Tuesday, March 13, 2012

I Can't Believe I'm Writing About the Olive Garden

But here it is.

Here's what happened, as short of a version as I can make it, in case you live somewhere without internet: A nice old lady in North Dakota wrote an entirely unironic and heartfelt review of the exciting new Olive Garden opening there. I have to admit my own bit of a chuckle when I got to the line "Instead of the raspberry lemonade she suggested, I drank water." It's adorable.

Then the internet got ahold of it and made it this THING, as the internet is known to do. THEN the food snobs that live in this city, did a review of our own Olive Garden because OMG we have one here in San Francisco too and how novel and quirky! That's when my head exploded a little bit and there were long Twitter conversations, the end result of which was basically I need to start a Tumblr called Weird Olive Garden Experiences, or: The Unbearable Sadness and l'ennui of Olive Garden.

All caught up? Okay. Now:

I didn't take internet glee in the initial review or chide it the way most of the internet did. Not that I'm above such snark, I'm obviously not. The lady reminded me of my grandmother and the way she reacted to things and I found it admirable that at her age she was keeping busy and churning out columns and that her review was straight forward and informative. What was there, really, to mock? You elitist kids and your locally grown, organic all natural farm to table food thought this was hysterical? Get over yourselves. Because guess what? The people in the midwest can't believe you'd go to Gary Danko (a restaurant I quite enjoy, btw) and drop what you do on tiny portions when you could go to the all you can eat pizza buffet for $10. It cuts both ways.

I also think that living in South Louisiana for a time gave me a fair amount of perspective, and some insight into the way life is for people who don't have constant access to locally owned and operated restaurants.

In a perfect world would we be able to support a locally operated business with values who is taking time, effort, and energy to make us a meal? Absolutely. That'd be great. But if there's one thing we know: the world is far from perfect. And sometimes you're visiting family in Grand Forks and the Olive Garden is THE best option. Sometimes you're on business in a place you're not familiar with and the Olive Garden/Red Lobster/Outback are comforting places where you understand the menu and can feel inconspicuous. Not everyone is lucky enough to live in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago or New York and have access to CIA grads trying out sous vide recipes with locally sourced meat from grass fed cows. Sometimes you work in an office park and the nearest choices are between Flingers and Flickers. The vast majority of the country goes to a chain restaurant and eats perfectly serviceable food in relaxed settings. And as food snobby as even the best San Franciscan can be, try to get into the Cheesecake Factory in Union Square on a weekend without a three hour wait.

I'm far more bothered by the utter douchery of the SF review than of Marilyn Hagerty's no nonsense take. They are not so above it. They even admit to having grown up with it. I actually didn't grow up with it. I, even as a kid, looked at a place like Sizzler as the most bizarre and novel experience. We used to tease my brother's best friend for saying that was his favorite. All the LOLZ. Essentially: I was a food snob, by breeding, before I even knew what that was. (Yes, I had an extremely privileged and spoiled upbringing. I am aware.) I got that knocked out of me when I went to college.

New Orleans may be one of the best food cities in the world, Baton Rouge on the other hand is actually known as a testing market for new chain menu items and even new chain concepts, it's so thoroughly The Middle. I once read that displaced New Orleans natives after Katrina had a very hard time adjusting to all the strip malls and chain restaurants after being used to their neighborhood places. I completely understand that. I spent my first year in college getting chided for being a food snob. "Uh, you guys are going to Chili's? Isn't there like...a better option?" And likely there was (The Chimes comes to mind) but we were all college kids who weren't native to this new city, going places that were cheap and had 2 for 1 happy hour. We also went to where our friends worked. I'm gonna guess that chain restaurants employ a huge population of college kids working their way through college, something ignored by the SF review.

Look, I'm completely guilty of even taking down this particular Olive Garden, long before the review of it came out. (Summary of that: I hate the Olive Garden and the last time I was there, because of unrelated issues, I ended up bawling after my visit.) (My hatred of the Olive Garden does not mean I am above loving other chains. I quite enjoy some Outback cheese fries every now and then. And my affinity for Hooters wings is documented.)

But my comments there aren't really about lamenting how naive these people are to think the Olive Garden is the best, it's wishing they had other options. I have a bigger problem with corporate chains taking over our life than with Grand Forks adoration of its new restaurant. (It was also about, as someone said, "Olive Garden isn't someplace you go, it's someplace you end up." So very true. And when I ended up there, it was kind of an awful moment all around.)

The desire for people to have and seek out local options comes from experience. When I was traveling Europe solo, I ate at far more McDonald's than I would ever like to admit. I couldn't get used to eating alone so I just wanted to eat something I knew how to order as quickly as possible and not cause a fuss. After a bit of doing that I realized it was absurd and made an effort to eat at local places and try local cuisine. Now whenever, wherever, I travel, I make a concerted effort to find places that are local and noteworthy and do what my dad once taught me, "If they have a house specialty, order it." Food is more than just perfectly comforting sustenance. I don't want to go into a "food can elevate existence" rant here, but, well, it often can. I'm more likely to find out about a place, to talk to locals, to even learn something about myself at their own little joint than I am at the IHOP next to the freeway. Even thinking about my time in Baton Rouge, I was about to leave the city for good before I knew there even was a downtown with cool, funky places to get good food.

Am I perfect in my "eat local" execution? Of course not. Even I'm guilty of driving somewhere and just wanting to eat what I know rather than seeking out something new. Sometimes I'm trying to get where I'm going and quick, easy, and convenient is what I want. Sometimes I'm just lazy. Sometimes I crave junk food. Sometimes Hooters is easier than parking in the Lower Haight to go to Wing Wings.

But I GET it, Grand Forkians, your Olive Garden is a big deal. Far more absurd than you being excited about it, and the utterly straight forward account of what it is by a grandmother, is the faux wonderment and utter snobbish derision offered by the SF "review" of the Olive Garden. You deserve better than that mocking tone for what you enjoy. I apologize, as one native San Franciscan, who lives closer to our single Olive Garden than I do to any of our fine restaurants, for the snobbishness of us all. Because at some point, we are all Grand Forkians seeking out food that is "warm and comforting on a cold day".

(More good reading on the feeling aspect of the topic from Posnanski here, ATVS here. More thoughtful understanding on the topic from Awl here.)

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