“Anybody who believes that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach flunked geography.” ~Robert Byrne
We live in a country where food has assumed an importance beyond just keeping us alive. Now it is also entertainment and night life. For myself I seldom eat at fine dining (too pricey); never imbibe wine, cocktails, liquor, or beer; and, mostly, avoid any place that serves alcohol, including Applebee’s, O’Charley’s, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and steakhouses. The last thing I want is a drink menu.
As a rule, I don’t like megabars either because they are self-serve, and I don’t like the idea of a horde of uncouth peasants (the usual customers) breathing over the fruit and salad or fingering the desserts. So I prefer family restaurants (Bob Evans, Cracker Barrel), fast food (Tim Hortons), or cafeterias (Piccadilly) though I’m just as contented with a brown bag lunch, a $1 dish I can pop in the microwave, or even a can of baked beans. To me, food should be functional. That’s all.
The other day I had the unpleasant experience of riding a tour bus with a seniors group, most of whom were strangers. They were affluent enough to get around, had disposable currency in their pocket, but not cerebral enough to appreciate nature, history, or travel. Which was probably the reason I didn’t know them. One woman was telling about going to Juneau, Alaska, and hanging out at a souvenir shop. Nothing about the cruise, the Mendenhall Glacier, or the many natural and scenic wonders of this dramatic place. Why were money, travel, and opportunity wasted on nonintellectuals? I decided they were all uncultured: mouthy, moneyed, moronic, and mean. My reaction to them was my usual reaction to the ill-bred: duck and take cover.
After our sightseeing adventure, which turned out not to be much, we went to a suburban café that billed itself as French, but was not really French, just artsy, chic, and pricey. The service was slow. I suspected this was intentional, because they also had a drink menu. None of us “drank.”
Waiting for our food, I was remembering places I’d eaten when I didn’t care about the price …. A real French restaurant. The Brown Derby. The Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Callaway Gardens near Pine Mountain, Georgia. Winterthur Gardens, Wilmington, Delaware. Friday night fish fries at Cabela’s, Dundee, Michigan. A nonchain Friday night fish-fry we happened on near Kenosha, Wisconsin. An all-you-can-eat buffet at a nameless gas station out West because there was nowhere else to eat. Middle East cuisine at a downtown museum when we went to see the Dead Sea Scrolls. Bob Evans: I used to phone from church, order to go, and pick up boxed roast beef sandwiches and fries ($6 a head) on my way home from church, plus often a prepared pie (another $6-$8). Ponderosa Steakhouse in Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and North Dakota. Hoss’s Steak and Sea House, Gettysburg and York, Pennsylvania. Old Country Buffet, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Pittsfield, Massachusetts. KFC buffet, Bangor, Maine, and Wytheville, Virginia. Boston Market, Sterling, Virginia, and Asheville, North Carolina. Cracker Barrel, Dumfries and Lynchburg, Virginia, even Derry, New Hampshire. Panera Bread, near Drew University, Madison, New Jersey. Atlanta Bread Company, Severna Park, Maryland. Sunday brunch at a Christian conference center ($15 a head). Western Sizzlin Wood Grill Buffet, Charlottesville, Virginia: not your usual buffet. Piccadilly, Bristol, Virginia. Country Kitchen, Cheyenne, Wyoming; Duluth, Minnesota; and other places in the West and Upper Midwest. The Woodlawn Inn, Cobourg, Ontario. Fortress Louisbourg, Nova Scotia. Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. Blue Gate Restaurant, Shipshewana, Indiana. Das Dutchman Essenhaus, Middlebury, Indiana. Two Lights Lobster Shack, Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Sun’n’Surf, York Beach, Maine. Harris Crab House, Kent Island, Maryland (all-you-can-eat crabs $35 a person). Seafood buffet, Baltimore Inner Harbor, Maryland ($17 a head for lunch, plus $10 or more for parking). Nonchain Italian places, Lake George and Oyster Bay, New York; Concord, Massachusetts; Hanover, New Hampshire; east-central Pennsylvania; and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Sbarro’s, Union Station, Washington, DC. Steakhouse, Amarillo, Texas. And real class: dinner at the Yacht Club, with waiters in white tuxedos, down on the Gulf Coast.
Well, not all those places sound so expensive, but expensive enough if you have a family. And family restaurants are the trend.
I have learned that expensive places mean no more than inexpensive places. I’ve paid less many places and enjoyed it just as well.
