4.14.2011

Horrors of Food

So I was out on some errands today when lunch rolled around, and just as I began to become hungry I came upon a Smokey Bones. Now, depending on where you live, you either do or don’t know what that is so I’ll explain: Smokey Bones is kind of a cheese-ball barbeque chain that seems to run through most of the American South. It’s really nothing special, nor anything overly healthy, but they do a pretty good beef brisket sandwich and I’m not the kind of person who easily says no to a pretty good beef brisket sandwich.

Well, it had been a while since I had stepped into one of their branches, and apparently the days of the Pretty Good Beef Brisket Sandwich are long gone. These places used to be fairly quiet and understated; sort of a rustic mountain lodge thing run through the filter of tidy, modern architecture. Now they’re loud and smart-alecky with club cards and a lot of televisions showing music videos and hunting/fishing videos and a channel that seems to be a perpetually shifting mash-up of trivia, America’s Funniest Home Videos entries, and scenes from the Jim Varney Ernest movies. The walls are covered in pictures incorporating the restaurant’s logo and graphics portraying memetic slogans termed “boneisms” that accompany crude Photoshop tracings of Frat Bros eating the restaurant’s food and ogling women. It’s all of the tastelessness of an Applebee's buried under an extra layer of tastelessness supplied by the internet. The saving grace of the place is that their music loop contains a Stray Cats song.

And the sandwich? That’s not anywhere on the menu these days. By the time I’ve realized this though, I’m sitting at a booth at the farthest corner from the door and the waitress has already brought me my drink. I’m committed. So I settle on a hamburger that sounds nice and when the waitress asks what kind of side I want I opt up a dollar for the kettle chips because the picture of the appetizer portion made them look crisp and half-way healthy and I’m trying to work on this whole “not eating my own weight in butter every day” thing lately. This will be a nice meal, I tell myself. I am a smart person who has done a smart thing.

Sweet mother, how wrong I was. Here is a rough timeline of my first ten seconds with the meal:

00:00 – Food arrives. Waitress is unsmiling and grim, as though delivering final meal to dying man.

00:01 – Burger looks good, if not sloppily presented. Lettuce is chopped and on top-half of bun with onion. Getting it on top of the rest of the sandwich intact will be a challenge. Mayonnaise is served on side, in small cup: fair sentiment.

00:05 – First bite. Notice with dismay that there are three forms of onion on burger: 1) Standard red onion circles in lettuce. 2) Fried onion tangles on top of cheese/bacon layer. 3) Butter softened chunks swimming in barbeque sauce under cheese. Type One is expected and type Two is advertised in item description. Type Three is a complete surprise and completely overpowering in flavor and consistency. I dislike the consistency of bare, softened onions and sauce has already been unwittingly added. Slight feeling of upset.

00:08 – Attention turned to chips. Double take taken. Chips appear greasy and gritty, as though freshly fried and heavily over-seasoned. Large chunks of sea salt adorn. Pick one up and shake. Noting comes up. Could it be?

00:09 – Simultaneously delicious and revolting. The chips have been battered, deep fried, and salted. Mouth confirms like large piece of forensic machinery on CSI set. Most of the little, golden hills of chips on the plate are welded together with breading.

00:10 – Look around. Waitress is gone. Nobody is watching. There is no prank. Southern chefs have reached their ultimate triumph and deep fried a thing that was already fried. There was no fanfare or victory parade. They didn’t even serve it at a State Fair. This is something that can be had in a chain restaurant. I turn back to my plate.

So here’s the thing: I’ve written this so far as though it were all incredibly, oppressively bad. It really wasn’t. The atmosphere was incredibly, oppressively bad, I’ll grant. The food was pretty good though. I mean, not great. No better than I would have expected, and also no worse. It was perfectly fair and I can see why the place was packed with day-wagers on group lunches. The restaurant cultivates a a strongly over-done feeling of casual fun, and the menu is diverse enough to reflect that. Prices were also reasonable, especially for the portion sizes that I observed.

I did have a problem with the way that the food was advertised though. The things that I mentioned as being off or odd with my food were features of it that had gone completely undescribed in the menu. We are not talking about a “served with seasonal greens” kind of thing where you can reasonably assume that you are going to get fresh, seasonal greens, we are talking about the “Oh, yeah, also: this whole thing is fried and served on a bed of clarified butter and poutine” kind of discrepancy that you get when your waitress brings you your food and your first impulse is to say, “This is not at all what I ordered.” When you order what—under almost any circumstances—would be a more healthy side alternative and it comes out three times less healthy than an order of french-fries, you are entering a whole new realm of menu item false advertising.

It’s not a comment on anyone’s eating habits, it’s just an observation on something that’s been happening more and more often to me lately. Despite our supposedly increased awareness of health issues in this country, we seem to be moving ever and ever closer to the most extreme culinary excesses of the ‘90s. Something that I thought we were actually doing a good job of getting away from for a while.

For god’s sake, I stopped into a McDonald’s for breakfast while on the road the other day, and the girl asked me if I wanted to order a slice of apple pie or a milkshake at 9:30 in the morning. Why? Because the company is now running a promotion which says that cashiers have to ask if the customer wants a dessert, because they are otherwise eligible for a free dessert at any time of day. This is patently ridiculous given both the obesity problem that we face as a nation, and the average IQ of a McDonald’s cashier.

Whatever, though. Who am I to complain about this kind of stuff? For lunch I ate a burger that probably weighted in at half a pound and a serving of deep fried things that had already been fried. And I didn’t once question my sullen, chubby waitress about any of the discrepancies in my order.

I’ve felt absolutely god awful since then. Probably will all day. I think a salad is in order for dinner.


BONUS OBSERVATION(!) : While I was on my way out of the restaurant, I saw a funny little fat kid standing up in a booth. He was funny in the way of funny little fat kids: about eight, with a bad haircut, ill dressed and awkwardly clumsy. As I got closer though, I noticed the barbed-wire tattoo that ran across the front of his throat, and the large rose bloom that crawled out of the stretched out collar of his shirt and up the side of his neck. I thought they were strange choices for temporary tattoos, and a lot larger than anything I remember seeing as a kid, but then I looked at the mother and noticed what a disaster of piercings and cheap ink she was. The quality of the kid's stuff didn't look too great from five feet away either. The more I think about it, the more I feel as though the the marks on the little chunk weren't temporary at all.

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