—cheeky T-shirts might be an indication that the powers that be were putting the style cart before the substance horse.

When my theory was confirmed at the meh Via della Pace in Manhattan’s East Village a couple months back, it got me to thinking about other indirect but generally reliable signs that a place is going to rock or suck. Cheesy Asian pop in an Asian restaurant, for instance: good. Cheesy American pop in an American restaurant: bad. Frank Sinatra in an Italian restaurant: really bad. Sleek logos: good. Gaudy logos: bad. No logos at all: probably bad (assuming it’s a pretentious appeal to insiderly exclusivity—although read on for an important exception). And so on.

It also got me to asking other food bloggers for their thoughts on the subject; here, the authors of Denver on a Spit (DOAS), MC Slim JB of (MCSJB), Hidden Boston (HB) graciously offer up some worthy words to the wise (hey, that’s you!). Which doesn’t mean you should take them entirely without a grain of salt; as Slim points out, “It’s an old Chowhound adage that deliciousness turns up where you least expect it. I am still routinely surprised to find great food in places I figured would be awful, & bad food where I expected joy. And I keep ‘discovering’ great little joints that have been around for years; I just never noticed them or happened by their neighborhoods. So don’t take these rules of thumb as durable: there are always exceptions, & pleasant surprises hiding behind ominous first impressions are among the great pleasures of dining out.”

With that said:


+ SIGNS


English—or Rather the Lack Thereof

This may seem fairly obvious, but a good sign when looking for good food is a lack of English. This can start with the customers. If the customers are all talking in a language other than English, then chances are you have found a place that is at least authentic. This can backfire, of course, because if you go the McDonald’s on Alameda near Federal; a lot of people may be talking in Vietnamese or Spanish, but you’re still in a Wack Arnold’s. If the waitstaff doesn’t or barely speaks English, then that could be a good sign, too—but that could also happen at McDonald’s. So probably the best indication is that the menu is in another language—especially if all or parts of it are not translated. [Conversely, see Dining for Dummies below—Denv.] Also, you probably want to figure out how to order off that part of the menu. Like at Denver’s New Saigon. Ever notice that untranslated page in Vietnamese? The servers often strongly discourage non-natives from ordering from there. Ignore them.— DOAS

A staff that cheerfully labors to overcome language barriers (example: East Boston’s Restaurante Montecristo). Actually, that’s a red herring: restaurants with little English in the front of the house that don’t try to work with my kindergartner’s Spanish can be good, too [see: El Taco de Mexico—Denv], but I’m impressed when they bother.—MCSJB

Signage—or Rather the Lack Thereof [an exception to my “no logos” rule—Denv.]

Speaking of signs good & bad, a complete lack of signage is often a good sign.
Las Tortugas on Alameda just recently added a sign after years without. This is one of the most authentic torta experiences you will have outside of Mexico. A restaurant not only surviving but flourishing without any kind of advertising can only mean good things. Places like these grow by word of mouth. They have no websites, emails or, at times, even traceable phone numbers. If you are lucky enough to find one, then it is likely that you have stumbled upon something special. Likewise, signs you can’t understand are often good.—DOAS

Attitude—or the Lack Thereof
Many restaurants feel the need to cater to every whiny need of its customers at any cost. Others, in the tradition of the Soup Nazi, post rules that they expect their customers to follow. These places know their food is good. If you are worried about pissing off the restaurant owners or cook, it must be good. When dining at Tom’s Diner in Denver, read the rules & don’t be a pain in the ass. The result? Some of the best Southern fare you can hope for in Denver.—DOAS

A warm, sincere-sounding greeting from the hostess stand immediately upon entering. A flustered, supercilious, or inattentive maître d’ is a red flag.—MCSJB
[
See: Wild Bangkok—Denv.]

A chef-owned place that closes when the chef goes on holiday (example: Trattoria Toscana near Fenway). The level of professional pride reflected in the implied motto, “If I’m not here cooking, it’s not my food,” is generally encouraging.—MCSJB

Tableware—or the Lack Thereof
Environmental awareness has not yet expanded to encompass all restaurants equally. So if you are comfortable enlarging your carbon footprint from time to time in exchange for some good food, then an unfortunate good sign is often paper plates, plastic forks & Styrofoam cups (big ones).

Meanwhile, napkins are fluff. In my own home, napkins are for when guests like parents come over. Paper towels are absorbent & good for dabbing the corners of your mouth, wiping up big saucy spills from the table & sopping up the grease you can’t lick off your fingers. A roll of paper towels on each table is a solid sign of good food. The opposite of the paper towel is the ultra-thin, almost transparent tissue-paper napkin. I have not seen a lot of these in the States, but in many countries this is the standard. If you grab for a napkin, then need to grab 4 more to sop up a pea-sized spill, you have chosen well.