For instance, street vendors, Holland, Michigan; Indianapolis, Indiana; Ottawa, Ontario ($5 a head). Tim Hortons, Geneseo, New York; Canmore, Alberta; Brantford, Ontario; and Channel Port aux Basques, Newfoundland. Corn dogs and A&W Root Beer, Cripple Creek, Colorado. Hot tea in the Rocky Mountains National Park, sitting at a window seat, watching the snowfall, in August. Hot tea with a cinnamon stick, autumn color tour, on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Gas station $1 pumpkin spice cappucino near Big Red, Holland, Michigan, in season. Fresh-baked cookies from skinny waiters, at a fine dining restaurant, Sacramento, California. After-church half-priced muffins from Perkins. Coffee at the Sundail Restaurant atop the Peachtree Tower, Atlanta, Georgia. Large frozen $1 mini-market burritoes that I cooked on my dashboard driving through the desert Southwest. Apple cider donuts, Cold Hollow Cider Mill, Waterbury, Vermont. Complimentary evening buffet at hotels in Rapid City, South Dakota; Allentown, Pennsylvania; and Lebanon, New Hampshire. Free crawfish boil Baton Rouge, Louisiana: spread some newspaper for yourself, let someone ladle you a pile of seasoned corn on the cob, potatoes, and boiled crawfish, then sit there, shuck them, and pop them in your mouth. Real finger food. Pizza by the slice, Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Orange Julius, Sea-Tac Mall, Seattle, Washington. A real Happy Meal: 99¢ Big Macs, McDonalds, Portland, Oregon, and 25¢ ice cream cones, McDonalds, Tacoma, Washington. Not that long ago either. Reconnecting with a convention crowd at McDonalds, late night, leaving Hershey, Pennsylvania. Finding new-style McDonalds open, late night, Berea, Kentucky. Happening on chic Arbys, Midlothian, Virginia, with rotisserie-style kitchen. Enjoying lunch at the New England Culinary Institute, Montpelier, Vermont. Sunday dinner at IKEA, College Park, Maryland. Chick-Fil-A sandwiches while we vegged and worked the crossword puzzle in the newspaper, Edgewater, Maryland. Using coupons, vegging at Burger King, Gambrills, Maryland, watching the swallows do acrobatics. Picking up delectable ready-to-cook Maryland crab cakes (2/$1) at the Dollar Tree, Maryland, or stuffed crabs at the IGA, Florida: bring them home, then prepare and serve with tossed salad. Picnicing on yogurt, granola, fruit, and water at a rest area in Kansas; observing other travelers, like me, mesmerized by the quiet, the pleasant temp, and the wind stirring the sea of grass (autumn wheat). Days of heaven. Bag of White Castles to go, southern Ohio, in the dark of the night, trying to beat the falling temps and coming snowfall. Cup of hot clam chowder in one of the shops, Newport, Rhode Island, where I sat and watched the rain through the open door. Bowl of New England clam chowder, Friendlys, Mystic Seaport, Connecticut, and Burlington, Vermont, on cold autumn evenings. Impromptu hot dog at International Falls, Minnesota, where I pumped gas, then ducked into the convenience store to escape a sudden cloudburst. Dark, rainy midnight at Tioga, Pennsylvania, Welcome Center, US 15, south of Corning, New York, where we happened on a new, large log cabin structure, open house, with complimentary Dunkin Donuts, hot fresh coffee, and rocking chairs on the full-length porch. How many people get to veg on the porch of a new building, in the rain, at midnight, enjoying free coffee and donuts, re-energizing themselves, when they’ve got hundreds of miles to go before they sleep?…
While we seniors waited at our “French” restaurant, one by one, zillions of images flashed through memory. Each as fresh and as real as if it were happening now.
Our food finally came, and, yes, it was good. I had salad (flower leaves, spinach, English walnuts, Craisins, apples, feta cheese, and house vinagrette) with a complimentary basket of fresh miniature French rolls and thin slices of spice cake. The person to my left had lobster soup, with real lobster bites. Another, quiche. Still another, turkey croissant sandwich with fries …. But the service was bad. What good is taste or presentation if the experience is flawed? Food lasts for a moment; the experience lasts a lifetime.
Food, where it is served, and what you pay for it, is highly overrated. Sometimes cheap is as meaningful and as memorable as pricey.
“Plain food is quite good enough for me.” ~Oliver Wendell Holmes
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee