This nation has a love/hate relationship with food. Everybody knows that we are getting fatter and fatter. You don’t need an extra eye to see that the size 40+ waist bands now take up almost a quarter of men’s clothing retail space. That’s precious space, too. Men get almost no love from clothing shops anymore. So, if retailers are putting out the elephantine trousers, people are buying them by the case.
According to the Center for Disease Control, the collective U.S. ass couldn’t even think about slipping on a pair of nationalized Calvin Klein jeans. In the year 2000, 28 states had obesity rates below 20 percent. In 2005, only 4 states had obesity rates below 20 percent. The worst offenders in the nation (I am looking at you Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia) had obesity rates higher than 34 percent. That means, in other words, that a third of those states’ population need a prying stick to get off the couch. Europe can’t figure out if we are gluttons or the bizarre off-spring of Jabba the Hutt and gold-bikini-wearing Princess Leia.
Look, I can understand the eating. Trust me. My weight often goes through some serious cycles. We all know that I can shovel back the Hello Kitty Pop-Tarts, mayonnaise, chocolate, and sweet, sweet liquor (No – not all at the same time – Smart ass). Right now I am sitting in my underwear with a cordial of vodka and a giant bag of M&M’s as my sofa companion. I therefore get the desire to eat and to eat things that aren’t that great for me (including processed and highly fatty foods).
Yet, it struck me on Sunday that Americans avoid eating food that actually tastes good. After enjoying a great round of dim sum with Jason, James and Whit, I thought again about the marked difference between Boston and Eastern Texas. Boston permits one to eat out constantly without ever setting foot in a chain restaurant. One can obtain variety and quality. With the exception of the omnipresent Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts (As an aside, Why is Boston so obsessed with DD?), I have yet to eat anything from a chain since I arrived here (thank the goddess).
Then I wondered if it was really a difference exclusive to Texas or actually the difference between those who live in certain cities (Boston, Chicago, New York) and those who live everywhere else. In Eastern Texas and the Midwestern town where I went to graduate school, eating at independent eateries was simply not possible. Chains had long quashed out 90 percent of locally owned restaurants before I ever appeared on the scene. If you wanted to avoid cooking, you had no choice but to eventually end up at a chain. It was kind of like jury duty.
Albuquerque seemed slower to succumb to this phenomena, but did relent. It long had a Chili’s (attached to a hotel), but that was largely considered laughable by people from the city. I witnessed first-hand, however, the slow infection of Macaroni Grills and Outback Steakhouses. Now it is hard to even distinguish parts of Albuquerque from any other mid-size city in the nation. All of the buildings and signs are identical. Even the suburbs of Boston, Chicago, and New York are endless seas of Friday’s and Olive Gardens. As a nation, we know that the food provided in those joints isn’t good. Why have they prevailed?
Americans love to eat, but I believe that they hate food. There is a collective fear of the unknown with edibles. Were we all just scared as high schoolers by being forced to read The Jungle? Did we just never quite get over it?
Americans seem to think that people are constantly trying to trick them into eating pure acid, rat droppings, or bugs. Once, in graduate school, I had served chocolate covered-dates as part of a cocktail party. Some people would not take these items at face value. They were certain that I was trying to get them to eat a grasshopper or something else equally mysterious under the chocolate coating (Who knew that dates were so unknown in the Midwest? That’s another entry entirely) . GayProf might be many things, but he does not have a reputation as a practical joker.
We can also look at the recent hysteria over e. coli in the spinach. You can almost hear shirt buttons popping as people toss out any remaining green items from their homes. “Fresh spinach? Oh, dear god, no! Those leaves will kill you with that coli junk. I knew it all along” they say, “Just give me a ball of caramel and a Double Whopper with cheese. That will at least hold me over until I can get a Sizzling Triple Meat Fundido from Friday’s.”
This partly explains why it is easier to find a Chili’s resturant in the U.S. than it is to find a well-maintained farmer’s market. We all, regardless of our backgrounds, have eaten at plenty of chain restaurants at this point. It would be almost impossible to avoid them and still travel in the United States. In the end, Americans have traded quality for the safe, consistent, and known.
I once had a friend explain to me, “Well, I don’t really like the chains. Still, I think it is safer for the kids.” Safer for the kids??
First of all, I thought her children were plenty old to be working in a factory. That’s another issue, though. Second, have we really come to the prepackaged means safer?
To me, I just see yet another way that capitalist brand identification has invaded our collective psyches without our questioning it. Just as Mac computers and Ikea furniture has convinced people that buying their products makes one “cool,” so also have chain resturants convinced people that eating their food is safer. This, though, is a slight of hand. “True, our food might be bland despite containing more sodium than Lot’s wife,” they tells us, “but do you really want to gamble on an independent restaurant? What if they don’t have an ‘Employees Must Wash Their Hands Before Returning to Work’ plaque in their bathroom! Do you want to risk your child's health just so you can eat locally?”
The really peculiarly thing, though, is that we all know that these things are lies. We know that national and international corporations would feed us our own small intestine if they thought they could make a buck. We know that a Chili’s employee could be just as unlikely (maybe even more unlikely given that Chilli's probably doesn't pay a fair wage) to wash his/her hands before plunking down a pile of fried potato skins in front of us. Yet, many often believe the myth.
The really smart chains, in my opinion, are the ones with the full bars. By the second cocktail, I could care less what the food tastes like. Heck, I might just skip the food altogether.
Eventually, though, you sober up. That’s when the regret hits you. As you stare into your coffee cup, bits of the night start to come back to you. “Oh, man! Did I really say the phrase ‘awesome blossom’ out loud? What was that last thing I ate? Fried maccaroni and cheese? How was that even possible? I am never going near tequila again, man. That’s it. I’ve hit bottom this time.”
Right now, when I see an advertisement come on t.v. for a chain restaurant promising me a fried glob in a family-friendly environment, I am sure glad that I am in Boston. I will take my fried globs in a dim-sum friendly environment, thank you.