P1090766.JPG See: Tin Star Cafe Donut Haus—DOAS

Roots, Part 1: Where Everybody Looks the Same [to the tune of the “Cheers” theme]

Not in the way that all white people look the same, but in the way a family shares the same genetic makeup. Is sis hosting while bro serves & mom barks orders from the kitchen? Stay. It’s going to be good.
—DOAS


Son out front, mom in the back. I’ve run into this setup in many tiny, traditional restaurants, & the results are often wonderful.
—MCSJB

[See: Lao Wang Noodle House—Denv.]

Roots, Part 2
A cliché that happens to be true: a crowd of ex-pats in a restaurant serving their homeland’s cuisine, e.g., many Thai immigrants dining in a Thai restaurant. Somewhere there must be throngs of Cantonese speakers with lousy taste—the Chinese equivalent of Chili’s fans—so their presence at a Hong Kong–style live-tank seafood restaurant shouldn’t impress me. But I haven’t run into them yet.—MCSJB
[See: Star Kitchen—Denv.]


Wheels, Tents & Tunes


Places with wheels always get my attention. There is something about an operation that has the potential to be portable that tickles my tastebuds. In Denver, many of my favorite meals come from food carts or out of taco trucks, running the range from
Gastro Cart’s gourmet goodies to my favorite hidden loncheras (luncheonettes) in Aurora. Everything tastes better when it comes from a vehicle parked on a street corner or empty lot. As the food truck & cart boom grows in Denver this spring & summer, this might change, but for now, it’s a great place to start.

P1080032 See: La Lonchera Dos Hermanos

Or: There is a big white canopy tent in a parking lot next to a restaurant. Under that tent is a hunk of red stacked pork loins roasting on a spit with open flame. There are juices dripping off the meat. You probably want to go there.

Also: nothing says Mexican street life (& that in many other parts of the world) like bootleg CDs & DVDs being sold on the street. If there is someone with a rack of CDs leaning against his or her car in the parking lot of a restaurant, that really can only mean good things for the food inside. If there is a guy hawking cheap plastic toys as well? Jackpot. For a special bonus, does the owner let people come in off the street & peddle stuff inside of the restaurant itself? This takes the parking lot theory to a new level, & is not limited to CDs. Tamales, cheese, & tortillas are all fair game. Denver’s Taco Mex has it all.—DOAS
P1070973

Cleanliness, Godliness
A spotless open kitchen where every cook has a tidy mise-en-place. Not every fine dining restaurant that exhibits this orderliness will be good, but an open kitchen without it inevitably disappoints.

Also: spanking-clean bathrooms. A restaurant that minds this particular corner of the store reveals something honorable about its character.—MCSJB

– SIGNS

Staff: Aptitude & Attitude
“Hi, my name is ____ & I’ll be your server tonight.” Not the server’s fault, I know: this is part of the restaurant’s robotic training regimen. But it still sets my teeth on edge every time. A rote phrase of greeting is an unpromising way to start the meal.—MCSJB

Bouncers. Your place may serve food, but it’s primarily a nightclub, & nightclub owners virtually never run worthwhile restaurants.—MCSJB

The host points to your table rather than taking you to it. When hosts do this, it implies that a) they hate their job; b) they don’t really care about the customers; c) they are incredibly lazy. In all three cases, it sends up warning signals to the diners.—HB

Pimped-out servers. Restaurants that drape female servers in tight, revealing uniforms are usually trying to distract you from some unflattering facts about their food. Staring at you, Hooters.—MCSJB
[See, er:
Hooters—Denv.]

The servers sit at your table when they take your order. Why do they need to sit at the table? Are they tired? Are they looking for new friends? Either way, it is irritating & vaguely disturbing, especially if the table is tight to begin with.—HB
[See:
The Wine Loft—Denv.]


Schtick
The involvement of a professional athlete: their name on the marquee or their ownership stake touted in the restaurant’s marketing. I can’t think of a single restaurant of this type I’ve visited that wasn’t overpriced, mediocre, or both.—MCSJB
[
Elway’s is an exception, but 1 that proves the rule (at least to that of mediocrity).—Denv.]

