Son vs. The Grizz

I know it’s a bit of a social media no-no to post photos of your food, but this was a wager. It happened like this: My sons and I have been going to a local diner for months, and on one visit, my cousin was with us. My cousin mentioned that his nephew keeps ordering “The Grizz,” but that he can never finish it.

“The Grizz” is a cluster-bomb of breakfasts: Two strips of bacon, two sausage links, a ham steak, three eggs, hash brown potatoes, and two pancakes. According to the calculus of my stomach, that’s three breakfasts, not one.

the grizz

Needless to say, news of the distant cousin’s failure to summit Mt. Grizz naturally became a bit of family lore. The Grizz was no longer just an expensive breakfast menu item — it had acquired a bit of myth.

So this morning, my older son said he wanted to order it. My son is thirteen, and struggles to fill out slim-fit jeans.

I said no. It was too much food, it was expensive, and I hated to see food and money go to waste. My son kept after it: “I’m hungry.” “I can finish it.” Etc. Then my younger son waded into the fray, offering to help. I countered with, “Why don’t you two share it?”

They had the uni-mind on this one, so they vetoed that motion. Son 1 wanted The Grizz. Son 2 wanted to see Son 1 eat it.

I agreed, on the condition that he had to finish it. I also decided to document things, thinking that if things went sideways (or came back up),  I’d have digital proof of his folly.

When our food arrived, we tucked in. Son 1 knocked off the three eggs, over-easy. And the bacon. And the sausage. And the ham. And then the pancakes. Then, slowing down noticeably and drinking plenty of water, he went after the hash browns. A few bites from the end, I was ready to give it to him, on rounding error.

He shook me off. He was hell-bent to conquer.

The Reimains of The GrizzWhich he did. Remarkably, we did not have to go directly to the drug store for Pepto-Bismol, or Alka-Seltzer. He didn’t want to go jump on a trampoline, but he was otherwise fine.

I’m just hoping this doesn’t become a habit.

A Travesty of Justice: Judging the Dessert Contest

A few days ago, the CEO’s executive assistant stopped me in the hall, and asked if I would be a judge in the company dessert contest.

Would I! I love dessert. I live for desserts. I’m old enough to have achy joints, but I still haven’t lost my sweet tooth. I immediately asked everyone I knew if they had magistrate’s robes and a powdered wig, and watched “Perry Mason,” “LA Law,” and “My Cousin Vinnie,” though Marisa Tomei’s leopard-print camisole and teased hair did distract me from the subtleties of jurisprudence.

Not only that, this was some kind of honor! I mean, chosen to judge desserts. Could I put such an honor on my resume? Could I switch careers? You might scoff, but I’m thinner than Paula Deen, and I don’t look live I’ve been snacking on amphetamines, either. And have you heard Rachael Ray moan when she really enjoys eating something? That noise is positively indecent, somewhere between the grunt of Monica Seles hitting a backhand, and a water buffalo in rut.

Today was the day of the contest. I arrived at the anointed hour, and surveyed the table of desserts. I’d even brought a pad of paper and a pen to rank to record quantitative dessertliness. Because I am a serious dessert judge.

But before I could cogitate, ruminate and deliberate, the executive assistant appeared. She pointed to a flat dish cut into rectangles and topped with shredded stuff. “We’ve declared this one the winner.” She put a small piece on a plate, cut it in half, and added, “I want to make sure you agree.”

I ate a mouthful. “That’s a darned fine cake, but–“

She cut me off. “Good. It’s the winner.”

I stood there, dumbfounded. But what about the Kahlua cake, the one-drop cookies, the  fruit-tarty thing, or the lemon pie with a great deal of meringuey stuff? What about the context? The science quality judging matrix and the secret balloting? What about due process for those other desserts?!?

Didn’t matter. The executive assistant was the amica curiae, and had signed the writ. That cake was the winner.

But she wasn’t done. Then grabbed the other half of the piece of cake off my plate and popped it in her mouth, leaving me with a quarter of a piece. (That’s a photo of it at the top.)

Outrage! Mistrial! This is a mockery of the rule of law! Etc.

By the time I finished lunch, most of the other desserts were gone, and I was pretty full. I tried some of the Kahlua cake, but I’m tough like a Bulgarian figure skating judge, and found its texture wasn’t as good as the an oatmeal-coconut-cake-something-something the hyper-efficient executive assistant had proactively declared the winner.

Onward the wheels of justice turn, I guess. Also, if you need a judge for your BBQ or dessert contest, drop me a line.

Because now I have experience.

What’s for Flunch?

I saw this sign in Paris and it gave me a chuckle, so I took a picture. Flunch. It looks like a typo, or one of those cute Euro near-misses at rendering a sign in English.

It took me another week to actually look it up. According to Wikipedia, Flunch is a restaurant chain roughly comparable to Sizzler. More interesting is the entry’s trivia section: “The word ‘flunch’ is a portmanteau of ‘fast’ and ‘lunch'; it has become part of French slang, coining the verb, ‘fluncher’.”

That’s a slightly disturbing trend. Imagine if American fast food restaurants achieve verb status — or, almost as bad, if their marketing departments attempt to promote their names by turning them into verbs:

  • “Just let me Arby’s this before the meeting starts”
  • “We’re not just eating lunch, we’re Fuddruckering it”
  • “I love the way that girl Chick-Fil-As her food with her sensuous lips”

But that’s only a mildly amusing concept for us Americans, because we’ve been Dunkin’ Donutsed by marketers for so long, we’re used to fast food companies committing language atrocities. I’ve actually written about it before, when I came to obvious conclusion that many of the foods with crappy names — Hardee’s Monster Biscuit, Bob Evans Stacked and Stuffed Caramel Banana Pecan Hotcakes — tend to be epically crappy foods.

I happen to be Dairy Queening in and out of a book called Pardon My French: Unleash Your Inner Gaul, which is a guide to French words and phrases, especially ones that explain some quirk of French culture.

In the book’s first section (Food and Drink, mais bien sur), the author Charles Timoney explains the phrase manger chaud — literally, to eat hot.

The average French person will expect to eat mat at least once a day and will also expect at least one dish of each main meal to be served hot. Suggesting that a colleague might skip a decent meal and just grab a sandwich may well be met with an appalled cry of “Mais if faut manger chaud!”

If we can take Timoney at his word (unless he’s secretly a cultural knuckle-dragger, I’m inclined to, since he’s lived there 20-plus years), a proper hot sit-down meal is a big deal to the French. I mean, all you have to do is walk around Paris and see the soixante million or so cafes and bistros, compared to the relatively low number of MacDonald’s and Starbucks.

But there’s another disturbing trend that’s more disturbing than bad verbing. Slate magazine points it out in their story, Why is there so much violent crime at fast-food restaurants? A lowlight reel:

In January, Toledo, Ohio, resident Melodi Dushane punched out a McDonald’s drive-through window when she was told they didn’t sell Chicken McNuggets in the morning. Another woman recently drove through a crowd of people in a McDonald’s parking lot, injuring four. In 2008, a Los Angeles man punched a 16-year-old girl in the face at a McDonald’s after she complained about him cutting the line. A Wendy’s customer reportedly assaulted a female clerk at a drive-through window in 2007 after she didn’t tell him to “have a nice day.”

The story cites a number of reasons for this: location on busy streets, the restaurants keep long hours, and a lot of cash, their customers tend to be younger and poorer, and so do their employees. But the reason I found most interesting was at the bottom of the piece:

Customers may feel stressed out, too. Professors at the University of Toronto released a study in 2010 concluding that exposure to the logos of fast-food chains like Wendy’s and Burger King made people hasty and impatient. When “fast” food doesn’t live up to its name, people might lash out.

That’s kind of rich, isn’t it? The golden arches condition us to expect speed. We’ve become Pavlov’s dinner guests.

I’m not surprised customers are stressed out. Think about the fast food business model: They want you to speed up to the counter (or drive-through), order, pay, and then leave. They don’t want people in their restaurants, since that creates a mess they have to pay someone to clean up. The entire place is designed to be bright, clean-looking, and inhospitable: the molded furniture, the tiny tables, the fluorescent lighting,  the lack of amenities on the table, the lack of a waiter, etc. Often they wrap your food for you (whether you want it wrapped or not), the default assumption being that you’re going to eat somewhere else.

Yet another book about France I was Krispy Kreme-ing recently explained the difference between restaurants and bistros. Since that book is still in Paris and I am not, I’ll have to lean on Wikipedia for a brief history:

Bistros likely developed out of the basement kitchens of Parisian apartments, where tenants paid for both room and board. Landlords could supplement their income by opening their kitchen to the paying public. Menus were built around foods that were simple, could be prepared in quantity and would keep over time. Wine and coffee were also served.

In Paris,  restaurants were for the well-to-do, and the bistros were for the working class (kind of our like our fast-food restaurants, but without dancing spokes-clowns). Nowadays, Parisiens are being infected by flunch, and the US is a littered landscape of Carl’s Jr.,  El Pollo Loco, Panda Express, and Quiznos, where people brawl and mow each other down with their cars.

Meanwhile, we’re still trying to master the art of the bistro — something the Parisiens figured out back in 1884.

A Tale of Two Countries, and their Snack Foods

I recently traveled to Paris, which offered me a chance to observe all sorts of things, including the stunningly important issue of the ways airlines differ in feeding their passengers.

On Air France, the morning snack service consisted of the usual beverages (coffee, tea, water, juice, soda). Then the flight attendant presented a plastic tray, which was filled with breakfast pastry and little napkins. I selected pain au chocolat.

pain au chocolat

Pain au chocolat, the morning snack on Air France.

It’s a bit of trouble to get fresh pastry on a plane. Somewhere someone has to actually make the pastry, then it needs to get shipped to the airport and loaded onto the plane — all in short order, or else your snack goodie will be about as moist and chewy as your seat cushion/personal flotation device.

I’m not suggesting that Air France is being all that visionary or altruistic. They’re merely reacting to the cultural norm. The traditional light breakfast fare in France is often coffee and a croissant, so offering the same on a flight is kind of a no-brainer.

With that in mind, what does Delta Airlines offer?

Prepackaged pretzels and peanuts, the snack handout on Delta Airlines

The pain au chocolat was not the best one I had in Paris (after that one, my mouth wanted to spend the afternoon in bed, staring at the ceiling smoking cigarettes). But it was still pretty good.

The pastry was small, tasty, and not many people said no to them. I expect that the flight attendants ran out of them, or came pretty close. It was a little ceremony: the box was presented to you, and you got to choose between a croissant, pain au chocolat, or an escargot aux raisins. The latter has nothing to do with snails; in fact it’s a spiral pastry with raisins in it. They look like this:

The entire Air France morning snack ritual seemed to encompass the French approach to food: It’s fresh; it’s personal; the portions are small; it’s high-quality. When you eat good food, you pay attention to it.

So what do the two plastic packages of pretzels and peanuts say about the American approach to food? Well let’s open that package up a little.

Is it fresh? No, not in the way bakery goods are. It was put in a plastic package, but that could have happened days, weeks or even months ago.

Is it personal? No. There is no ceremony involved, no opportunity to survey the items and select one. The flight attendant reaches into a container, pulls two out, and hands them to you.

Is it high quality? Only if you think you can eat haute cuisine by shopping at the gas station.

Are the portions small? Yes, but if you’ve ever asked a flight attendant for more peanuts or pretzels, they’re all too happy to give you a handful. Since the snacks have almost no worth, no one minds giving you as much as you want.

Put another way, the peanuts and pretzels are mass produced low-cost and last for ages — they’re forgettable food widgets, but you’re welcome to eat as much as you want.

Needless to say, after eating the French way for a week (smaller, local, quality-driven, personal — the French way produces food like mom used to make!), it’s a little hard to come back to a country where so much of the food is bland, mass produced, and wrapped in plastic.

Sigh. Pass the peanuts.