27 February 2010

This Delicious Life

I went to Marie Callender's tonight. It wasn't my fault.

I knew I was stepping into enemy territory but I did it anyway.

I had a meeting there and it involved dinner and though I tried to order as little as possible and to make it the safest-sounding thing on the menu, it was still a crushing disappointment.

I got an apple, blue cheese, pecan and cranberry salad, which can be a lovely thing if handled correctly.

But this salad was made of that slightly decomposed lettuce - the kind that you sniff in your fridge and think "Should I take a chance on that?" and apples that looked like they had been chopped by a not-particularly coordinated 8-year-old and had blue cheese in either huge chunks or tiny specks and nothing in between.

A horrorshow.

Bad food doesn't just disappoint me. It fills me with fury. It makes me want to drive my car through the front windows or set the roof on fire.

Because to me, food is life, food is love, and to put out a shitty plate of food - especially to paying customers - is to say "You don't matter to me. Supporting your life isn't worth my time. Piss off. Die."

So this salad wasn't just a bad salad. It was a life-denying symbol of Everything That is Wrong With America and Our Food - it was thickly coated in fatty, too-sweet dressing, so that eating it didn't satisfy the senses, but merely gave a feeling of dull satiety.

It wasn't just me. CC felt the same way - she pointed at the soup the guy next to her was eating and said "Look at the soup next to me. Awful."

It was the kind of soup Laura would have called "Cream of Cornstarch." Some thick weirdly yellow glop with chunks in it. Probably about 1200 calories a bowl and flavorless as library paste except for being so salty it would make your ears ring.

Contrast that with my favorite restaurant on earth, Cuernavaca. Cuernavaca is a humble taqueria, with only about 10 tables. You can get lunch for well under $8.

But Cuernavaca is spotlessly clean and the food is made with a kind of pride and love that just shines through every bite. The flavors are all at once rich and bright and balanced. The salsa is fresh and complex and has layers of tastes that add perfect notes of chile and herbs to complement everything else.

When I get a plate of food at Cuernavaca, it says to me "You're alive. You're human. We're glad you're here to share that experience with us." I mean, who knew a plate of tacos could be so mystical?

I had that experience often in Mexico, though.

Comal

People would make these humble offerings of food from the simplest ingredients, but that love and pride was apparent. I drank cactus punch from a plastic bucket in a churchyard in Zaachila that was made by these little 4'6" ladies in aprons. It was 35 cents a cup and tasted like the angels had reached down to ladle it themselves.

I sat there on this rough stone wall with my plastic cup and drank that taste of heaven and I knew I was Alive with a capital A.
Agua de tuna y naranja

I wish those cooks or busboys or whoever made that crap salad at Marie Callender's could go to Zaachila for one cup of Agua de Tuna (cactus fruits are called "Tuna") and maybe they would understand what you offer someone when you offer them food. It isn't just getting the orders out. It's more than just giving them enough fat and salt and sugar to satisfy their dulled palates.

I got home and fed Goldie and realized: I make my dog's food with far, far more care than those people made my dinner. THAT's why I want to set the roof on fire. Doesn't that make sense?

13 comments:

Rachel said...

It makes total sense.

Some of these chain places, I can just taste the sodium as it enters my body, nothing else. It's disgusting.

MFA Mama said...

Oh honey. Come to dinner at my house sometime! We think alike when it comes to food...(I was raised by my dad, who used to be a chef, and then the second time around I wised up and married one).

Also: there is a tiny Mexican grocery store in my town that sells tacos made with "mystery meat" from a rotating upright spit-thing in what looks kind of like a jury-rigged rotisserie machine. The tacos are like, two for a dollar, soft, and the guy behind the counter makes them by taking a small flour tortilla in one hand and a HUGE FUCKING KNIFE in the other, and slicing paper-thin layers of crisp, greasy deliciousness from the spit-thing directly onto the tortilla. Then he tosses some (FRESH! VERY FRESH!) chopped romaine onto that, adds a scoop of diced (RIPE!) tomato, a pinch of queso fresco, and hands you the tacos with a wedge of lime to squeeze over them and it's HEAVEN. More care than you see put into most $12.99 chain entrees.

