Secret Pop

Dec 4, 2005

Overweight America, I know your secret.

We are a nation of excesses. We like restaurants that serve us more food on a single plate than we would need for the whole day. We care more about portions, much of the time, than we do about how anything tastes. It is less about getting what we want and more about getting our money's worth. At Disneyland, everything is pricey, but it's also usually quite tasty, and the portions are enormous. You won't feel bad about spending six dollars on a corn dog, because it's a corn dog the size of your forearm. And if you don't want a corn dog that big, well, that's too bad. Take some of your corn dog home with you. They don't come in other sizes. Whatever new chain restaurant opens up in the strip mall near your suburban tract home, it will probably have chicken strips on the appetizers list and will be popular with your neighbors because, haven't you heard? They have blueberry muffins there as big as a pie! When you order fried chicken, they bring you a whole chicken! With a certificate of authenticity to assure you that none of this chicken was left alive for its family. You got the whole deal. Except for the parts that are only eaten by cats and Chinese people. You can't eat the brownie mud pie cheesecake, friend, so don't even bother ordering it. It has a pound of butter fat in it. And you are required to attack it with a novelty shovel.

I know this is a country whose reputation is one of prosperity and milk and honey and large motor cars in the driveways of ranch-style homes. But I don't really know when everything went nuts the way it has.

And then I was watching the imbecilic Emeril Lagasse as he prepared some unimpressive pot of something or other. I used to watch his show when the Food Network was just getting its legs. I found the notion of having a house band for a cooking show patently dumb, but I was supportive of the people getting excited about cuisine. He can be a bit of a dumbass, but occasionally he is even cutely dumb. Funny from time to time. But once he gets the idea that anyone thinks he's funny, he gets all excited and tries too hard. Which is unbearable. That's when I prefer the Great Chefs style of programming where a lady with a genteel southern drawl narrates as chefs who probably don't speak English make beautiful fare in rooms that actually look like kitchens. Those programs actually show you how it's done, and you never really get to know who the chefs are, greatly reducing the chance that you might one day want a t-shirt with their name on it.

I've long since lost my patience for the celebrity chefs, though. There are now superchefs where there once were supermodels. And celebrity has a way of ruining everything -- cooking being no exception. My mom doesn't like Bobby Flay. She thinks he's stuck up. She's seen him at various Fancy Foods shows, and he apparently acts like he's all that. I guess it's not surprising. Now that everyone knows his face to the last freckle (as if you could ever find the last one -- there are MILLIONS), he probably gets stopped a lot, and people who stop you to tell you how great you are quickly begin to seem like lower-class citizens to you. It's a quantifiable fact. It's not his fault. But then I've watched Iron Chef America a few times, and my big criticism is that Bobby Flay says "so to speak" way too much. He says it in the way that someone uses a phrase they think makes them sound more erudite when it's really just filler. This happens a lot with guys I know who have an inflated estimation of their grasp of the language and the art of conversation. Even if he doesn't mean it to make him sound smarter, if I notice that you've used the same valueless filler phrase three times in the span of ten minutes, the bulk of which you weren't speaking during, it's possible you say that phrase too much. Bobby Flay should look into this. Sylvester Stallone, too. He talks as if everything he says needs to be bookended in quotation marks. And his mother is nuts.

So I was watching Emeril, and I got so annoyed with the studio audience, because they react as if putting more of an ingredient into a dish is somehow luxurious or decadent. As opposed to excessive. And they act as if certain cooking ingredients are contraband. Do we really need to give that knowing laugh when cayenne pepper is being added? Do we need to ooh and aah when garlic is mentioned? Is there something sexual about a bowl with some butter in it? Does heavy cream have the same effect as rave drugs? You'd think so. These audiences -- being absurdly serenaded by guests like ex-Doobie Brother Michael McDonald during the commercial breaks -- act like they're getting off on every ingredient Emeril touches. It's like they're watching a lady being raped by an oily pirate or something. They love it.

The truth is, it is possible to have too much of something. It's easier than you think, Fat America. Have you ever made chocolate chip cookies and you put in too much butter? They come out all flat and too crunchy and greasy. Putting in an extra hunk of butter doesn't make you swashbuckling. It makes you a poor cook. That's why there are recipes. With numbers in them. And devices for measuring. Especially with desserts, it's way easy to ruin what you're making by dumping in a little extra of whatever it is you think is the flavor equivalent of a hand job. If you put fourteen cloves of garlic in your salad dressing instead of two, chances are it will be bitter and gross. Is that how you like your hand jobs?

I think America is fat for many reasons, but wanting too much of everything is probably really high up on the list. I'm as guilty as anyone. My mom measured my eyes and found them to be bigger than my stomach when I was barely able to see over the top of the buffet line. I always think I will want more of something than I actually end up wanting. I serve my dinner guests eye-popping portions and delight in their dismay. I order the biggest steaks and lovingly fondle the biggest potatoes. I can't ever get enough rice. I'm not saying I'm any better than anyone. I'm just saying I've figured a little of it out. And I was very proud of myself when Beulah and I stopped on the way back from Vegas at an In n' Out, and I ordered a plain cheeseburger without fries and without a drink, because that's all I wanted (I also asked for extra lettuce and forgot to request that they not grill the bun, but that's just a detail that would come in handy if you were actually trying to live exactly as I do, which I totally don't recommend), and because I did the math and realized that ordering the meals is exactly the same price as ordering a la carte, and I don't really like the fries there very much, and I'm pretty sure I only ordered Double Doubles because it sounds like a brand name, and that makes it feel more like McDonald's, where my heart will probably always reside, and because I'm in a phase of being over animal style. So I ate dinner there for like a dollar eighty. Which is really a pretty great value, any way you slice it. And even though it's probably still the worst possible meal choice in the grand scheme of things, I was glad that the KFC next door was closed, because Beulah and I saw that it had a sign for an all-you-can-eat buffet, and our eyes nearly popped out. I've never seen such a thing at a KFC. If we'd gone there, I'm sure I would have eaten enough fri chi to quell any future cravings from ever showing themselves, which would be tragic, because I enjoy nursing my periodic fri chi cravings. I've been riding one for a good year now, even though there is a KFC right down the street from me and a Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles only a mile or two away. I think I get more from denying myself things than I ever get from satisfaction.

Plus, it was the night before Thanksgiving. You just can't DO that.

I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings by calling you fat, America. I'm not trying to be mean. It's my love for you that charges me with this burden. I think you can have too much of a good thing. You can absolutely have too much of a bad thing. And it's also possible that you regularly get too much of a thing that you feel benignly towards. Won't your food taste better if you don't try to eat so much of it that it interrupts your normal respiration? Are you always in the middle of a hot dog eating championship in your head? Do you really need to taste everything those surgical glove ladies at Costco heat up in their toaster ovens? I'll bet you don't. I'll bet you a doughnut you don't.

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