The message was on the bag. The bag was from Burger King, the Burger King was in the San Francisco Airport. The message read:
I was desperate. Starving, really. I sat at the Burger King near my gate and read that message and felt a pain in my gut. Then I ate this Whopper and felt a real pain in my gut:
There was nothing wrong with it and yet everything was wrong with it. It was just at the threshold of “acceptable thing to put in my mouth.” Each component somehow masked what was wrong with the other components. Taken apart, I’m sure the patty would’ve looked grisly, the tomato would’ve looked unearthly and the bun would’ve revealed so many chemicals it might’ve inspired another “Silkwood.”
Yet: how to reconcile this food with the message on the bag? It’s a pompous message, a proud message. Look at the buzzwords: “Sports” and “Success.”
Those two words (and the hamburger they cradle) are a window–a bright store window with a fluorescent light–that beckon us to study, examine and mourn the subject of this essay: what’s wrong with food in America today.
Let’s start with that first buzzword: sports.
Competition fuels so much of American life, it’s easy to forget that not everything’s a game. Whether we’re choosing a president or a pop idol, it’s all about who’s gonna win. Who has the edge? Who’s the underdog? What are the odds? Where’s the finish line? You’ve got to win win win!
Everything’s quantifiable. My brother and I used to argue because we’d talk about a movie and I’d say, “I loved (insert movie here).” And he’d say, “But it was a flop.” And I’d say, “So what? It was a good movie.” And he’d fold his arms indignantly and say: “Still, it was a flop.”
Like Grindhouse. I loved the second half (“Death Proof”)–I thought the storytelling was brilliant. Still, the movie made no money. Not only that: it lost money. America shakes its head and suddenly careers are in jeopardy. 81% of critics liked it, but, for all intents and purposes, it’s a loser. It’s the high school nerd who the teachers adore but the students shun. It sits in the corner and cries. America has spoken.
America speaks with a similar voice about food. We like food that wins. “America’s Favorite Pizza.” “America’s #1 Coffee.” “A Billion Customers Served.”
Like the pretty girl who becomes class president for showing cleavage on her campaign posters, restaurants thrive based on their mystique, their sex appeal. “I don’t care if the food is good,” America says, “I just care if I look cool eating here.”
Walk along Madison Avenue in the 60s and 70s and observe people eating at restaurants with mediocre food and exorbitant prices. Why are people eating there? Because it makes them feel like winners. Their expensive seats are like mini-thrones and they could care less what’s on their plates as long as the plates are gilded. Welcome to America.
The same is true at home. We want food that is guaranteed to win. We want food that’ll “win” our children’s approval (“Don’t worry, your kids will eat it.”) We want food that’ll “win” the war against our hungry men’s insatiable appetites (like Hungry Man which advertises over one pound of food, as if weight was the criteria by which men measured their satisfaction after a meal):
Women must “win” the war against their bodies, against temptation, against pleasure. Weight-loss commercials almost all feature imperative voices that sound like basketball coaches egging on their team: “Lose weight now!” “Stop needless snacking!” “Join Jenny Craig!”
We approach food, in this country, like a gladiator in the ring with an enemy. Dinner isn’t something to enjoy, it’s something to conquer.
Is it any wonder that Rachel Ray looks like a cheerleader?
Seriously. She cheers you on as you go to battle. She may be chipper, but the message she sends about food is pretty dismal. Real food, she seems to be saying, is too difficult, too expensive, too time-consuming for Americans to attempt. The losses would be too great: and what’s so good about good food anyway?
In the cost-benefit analysis of cooking and eating out, Americans–like athletes–are told to keep their eyes on the prize. The journey is NOT the destination. Dinner is the destination and you better get there as fast as you can or you’ll risk… what exactly?
Therein lies my point. Cooking is not a sport. Eating is not like putting fuel into a race car. There are no winners at the dinner table; you’re not a winner for eating at Le Cirque (sorry, Donald Trump). For Americans to eat better, we have to redefine our notions of our second buzzword: SUCCESS.
Julia Child is in my DVD player right now and I just watched her mess up. She was making Pommes Anna–a casserole, basically, of thinly sliced potatoes cooked in butter in a pot that you flip over, after baking in the oven. Julia lifted the pot, hoping to reveal a perfectly constructed tower of potato. But half of the potatoes stuck to the pan so what she had was a mess. She quickly recovered. She scraped the potatoes from the pan and placed them on top. She smushed it all together and then put parsley all around the border. And by the look on her face, you’d think she just resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I am a recent convert to Julia Child and I am convinced–after only a few DVDs–that she is the best thing that ever happened to food in America. Why? Because she brought her spirit, her energy, her intelligence into American homes and tried to elevate us. She tried to show us that for a dinner to be successful, it needn’t be expensive, it needn’t be pretentious. It need only capture the chef’s enthusiasm, the chef’s love.
Americans don’t know how to engage with their food anymore. We see boxes in cases and take them home and put them in another box and ZAP dinner is ready. We pick up the phone and punch in numbers and a brown bag arrives. We deal with food in the 21st century the way we deal with people–faceless messages on a computer screen–and with further advances in technology, we retreat further and further into ourselves. For most Americans in the 21st century, a successful dinner is a dinner that requires the least amount of engagement with the outside world. We don’t want to know our grocers, our butchers, our bakers. We don’t even want to know our delivery boys. We want our privacy, thank you, and that means a lonely dinner in front of the TV is preferred to a party with friends who we’d have to shop for, cook for, and clean up after. We have our Tivos, computers, iPods, and DVD players to keep us company.
America: learn from Julia. Wake up. Engage. Care.
That’s the formula for success. We’ve lowered our standards because we’re afraid of failure. Julia’s not afraid because she knows it doesn’t matter if her Pommes Anna collapses–what matters is that she took the time to make a Pommes Anna. So should you.
Instead of going to The Olive Garden, make Lydia Bastianich’s Cavatappi with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Cannellini Beans. Instead of going to Burger King, make Molly Stevens’ “Top Blade Steaks with Mushrooms and Onions” from her “All About Braising.”
The meat costs $4.87:
That’s less than a Whopper Combo. You brown it:
Add mushrooms and onions and deglaze with Sherry:
The end result isn’t really beautiful to look at:
But it’s beautiful to taste. And to smell.
In fact the smell is distinct: complex, smart, sophisticated. All the things Americans are capable of and yet which they seem to reject when it comes to their diets. We, the people, are entitled to good food and it’s time we started to make it for ourselves. The sweet smell of success doesn’t come from a Burger King bag, it comes from your kitchen.
To quote Julia Child, “Bon apetit.”