Saturday, July 25, 2009

What Do You Think This Is, A Restaurant?

Back in my salad days of waitressing, I came across a curious specimen time and time again. No, it wasn't rats scurrying around behind the chest freezer, and it wasn't black tar heroin in the basement. (I only encountered heroin the one time, notable as it was.) It was a type of woman, usually in her forties, who had recently decided to be allergic to just about everything, thus making my job as the person taking her food order a bloody nightmare.

I understand food allergies. I have dear friends who are allergic to a variety of comestibles. One of my pals gets what he describes as a "buzzing" in the middle of his forehead if he eats shellfish - usually right before he throws up. Lactose intolerance, nut allergies, reactions to sulphites and red dye number six...there's a variety of foods that are untouchable. Allergies are fairly straightforward: you eat it, and your body goes into hyper-vigilant G.I. Joe mode against enzymes and proteins in the food, creating a battle zone that can be hard to, you know, survive. Food goes in, bad stuff goes down.

There's another breed of folks, however, and their numbers are swelling. These are ladies who need stevia for their coffee because sugar makes them bloat. Women who can't eat a cupcake but will guzzle soy sauce by the gallon. The women - and for some reason, they are usually women - who have developed some sort of finicky food thing and need to be taken care of in a highly intricate way.

Now, I'm not doubting that these people have food sensitivities, and I'm not even questioning their suspect belief that the foods they've been eating all their lives, ingredients that are in everything, have given them deep physical and (probably) psychological damage. Guts get hurt. Furthermore, not every sensitivity is apparent or even present in childhood. For example, I avoid wheat in large amounts. Why? Because when I was fourteen, I took nuclear-grade antibiotics to wipe out whooping cough and completely stripped my gut of healthy bacteria. Now when I eat foods that are difficult to digest, they end up riping me apart.

So, there's a lot unnecessary of information. Sorry. My point is, I understand some of the special requests that happens. My usual rule of thumb is, if it needs an EpiPen, it's the real deal. People who have that level of allergy are pretty good at not freaking out the wait staff: if you're allergic to peanuts, chance are you don't hang out in a lot of Thai restaurants.

However. The other people - the "I don't eat wheat, so can I get the sandwich as a soup?" people - need to stop dining out. Menus are there for a reason. The kitchen is a busy place, and if I go back to my ESL line cook during a Sunday brunch rush and tell him that I need a grilled cheese with substitutions for the cheese and the bread (the butter can stay), the best I'm going to get is a blank look.

If a person knows they can't eat dairy, why order the crème brulee? Many menu items are not created from scratch as customers order them - sorry, but we didn't just whip up the risotto as you were sitting down. It becomes next to impossible to substitute, and irate glares when I say that the hamburger has meat in it aren't helping. You want vegetarian fare, go eat at Vegetarian Haven.

This goes hand in hand with my deeply ingrained suspicion of fake food. Not junk food, per se. I have a deep appreciation for the intense pleasure only a Big Mac can create. The kind of food that is masquerading as something else. Faux-mayonnaise, fake meat, artificial crab, Kraft Dinner without wheat or dairy, and salt without salt in it. That ain't right. It's the kind of chicanery that is often lauded in vegetarian and hippie-dippy joints: "Their chickpea patty with melted asparagus on sprouted spelt bread tasted so much like a cheeseburger!"

Amazing. You know what else tastes like a cheeseburger? A fucking cheeseburger.

The replacement food is never as delicious as the item its pretending to be. It's like a slow child attempting chaos theory: points for trying, but it's not the same. My policy is this: if there is something that you want to eat, then eat it. If it's going to kill you or make you have the runs for a week, then don't eat it. If there's a way to make it as tasty without the problematic ingredient, then by all means, go for it. There are plenty of exceptional flourless brownies in the world. On the other hand, if you're consuming a food that is not as tasty, or comes stuffed with gross chemicals, it might be time to retire it altogether. Have you ever investigated what fake chicken is made of? Real chicken has one ingredient. It's made of chicken.

People shouldn't be so wrapped up in food, but we are. Instead of making it about feng shui or science or whatever, it would be nice if we enjoyed what we eat. Vegetarian? I hope it's because you really, really love vegetables. Avoid wheat? Me too! I generally don't meet folks for bagels. Deathly allergic to scallops? Okay, first of all, that's awful because scallops are delicious. And you might want to give the waitress a heads-up: she can tell you that the soup stock is made from shellfish and avoid that pesky 911 call. Trying to patronize Big Tony's House of Lobster, on the other hand, is just not making good choices.

There is a psychological aspect to dining in a 'straunt. People want to feel cared for. Sometimes, people want to feel coddled and hand-fed. Unfortunately, tasty food means lots of customers, and servers don't always have time to build your meal from scratch. Apologies all around. Ladies: start drinking your coffee with sugar in it. Or...don't order coffee? I know I'm just a lowly waitress, and the Customer Is Always Right, but in this case, you're being a right pain in my butt.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

One Night In The Suburbs Of Paris, Ontario

Riddle me this, Batman: if I was to list the following characteristics, who might I be referring to?
1. Dirty rotten plastic hair?
2. Questionable bathing suits worn as outerwear?
3. A direct gaze made unsettling by a wonky eye?
4. Tippy, cross-one-leg-over-the-other-and-learn-waaaay-back poses?
5. Legendary slutting around?

Ghandi. I'd be talking about Ghandi, you dopes. Who else could I possibly be referring to?