“Tony Gabbagool” shtick. Certain Italian places (example: Strega in Boston’s North End) hype their affinity for heavily-stereotyped American Mafia culture, some going so far as to hire former Sopranos bit actors to promote their restaurants. It’s stale, stupid, & borderline-offensive, not a harbinger of quality.—MCSJB

A floor show. Benihana-style teppanyaki, strolling violinists, Fire + Ice falderol (you select ingredients & sauces to be stir-fried in front of you on a giant griddle), & other gimmicks often hide lackluster ingredients behind the zazzle.—MCSJB

Kitschy mismatched bric-à-brac: stuffed game-animal heads, old road signs, etc. Another casual dining trope that says, “Boil-in-bag food served here.”—MCSJB


Dining for Dummies
A careful English translation of an entire Chinese menu. This doesn’t mean that Chinese restaurants with limited-for-dumb-Americans menus don’t have good food, but I may never know if all they offer me is junk like crab Rangoon & General Gau’s chicken. (Pointing at other customers’ orders can help, but only until your next visit when you want to get that dish again.)—MCSJB

Tent cards, those little pre-printed cardboard pyramids on the table promoting a drink special (Hypnotiq Cozmos!), appetizer (Shrimp Poppers!), entree (Fettuccine Alfredo in a Bread Bowl!), or dessert (Mom’s Homemade Chocolate Lava Cake!). They’re a staple of national casual dining chain hellholes, & thus inspire foreboding.—MCSJB

Similarly: The insert for specials looks older than the regular menus.—HB

The menu has photos of the food (this mainly applies to traditional American places, as pictures of food at ethnic restaurants isn’t always a bad thing). Usually the pictures are stock photos, which means they have nothing to do with the restaurant (unless perhaps the point is to show diners what a hamburger looks like). All they do is take up space on the menu, which may be the questionable goal of the restaurant.—HB
[In Italy, picture menus are usually accompanied by the words “Menu Turistico!” If that’s not a sign to vamoose, I don’t know what is.—Denv.]


First Impression (with your teeth)
Wonder-Bread-like dinner rolls with portion-control oleo pats served at an American-Chinese restaurant. Get ready for magenta spareribs & gloppy chicken chow mein.—MCSJB


Roots, Part 3
(In the case of an ethnic restaurant) Nobody of that particular ethnicity is dining in the place.—HB
[See: P. F. Chang’s—Denv.]


Got it? Good. Now you’re ready for the Dining Deconstructionist’s Bonus Guide, by MC Slim JB (with yet more commentary by Denveater):


SIGNS THAT PEOPLE BELIEVE TO BE REVEALING BUT AREN’T

Reviews as Signage
A glowing review posted in the window. This is only useful if the review is recent & the reviewer trustworthy, not some pay-for-play schmuck like The Phantom Gourmet, or a faceless mob of Zagateers who might also adore P. F. Chang’s. Further, some restaurants have been caught posting counterfeit reviews, using Photoshop to convert pans into raves.

Agreed: A “They love us on Yelp!” sticker might as well read, “We paid our monthly advertising bill!” As for Zagat, here’s a little tip from a former editor of the Boston/Cape Cod guides (yes, me)—a sticker reading “Zagat Rated” means, uh, the place has been rated. Likely iffily. If it had been rated highly, the owner would probably have opted to frame the whole review. And to underline Slim’s emphasis on recent reviews: I always do a double take when all the clippings & plaques are years old—who knows what’s changed since then? Case in point: Mare in Boston’s North End, which is lined with banners boasting major accolades—from 2006, when the legendary Marisa Iocco was in the kitchen. The current chef may well be a gem, but those banners don’t reassure me; they aren’t sparkling for him.—Denv.


Crowds—or the Lack Thereof
A full parking lot or a line stretching down the sidewalk. All this certifies is that the joint has connected with some lowest common denominator. As with amateur reviews on Yelp, unless you know the tastes of the enthusiasts, you can’t trust the endorsement of the crowd. Most outlets of The Cheesecake Factory have nightly lines out the door, too.

No customers. Plenty of wonderful restaurants never find a following, thanks to a bad location (rough neighborhood, hard to reach, no parking/public transit nearby, unpromising setting like a gas station), seedy physical plant, inept or nonexistent marketing, &/or sheer bad luck. Or maybe it’s just really, really new. You may be the first to discover it, to truly appreciate & evangelize it.


Roots, Part 4
A match between the nationality of the chef & the restaurant’s cuisine. There are excellent Japanese restaurants with Chinese chefs, swell Cajun restaurants with Vietnamese chefs, fine French restaurants with American chefs, fine molecular chefs who aren’t from Mars. Conversely, many bad Italian restaurants brag about their Italian-native chefs. Non importa, amico mio.


Addendum: Corny Décor
Red-&-white checkered tablecloths in a trattoria, serapes & sombreros in a taqueria, golden dragons galore in a dim sum palace: you’d think such clichés would amount to gigantic red flags, proving the equivalent of foot-tall mounds of Alfredo, stale tri-colored chips with neon kway-soh dip & sweet & sour mystery meat. But for some reason, they don’t, at least not often enough to judge by.—Denv.