Thursday, January 01, 2009

Culinary Harm

I am a long-serving member of the Manhattan dining brigade. And as a member of that favored regiment, I have become accustomed to a relatively high standard of culinary achievement. I will therefore admit that my personal ability to walk to some of the best dining halls in our nation has probably made me prejudiced and unfit to render some of the judgments found below.

The occasion for my culinary comments has been a recent, long road trip during which I dined at some well-known eateries of a type commonly found within a half-mile of nearly any Interstate exit between Maine and San Diego.

Obvious to any traveler is that the roadside restaurants are many and are almost always outposts of the same few national chains. This is not in itself a fault. Similarity across a nation is just another word for "culture". In France, every town has its kiosk, cafe and brasserie; in Great Britain, the pub and betting parlor. So if there is anything negative to say about the sameness of American roadside dining, it must be of its nearly uniform awfulness.

I will briefly comment on just a couple of the offending establishments, confident they stand in for most of the rest.

Earliest on the trip came an encounter with Chili's. I can note it but briefly, as I doubt I want to recall it in much detail. I will admit I was expecting it to be mainly Mexican or Tex Mex. But I detected a lack of chilis and instead a preponderance of laminated, spiral-bound menus (which, I have learned, is a bad sign). I believe I may have ordered something crumbly or cubed wrapped in a tortilla. I cannot recall its flavor except that it had little. My daughter fared worst, having ordered fettucine al fredo with shrimp. This was more or less a dish of hot milk. The worst insult was that one could tell the basic quality of all the foodstuffs--the chicken, the shrimp, the beef--was low. That they were indifferently prepared, and served with stultifying sauces with tired, wrinkled bread, only accented the suspicion that one had been cheated. Is it true this chain started as a popular beanery? I wish it could go back to its roots.

Applebees presents itself as a funky, Tiffany-lamped hangout where, perhaps because the posters are all sort of crooked, a movie star may at any moment elect to put in an appearance. Again, we ordered from laminated, spiral-bound, colorful menus with lots of beauty-shots of burgers and shrimp. My four tiny bacon-cheddar burgers were served on four tiny, stale buns. The cheese was not melted. The fries (were they fries?) were neither crispy nor soft inside but kind of raspy and difficult to swallow. One of us ordered a salad which was passable except for the sad sludgy dressing of a type we could not identify. Here the insult came with the bill: they charged us as if we had dined at a real restaurant.

We enjoyed a good breakfast at a place I considered unlikely: The Cracker Barrel. If you like grits and eggs and bacon (I do), choose this place over all the others. The only problem with Cracker Barrel--and maybe it was only because it was located in the South--was that the management had posted a large sign in the entry hallway stating their commitment to serving all races and creeds without discrimination. I have to admit this made me feel less comfortable under the gaze of some of the older, more serious-looking diners of whom I am certain were adults in the days of Medgar Evers and on the dark day when Doctor King was murdered.

Most of the time, we made our way to McDonald's. This is because McDonald's is terrible, but in a way we have become accustomed to, and also because they don't charge very much. Finally, it is important to note I have a weakness for the Big Mac.