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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Traps for the Unwary

New Yorkers have a love-hate relationship with tourists. With 56  million visitors a year spending $41 billion, there’s certainly a lot to love. But as economists always say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. To tap into that $41 billion, New Yorkers have to deal with folks who don’t know how to hail a cab, or tip properly, or even cross the street without causing a major pile-up.
For New Yorkers, what really adds insult to injury is that, with all the wonderful restaurants in the five boroughs (approximately 24,000!), so many tourists end up in some pretty shitty restaurants—euphemistically called “tourist traps.” But we’ve all been tourists at some point, even New Yorkers—that’s what we call them when they come to Alabama. Are all tourist traps really that bad? Is there a good one out there?
©2016 Chris Terrell
A few weeks ago, I found myself in my room at the W in Times Square—tourist central. Laura was off to a black-tie affair that she mercifully let me out of. But this also meant dinner on my own. No reservations, and I wasn’t in the mood for traveling far, which meant that I would be confined to a five or six block radius of Times Square. Odds were good I’d end up in a “tourist trap.” 
I did have the good fortune of being pretty familiar with Midtown, enough to know where the good “traps” are located. I knew to avoid Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar, which has the dubious distinction of receiving the worst restaurant review in the New York Times. 
I headed off to Del Frisco’s on 6th Ave. (a/k/a “Avenue of the Americas”) for a martini and steak at the bar, but it was packed with young, self-conscious bankers and lawyers. I then decided to head over to Bar Americain. BA is something of my fall-back when I’m in mid-town. The service and the food are good, and I’ve always liked Bobby Flay’s approach. I planned on eating at the bar there as well, but it too was packed. However, I did get a small table in the center of the restaurant near the bar. Good vantage point.
©2016 Chris Terrell
There was a first date at table 9. She had light brown hair and wore a stylish green dress. He wore jeans and a light blue, baggy polo shirt. They were not into each other—Manhattan vs. Queens.
There was a business dinner at table 12. They probably cut some big deal based on the three bottles of expensive California cab on the table. One woman, with black-rimmed glasses and a low cut dress, kept leaning alluringly into the younger man next to her. She would be equal parts drunk and disappointed by night's end.
At some point, the local train came into the station: an Upper East side socialite, with considerable “work,” wanders in and wanders out. Perhaps she thought she was in the dining room at Bergdorf’s.  And then there was the hippie art maven wannabe chatting it up with the hedge fund wash-out. 
By this point, Mr. Polo Shirt is quickly handing over his credit card to pay the tab. Eyes wandering. Forced smiles all around. 
At this point, it’s time to head back to the hotel. 
On the way out, I ask the hostess what the make-up is, "mostly out-of-towners or locals?" She said that in the evenings, it is mostly tourists and business travelers, but during the day at lunch, almost all locals. “Good to know,” I think to myself.
Sometimes even New Yorkers are tourists in their own city.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

When a Man is Small...

M.F.K. Fisher, in her essay, When a Man is Small, wrote that “[w]hen a man is small, he loves and hates food with a ferocity that soon dims.” Later she writes, “[S]ome foods are utterly delicious, and he thinks of them and tastes them with a sensuous passion which too often disappears completely with the years.”

This essay got me thinking about the foods I once loved but haven’t eaten in years and, quite frankly, would find revolting if forced to eat them now, even on a deserted island with Kira Knightly. These were foods that I once gobbled up with a mindless intensity, blissfully ignorant of their blandness, chemical notes, or over-processed and over-salted construction. But damn did I love them at the time! While I would like to say that the following chronological list reveals some kind of culinary growth, each one is as banal as the one before it. Here they are: Vienna Sausages, T.V. Dinners, Hostess fried fruit pies, and Hot Pockets (don’t judge!).

OK, let’s start with the Vienna Sausage. That round, little, pale “sausage,” tightly packaged seven to a can. (This was actually a trivia question during trivia night at a local bar recently!). True story:  when my twin boys were just starting out on solid foods we gave them cans of what appeared to be Vienna sausages, but which were actually called “meat sticks.” I’m not kidding! I guess this was a marketing improvement?!  Well, I had to try one and, “oh my God!” I bleated, “these taste like shit!” Neither I nor my boys have had “meat sticks” since!

Moving up the culinary hierarchy, my next stop is an icon of Mad Men America: the T.V. Dinner! I’m talking about that aluminum, four-sectioned,  school-lunch-tray variety of the late 60s and 70s. Damn, did I love T.V. dinners. (When my Mom pulled one from the grocery sack, I got more excited that a senior citizen yelling “bingo!” at Shady Pines nursing home!) My favorite variety was fried chicken, perhaps because I grew up in the South; though this probably irked my Mom—though she didn’t show it—because she made damn good fried chicken. Of course, there was always that mystery desert at 12 O’clock. It was either some kind of chocolate or cherry concoction.

Speaking of cherry concoction, the next item on my list is the Hostess fried fruit pie. I must have eaten one of these every day for lunch for six or seven years. They came in various fruit flavors: cherry, blueberry, apple, and peach. As if the caloric count was not high enough, they also came in cream flavors, such as lemon, chocolate, and vanilla. My favorites, however, were the fruit ones, especially blueberry. Recently, I was in a handy mart getting some water and Gatorade for one of my son’s soccer games, when I spied one of these puppies. Out of curiosity, I flipped it over to take a gander at the calorie count. (We didn’t have these in 1981, or if did, we ignored them!). Holy shit! It was something life 4,235 calories. That’s enough to feed an entire village in the developing world! Hell, that’s enough to feed half of Hollywood!

So, let’s move onto high school and college. Now we’ve come to the Hot Pocket. I have no idea who came up with this concept. And hopefully the person who did has been convicted as a war criminal at The Hague. For those of you who are not familiar with the “Hot Pocket” concept, it is a pastry (almost like an empanada) filled with cheese and some kind of “meat product”—not to be confused with the aforementioned “meat stick”. The Hot Pocket is placed in some kind of sleeve (at least it was) and put in the microwave for a couple of minutes. What comes out is benign looking, but filled with a molten core hotter than Three Mile Island. How I got through 11th and 12th grade and 4 years of college eating these things I do not know. But damn I loved them at the time.  The last time I ate one was June 22, 1993, and it made me deathly ill. I’ve not eaten one since. If I’m going to get sick on food now, it better be locally sourced foie gras or P.E.I. oysters.

What I knew now, I didn’t know then. And what I truly enjoyed then, I find vile now. Nonetheless, that doesn’t diminish the apparent joy such food gave me then. Everything is relative. Going back to Fisher’s essay I mentioned above, she wisely, and more eloquently than my oscitant ramblings, captured how our taste in food changes and how food changes us over time:

But we must grow old, and we must eat. It seems far from unreasonable, once these facts are accepted, for a man to set himself the pleasant task of educating his palate so that he can do the former not grudgingly and in spite of the latter, but easily and agreeably because of it.

So the next time you go to the grocery store and take your buggy down those aisles of highly processed exemplars of American industrial acumen, say to yourself: “Wow, I thought the frat parties were bad enough…. !”