Tag Archives: Eater

Fine for the Whole Family

Lynne Gilbert / Getty Images

Was I a picky eater as a child? Yes. But now my parents are pickier.

Selecting an appropriate restaurant for a visit from my folks has made for a decade-long challenge. In theory, I should have no shortage of options — New York City is fairly renowned for its culinary variety — but the city itself is short on a few of my parents’ preferences.

Over countless attempts and hundreds of plates, I’ve learned that the right atmosphere requires a delicate ambience of peace and quiet. (We don’t have that here.) There should be ample space. (We don’t have that, either.) Waitstaff should be more talented than necessary, with a cast-iron sense of humor that can withstand my dad’s idea of fun. (It’s the kind of fun that happens after we’ve left: he’ll rib a server with theatrical just-kidding complaints for two hours, then tip big.) It shouldn’t be crowded but it shouldn’t be empty. The bringer of cheese for the pasta should probably just leave the cheese. Dad won’t eat anything spicy. Mom won’t eat anything raw. Mom will always ask if the table is okay, which always sounds like the table isn’t okay, but when I ask her if she thinks the table is okay, she makes this face like, “Bail me out.”

Have we all become people who shouldn’t be taken anywhere? Probably. I’ve gotten used to my perennial failure to find places that thrive at this impossible nexus of enchantments. I doubt there is a food solution that will always make everyone in this particular triangle of our family totally happy. But for a while there, our solution was Olive Garden.

Olive Garden was our go-to when I was in college. There, everyone was happy — or if we weren’t, everyone was fine. My dad would order Shrimp Scampi; I would order Chicken Marsala; my mom would make their Famous House Salad more famous. We’d eat all the breadsticks, request our first refill, then wrap the second batch to go. I’d reheat them one at a time in my dorm room microwave, wrapping each in a paper towel that would soak up five finger-pressed blots of oil I wouldn’t have to clean. That was where I set the bar those days — that’s all it took to make for a singular restaurant experience with my family. Would there be leftovers? Great. Olive Garden was fine, and fine was good.

In “Dear Olive Garden, Never Change,” the latest installment in Eater‘s Death of Chains series on the slow decline of middlebrow chain restaurants, Helen Rosner reminds me that this anodyne fine-for-the-whole-family feel is completely by design. “One of the things I love about the Olive Garden,” Rosner writes, “is its nowhereness. I love that I can walk in the door of an Olive Garden in Michigan City, Indiana, and feel like I’m in the same room I enter when I step into an Olive Garden in Queens or Rhode Island or the middle of Los Angeles. There is only one Olive Garden, but it has a thousand doors.”

After three years at Vox Media as Eater‘s Features Editor turned Executive Editor turned Editor-at-Large, Rosner recently announced her departure from “the best goddamn food publication in the world.” She tweeted mysteriously to watch this space for updates, noting only that she is moving on “to crush some new things.” If they’re anything like her greatest hits thus far — on glorified vending machines, Tina Fey’s sheetcakingchicken tendersTrump’s ketchup-covered crime scenes, and takedowns of chocolatiers who may not always have had beards — her readers will be sure to bring their bottomless appetites to her next endeavor.

I feel an intense affinity for Olive Garden, which — like the lack of olives on its menu — is by design. The restaurant was built for affinity, constructed from the foundations to the faux-finished rafters to create a sense of connection, of vague familiarity, to bring to mind some half-lost memory of old-world simplicity and ease. Even if you’ve never been to the Olive Garden before, you’re supposed to feel like you have. You know the next song that’s going to play. You know how the chairs roll against the carpet. You know where the bathrooms are. Its product is nominally pasta and wine, but what Olive Garden is actually selling is Olive Garden, a room of comfort and familiarity, a place to return to over and over.

In that way, it’s just like any other chain restaurant. For any individual mid-range restaurant, return customers have always been an easy majority of the clientele, and chain-wide, it’s overwhelmingly the case: If you’ve been to one Olive Garden, odds are very high you’ve been to two or more. If the restaurant is doing it right, though, all the Olive Gardens of your life will blur together into one Olive Garden, one host stand, one bar, one catacomb of dining alcoves warmly decorated in Toscana-lite. Each Olive Garden is a little bit different, but their souls are all the same.