*sigh*

Great, now I want some of those tacos and that place is all the way across town and closed on Sundays besides.

Erratic said...

This is one of the reasons I went to culinary school. To have that rare plate of food that you think about for weeks after...compare that to the poor excuse for food you get at someplace like Marie Callendars.

One of my chef instructors and I always joke that we want to open a taco truck. Honest, good, affordable food. It is so hard to find anymore.

Nance said...

Did you send the salad back immediately? If you didn't, then they have no cause to correct themselves, and really, you can't complain much because you let them get away with it. And so does everyone else who doesn't send their crappy food back.

SUEB0B said...

Nance - I was at a meeting with about 20 other people with lots of stuff going on, so it would have been a huge disruption to ask for food to be taken away and brought back again...otherwise I am pretty good about complaining. It is one of my skills.

Working Girl said...

I don't even know what Marie Callendars is and I'm pretty sure that is a good thing. Thanks for making Oaxaca diary available again! I've gone twice to Cuernavaca for language study. It was great, but I wanted to try something different this time. First I was thinking about Playa Tamarindo, Costa Rica (because they have an airconditioned student residence and flights are cheap). But then I found out that lots of folks call it Playa Tamagringo because of all the Americans there...so then I thought about Santiago, Chile. But the flight were very expensive. And now, well...not the best time for an extended stay unless I'll be volunteering my services as a nurse. Then hit upon Quito, Ecuador...cool climate, reasonable flights, but it wasn't until I went to that site you recommended that I found a school that is a really good fit for me. So, I guess this comment was just an extended dance version of, "thanks, Suebob." Also, I don't really blog anymore (I'm in school full-time for an MPH and still working night shift) , but I still visit your blog at least once a week.

Suzanne said...

Cuernavaca is great. Husband and I enjoyed it immensely when you took us there last year.

J at www.jellyjules.com said...

YUM. I love, adore, love a really good meal. Crappy meals bum me out, though they rarely piss me off that much. The only time that's happened, I think, was when we went to what was SUPPOSEDLY the best French restaurant in the U.S., and my California taste buds could tell the veggies were frozen. Not OK. Esp in July, which this was.

I wrote a letter to the owner telling him of my disappointment, and he wrote back, but didn't give me any sort of freebie or anything like that.

J at www.jellyjules.com said...

YUM. I love, adore, love a really good meal. Crappy meals bum me out, though they rarely piss me off that much. The only time that's happened, I think, was when we went to what was SUPPOSEDLY the best French restaurant in the U.S., and my California taste buds could tell the veggies were frozen. Not OK. Esp in July, which this was.

I wrote a letter to the owner telling him of my disappointment, and he wrote back, but didn't give me any sort of freebie or anything like that.

lagata said...

I first found your site due to your Oaxaca diary :) It is my dream to attend a language school like you did. I would love it if you sent me the link to the site you recommended to Working Girl. I have been studying spanish through our city's community programs but I just don't try to speak it enough to really learn.

I am totally with you on how simple, fresh ingredients can just pop in your mouth, lovely.

Loco YaYa said...

Head over to my blog and see what I left you.

LocoYaYa
http://locoyaya.blogspot.com

flurrious said...

I am pretty sure I have dreamed about Agua de Tuna even though I've never had it. Somehow I just knew something like it existed. The plastic bucket, however, I hadn't counted on.

Slimeyapple said...

I can't stand going out and being served crappy food. It is one of the reasons I rarely go out to eat; because it seems to happen WAY too often-- especially in chain restaurants, which are not self aware.

Absolutely breaks my heart. I probably wouldn't send the food back either - but then I certainly wouldn't eat salad that looked as you described it.

As for the soup - that was just.... EW.

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