Sigh. Paris Hilton. Thankfully, your star seems to be waning: DListed hasn't mentioned you in, like, a month. Unlike K-Fed, who was repulsive and cheery, you were repulsive and horrible. You never made me laugh. Your sexual escapades were tawdry and, unfortunately, everywhere. You got more famous when you went to jail. (You, along with Nicole Richie, actually have really pretty mug shots, but the fact that you have a mug shot at all is troubling.) You got more famous for making friends, which, in the style of the toddler you truly are at heart, were probably imaginary.

Paris Hilton, who shot to stardom after a pointless 2000 Vanity Fair article, was once renowned for taking the barometric pressure of America's relationship with the seamy side of things: arrested for DWI, producer of her own pornography, and legendary for dressing up in basically what amounts to lingerie at black tie events. It was like she got to live out all of our middle-school fantasies. As in, "Wouldn't in be awesome if we drank this whole bottle of fruit wine and then listened to music really loud! Maybe we can dance on the couch, too! Whoaaao!" As the daughter a fancy-pants hotelier and a sibling of a (sigh) handbag designer, she's one of those gals who, if she wants a pony, she's getting a pony.

But P. Hilt has become irrelevant. I'm not sure when it happened, but slowly, other pointless celebs started making inroads in her carefully promoted persona. Maybe it was the recession - she's been pretty quiet since the Big Holy Shit Thing of 2008. Paris's place in the collective consciousness relies on our willingness to consume things. She produced a mind-boggling array of products, including perfume, clothes, a book (who knew she could read?), an album, the aforementioned fake hair, and a maddeningly ungrammatical catchphrase. But buying those things, and buying into her party-all-the-time pose, required gobs of cash.

In a way, her hedonism was just part of what we do. Flashy celebrities have a long and inglorious history in our culture - just look at Loni Anderson. Hell, look at Elizabeth Taylor. She was all different kinds of messy, starting with the child-star label and ending with the with multiple marriages. Weirdly, Liz Taylor was once joined in holy matrimony with...wait for it...Nicky Hilton. No, not Paris's sister, smart guy - her great-uncle. But while Liz Taylor went on to win Oscars, Paris Hilton went on to star in films like The Hottie & The Nottie.

Maybe I'm a little behind the times in proclaiming her flame to be extinguished. After all, it's not like there are millions of people who wake up every morning wondering what the star of Pledge This! has been up to lately. Still, I'll mark this momentous non-occasion in my own special way. I'm thinking fake hair and a bite to eat.

Monday, July 20, 2009

You Have To Be Jesting

Have you ever woken up one day and realized, apropos of nothing in particular, you've managed to accidentally jump on some obscure cultural bandwagon? Like, after years of living for fixed gear bikes, you stumble across Urban Outfitter's new venture: very pretty fixies that probably won't even kill you. Remember when Stitch 'n' Bitch started heating up yarn shops all over the place? I bet that really chapped the hides of many a nana who had been purling away for years. It's like, every time a burrito joint opens up down the street, you get eighty millions people who are, like, "so into Mission-style." Bitch, please.

Which leads me to Infinite Summer, the national group read of D.F. Wallace's Infinite Jest. According to John Barber of the Globe and Mail, "reading Infinite Jest is like trying to swallow a goat and discovering it is the most stimulating experience imaginable." Preposterous. Infinite Jest is many things, but I can think of something a little kinder to say than, "it's like trying to swallow a goat." Anne Lamott wrote about the phenomenon particular to writers who read: writing like whomever happens to be on our bedside table. Barber, whose prose in the Wallace article verged on hysterical, might be just a tad too immersed in the I.J.

As another 20th-century writer said, so it goes. Infinite Jest is notorious. It's ultra-long, ultra-dense, narratively modeled on (of all things) a fractal: it's not exactly a Dan Brown novel, one of which you can blitz through in about four hours (I find it helps if you're slightly drunk). Inexplicably, it's #2 on right now: right behind something that's designed to look like a Cape Cod weekend, and two ahead of Barney Stinson's Bro Code.

Barber alleges that Infinite Jest is so perfect that the reason Wallace hung himself last September was because he was failing to follow it up in a suitably incandescent manner. To this I say: John Barber, you're kind of a douche. Maybe he, at page 316, knows something that I, at a measly 73 pages, do not. (I do know that, since I was reading it for the pleasure of reading it, not hipster bragging rights, I've totally botched the schedule.)

So far, I can tell you this: it's confusing. The end notes are annoying - flipping 1.2 kilos worth of book back and forth is kind of a bitch. So far, it seems to sort of be about tennis, with a deep snowdrift of street drugs settling over the whole scene.

But I'll also tell you this. As I was reading through footnote 24 ("James O. Incandenza: a Filmography"), the phrase "Untitled. Unfinished. UNRELEASED." cropped up about a half-dozen times.

Thought experiment, nothing too strenuous: try repeating that phrase to yourself. Try thinking about all the things you've left untitled, unfinished, and unreleased. Think about the psyche that makes those three words feel resonant, even if they began as a cliche. That was the moment I started to really fall for the book. Underneath all the technical jargon and fractalized story, there's a real heart.

I'm not mad at the Infinite Summer kids. I like Wallace, and when I got the book a few weeks ago, I was genuinely nervous and exhilarated to read - not an emotion prompted by much fiction. Even though it's nice to feel supported during a massive literary undertaking (and, in the interest of full disclosure, I totally read some of the online discussion about The Dark Tower as I was ripping through those monstrous books), I think I'll leave the conversation on the internet. Even though, as one Jester put it on a forum, “all the cool people are doing it," I'll be swallowing this particular goat alone this summer.