An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.

~ G. K. Chesterton, On Running after One's Hat, 1908

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Unicorn vs. Bear: Food and Loathing on the Internet

Goodbye, Minimalist. I hardly knew ye and wish that I had discovered you sooner. After more than a decade of presenting clear and simple recipes in the New York Times, Mark Bittman is turning to other things. I will miss the Minimalist, but look forward to mining Bittman's online treasure trove.

I remember as a kid, watching someone on 60 Minutes explain the Internet to Andy Rooney. The early Internet was full of dead ends and messy personal pages;  the explainer didn't give the curmudgeonly Rooney much reason to explore. Well, the guy said, you can find recipes. Recipes? Rooney snorted. At the time,  I cheered Rooney, but now I think if Rooney spent more time with good food, he probably wouldn't be such a grump.
I joined the website Urban Spoon on Christams Eve in Evansville, IN.  We were hungry, far from home, and facing snowflakes the size of feathers.  Not at all sure what would be open, we were in need of ideas and directions.   Within just a few minutes, we were out of our car and inside drinking hot tea and eating hummus.

Some romantics feel technology wrings all serendipity out of life. The criticism, I think, is that we no longer have the pleasure of being lost or making a discovery on our own. Please. Being lost is overrated. I still get lost  -- as anyone who has leaned on my navigational skills can attest. Give me a map and mild distraction. With me as your guide, you're more likely to wind up in a alarmingly gritty part of D.C. than at the National Gallery ice rink like you expected.  Want twenty extra minutes of cornfields in a car trip through southern Indiana? I can do that.

My best adventures have come with a little direction. The criticism begs the question: What's the difference between falling into a heavenly hole-in-the-wall and realizing, thanks to pocket technology, that you are a mere two blocks from one?  Does the former even happen?

I'm all for being the first to discover a new restaurant. With regards to food, the Internet is like a circle of friends writ large, giving you advice. Given the perils of opening a restaurant and the inexplicable optimism of restauranteurs, there's still plenty of opportunity for discovering the new and untried. 

Perhaps I am one of the first in the provinces to try Mesh on Mass, in Indianapolis, which opened in August. I thank the Indy promotion Devour Downtown for that.  Friends just introduced me to the promotion last week and we all used the the webpage to mine menus and negotiate where to go for dinner. If anything the reconnaisance increased my pleasure in the evening.

True, where discovery used to happen in conversation or through in-flight magazine, it now increasingly happens online.  I'm not crying in my  French onion soup over it. All I can do is bemoan why I had not seredipitously discovered a resource earlier. Why hadn't I noticed Urban Spoon before?  Besides food, I also love reading and writing critiques.  You can find me gratifying all three proclivities under the handle Bee. I went on a bit of a mini-review-writing bender a few weeks ago.

Another online discovery that leaves me wistful is the story of a whimsical Texas pizza call center employee.   His response to a customer is below.

Dear John,
My name is Chad from Austin's Pizza Call Center. We received your online order earlier this evening. We saw your note, "Please draw a unicorn fighting a bear on the box."
Unfortunately, our stores are not equipped to fulfill such a request. They simply do not posses the required skill. I, however, took it upon myself to draw out the picture you requested on a post-it note. I hope this suits your needs.
Chad Frierson
Austin's Pizza

Let's forget for a moment the request and motives (or sobriety) of the requestor and applaud the humor and initiative of the Austin Pizza employee.  This is the kind of person I want to greet me when I go to a restaurant. Perhaps coordinating delivery electronically is a bit different than schlepping pizza to your table, but some of the talents required must surely be the same.

 "They simply do not possess the desired skill," Chad says of restaurant staff.  I can relate.  I dwell on Chad and his pleasing post-it art because service in my town is often dismal as I'm reminded anytime I eat anywhere else ... in the world. Is it due to inexperience and disinterest of the transient college-age crowd  or mismanagement on the part of the restauranteurs that employ them?   I probably couldn't do much better than mediocre in either role, but when I say bad, I mean absurdly so. Sullen servers, understaffed dinner hours, forgotten items, soggy toast. A waiter once flirted with my date.

That wasn't my Matt, but it could have been. I keep a wary eye now. 

Early in our relationship Matt and I discovered we each held a devotion to Cook's Illustrated. He subscribed to the magazine. I held an online subscription.  It turns out, you really need both.  Like a lot of people these days, we eat out less to save money and enjoy the pleasures of cooking. So, we patronize restaurants more purposefully and mediocre won't do because we can do better at home.  That doesn't mean we're snobs about it. I love a good honest diner as much as fancy digs with low lighting. And, I'll never master short-order style hashbrowns.

That reminds me of a meal I regret. A decade has passed and I still remember the disappointing breakfast I had at a once-good diner where the management had changed.  We have a finite amount of life and finite number of meals in this lifetime. I wasted a small part of my youth eating a sub-par meal while mourning the memory of better. If it were to happen today, I'd let everybody know about it.

1 comment:

  1. Hi I read your blog, on the INTERNET.

    And it makes me miss you terribly. I would love to go discover a new restaurant and enjoy your company in doing so.