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The Weight of These Breadsticks
Who here is trying to tell me what food is good and which isn't? And why?
Alexa, play “Mambo Italiano” by Rosemary Clooney so I can feel like I’m in an Olive Garden commercial.
I had a conversation with my boss a couple years back about taste. I don’t know if, as an Esquire writer, I should be saying this, but I don’t feel like I’ve ever had taste. And when I halfway admitted that to him, I thought I was accidentally talking myself out of a job. He said that my taste wasn’t a bad thing. It’s interesting when someone can identify the elevated angle of something basic. It’s even better when someone can poke holes in the fancy thing that everyone is obsessed over. But I think I’ve settled on the idea that, for the most part, people should just like what they like. I mean, imagine my surprise after moving away from Tennessee, only to be haunted by people wearing Carhartt and RealTree as streetwear.
That’s been my whole life though. I remember getting made fun of once back in middle school because I didn’t have a tie for a choral performance, so my mom got me one from Goodwill, but it was like… knitted? And it had a blunt end, not a pointy one. Kids said it looked like a sock, and now, years later, I saw someone in New York wearing one, on purpose, as a statement piece. I may not have taste, but when it changes so quickly, what use is it? My personal sense of style is that of someone who aspires to be preppy but eventually gives up in pursuit of comfort. My taste in television varies widely between prestige TV and absolute garbage. And my preferred final meal? Chicken wings. French fries. Pasta salad from the box.
The food is what I think matters most. I remember this one time I had black bass from La Bernadin while sitting across a table from Hoda Kotb. Very cool meal. Great story for fans of the Today show. But if I’m being honest, I would rather crush the Sunday fried (or country style!) fish feast at Captain D’s. Not because I think it’s particularly better, but because it feels like home. I don’t think food should be scary or inaccessible. Why would I want to feel intimidated by a piece of fish? I’m concerning myself with the class politics of a shrimp fork, when Russia is literally bombing sovereign nations.
It reminds me of this conversation I had with an Uber driver. I have a terrible habit of talking to Uber drivers because (1) I might have a personality disorder (2) I’m nurturing a near-perfect Uber score, but also (3) I want to suss out if I’m in the midst of a character. This guy in particular talked to me about my accent and then immediately turned to food. He grew up in the Middle East, but then he went to Alabama for graduate school. He told me that he didn’t have any family here and because of his visa, he didn’t have the freedom to go home whenever he wanted. No home cooked meals, and not to be stereotypical, but he was a college-aged man at the time. He wasn’t cooking for himself.
What if you subscribed to this? I swear, I don’t send these out often.
He told me, “I think my favorite restaurant is Olive Garden.” I was hype. I love Olive Garden. The breadsticks. That chicken gnocchi situation. Let’s roll. Far too excited by the announcement, I shuffled up in my seat and said, “Oh yeah? Why’s that?” and he said, “Because it’s the same wherever I go. No matter which Olive Garden I went to in Alabama, it always tasted the same. When I moved here, Olive Garden was the first place I went.”
People I know up here joke about Olive Garden. It’s a place you would go ironically, you know? With Italian food at your fingertips, it’s blasphemous to go to a chain restaurant like that. But—without an ounce of humor intended—for that guy, when he’s at Olive Garden, he literally feels like family. It was the closest thing he had to something familiar.
And so ever since I’ve been in this very low stakes existential crisis, reevaluating my stance when it comes to food. I can tell you one-off stories all day long about the incredible meals I’ve had in New York, typically afforded to me because I’m working on an assignment and it’s paid for by someone who is not me. But if you want to know my memories—my real memories with real people who inhabit my life—let me tell you about Burger King. Or the first time I went to a Cheesecake Factory (it’s called class). And don’t get me started about Dominos.
I take nothing away from restaurants with Michelin stars and sophisticated dining experiences, but sometimes taste is about something beyond the notes of a dish as it moves from the tip of your tongue to the back of your palate. Food is intimate and special, and I think that’s even more true when you live in a big city that puts every kind of cuisine at your fingertips. When the options are limited, it makes each offering all the more important.
Some thoughts on food, in case you’re still hungry (do you get it? do you get the pun I made there?)