13 November 2008
Eating Middle America
It started out so well.
We arrived at the Sunrise Inn at about 9pm on Halloween (the Friday before elections), ravenous after an interminable road trip from Manhattan, NY to Warren, OH. Marcus (in the blue stripes) and Frank (in the green) had especially craved this food, the down-home taste of campaigns past. Just look at those pictures! Marcus with Sunrise's specialty, Garlic Chicken, and Frank contemplating a sausage hoagie twice the size of his head. Erin and I remain unphoto-ed at this point because we were too busy stuffing ourselves silly with crab cakes and cheeseburgers, respectively. Sunrise Inn epitomizes everything a simple American restaurant should aspire to be: diner-style with booths in the back, every dish cooked to order, several beers on tap. Their menu is gigantic, drawing on cuisines as diverse as Greek and Chinese, showing absolutely no shame in bastardizing culinary traditions in order to smother everything with a bit more cheese, a bit more sauce, making it all that much more comforting. For lunch the next day, we ordered their deep dish pizza, which was twice the depth of a quiche, and filled with as much meats (sausage, pepperoni, and meatball) as with tomato and cheese! I am only a little ashamed to say how much I liked it. It is food that gets the job done: filling and warming you. It is outgoing, friendly, and generous, just like Americans.
Then the problems began.
Restaurants outside of NYC close before 10 on weeknights! Election night, after much breathless watching of the results rolling in, we (spoiled New Yorkers that we are) were stunned to discover that no amount of money could rouse our beloved Sunrisers to bring us take away. With no food left in the house, our only option was Pizza Hut. It was so bad that I didn't even bother to photograph the depressing mounds of food we ordered. The crust on the pizza tasted of fake butter, the macaroni and cheese of something more plastic than Velveeta. Cheese sticks turned out to be the same awful pizza dough with a meagre sprinkle of fake Parmesan. Chicken wings were suspicious, and its dipping sauce tasted like a sewer of chemicals. Do places like this keep in business only because they capitalize on stranded late night eaters?
On our ride back from Ohio, the most palatable option was McDonald's - a pretty swank one actually with free wi-fi and cappuccinos. Yet the sadness imbued by the fried silly putty molds of food they served was best expressed by Erin's downcast gaze as she contemplated her french fries. (Never mind Marcus' gusto - he'll eat anything when hungry - both a chicken sandwich and Big Mac in this case). It's been at least a year since my last meal at the Golden Arches, and my bite into a Big Mac surprised me: the flavor formula remains just as addictive as I remembered. McDonald's is an incredibly successful business, having fed billions of meals to Americans over the years. It does it by being incredibly convenient, cheap, and ruthless in its addition of addictive fats, salts, and sugars in every item sold.
Having spent my childhood abroad, I remember the McDonald's in Rome my parents would take us to after church if we had behaved. It was at the bottom of the Spanish Steps, and the interior looked like a grotto with waterfalls trickling down glittering black marble walls. The succulent chicken sandwiches came as full breasts, slathered in beautifully flavored mayonnaise. Big Macs came in substantial sesame buns, and the meat was not so mysterious. My point is that higher quality food is possible even for the mass market - and that the Italian model is a great model when considering a new food policy for America. In Italian public schools, sub-par ingredients are banned. If children will be fed Parmesan, it must be the real deal: Parmigiano Reggiano; fewer fresh ingredients are bought more frequently; and quality pasta is used instead of limp macaroni. This means with a little loving preparation, every cafeteria can be proud of its food. I still remember the food from my elementary school in Rome as something I looked forward to, and how we were taken on a field trip in second grade to see how buffalo mozzarella is made.
It does take more money to cook better food, but a shift in attitudes is even more important. It's as simple as remembering that quality ingredients make good meals. Americans spend the smallest portion of their budgets on food of any other country, which shows how little we value our food. But good food has the power to raise our quality of life enormously! How can we expect to be nourished bodily, socially, and spiritually, when the major restaurant brands that rule the way our country eats put in minimal effort as to the food, but spends millions on elaborate advertising campaigns? It seems that much like tobacco companies, giant American food producers care more for finding the most addictive formula than for the consumer's welfare. The point of a business to to make money, after all. However, with the interest shown in more recent years for organic foods and celebrity chefs, I wonder if American tastes are turning for the better, and if the power of a new, educated consumer will win a higher standard of food in all venues?