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‘Hotchickenfrication’: One Fowl Enterprise

Prince's Hot Chicken served X-tra hot with potatoe salad and cole slaw. (Photo by Alan Poizner/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Prince’s Hot Chicken, the spicy, savory comfort food which has its origins in a spurned lover’s attempt for revenge, has long been a Nashville institution. Sadly, the family-run operation has spawned imitators, from KFC to Shake Shack to a spate of already or soon-to-be-opened restaurants cashing in on the seemingly insatiable appetite for hot chicken.

As Zach Stafford laments at Eater, “hotchickenfrication” — as it’s come to be known in Nashville — is polluting “hot chicken’s actual history, its particular origins in a distinct community…transforming it into a pale echo of what it was — a spicy but soulless joyride.”

Prince’s favorite food was fried chicken, and his lover knew that, making it the perfect vehicle for her pain. While he was sleeping, she went out to the garden behind the house and grabbed a bunch of cayenne peppers she’d grown, then started frying some chicken. As the chicken cooked, she created an unbearably hot spice mix with the cayenne. When the chicken came out of the skillet, still sizzling, she tossed an enormous amount of seasoning all over the bird, thinking it would be agonizingly inedible. Prince awoke and stumbled into the kitchen, almost tripping over the aroma. He took a seat at the kitchen table in front of the pile of chicken; his lover watched, anticipating the first bite of revenge. Her plan was thwarted immediately: Prince loved the chicken so much he wanted more.

What you might call “hashtag hot chicken” is the kind served at Party Fowl, a restaurant that once provided the official hot chicken of the Tennessee Titans football team. Last summer, over plates of its signature hot chicken with bourbon-glazed beignets — a play on chicken and waffles — and hot chicken lollipops, Bart Pickens, the executive chef, who moved to Nashville from New Orleans in 2006, explained the broad appeal of his menu. “ You can take our menu to Chicago; it’s got enough reflection,” he told me, referring to Party Fowl’s wide variety of hot chicken dishes, from poutine to Cuban sandwiches. “If I’ve got to make a Giordano’s deep-dish hot chicken pizza, I can go there.” (He has gone there; I’ve seen the pictures.)

While longtime hot chicken aficionados may cringe, Pickens sees the trend as a natural evolution of local tradition. “Food is up for interpretation,” he said. “My philosophy has always been, you have to know the original to go forward with it.”

Pickens’s views echo those of many of the Nashville chefs I spoke to over the last year. They believe hot chicken is a larger-than-life dish that is fair game for their own interpretations, so they are capitalizing off the trend with a clear conscience despite the dish’s singular creation, rooted in a specific time and place in the city. But the history these chefs and new hot chicken dishes refer to is a tall tale, one they often don’t even fully understand. “There’s nothing worse than a scorned woman,” Pickens said, looking over the vast tableau of hot chicken iterations on the table between us. “How does that story go?”

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Like Sheep to the Sanitized Slaughter Zone

A Turkish Kurdish man pushes sheep on a handcart in the eastern Turkish town of Dogubayazit. (AP Photo/Murad Sezer)

Pelin Keskin first saw her grandfather sacrifice an animal for Eid al-Ahda when she was nine. Years later, visiting Turkey for a family wedding that coincides with the Eid, she reflects on what the day — and the sacrifice — means in a changing Turkey where the farmers and butchers integral to the holiday are hidden from view behind screens at a glossy new mega-grocery-markets, called hypermarkets.

Ten to 15 butchers, covered in blood and sweat, worked the sacrifice zone, trying to get the orders right. One calf panicked as it felt a rope try to lift it by its hind legs, while another next to it was completely gutted. A calf already skinned was sectioned into kilograms. It was like a Shake Shack line, but instead of a buzzer and a burger, you have a butcher yelling your number for kilos of fresh meat. I’ve been an unapologetic carnivore all my life, but there was something soulless, something haraam, about this unrelenting efficiency.

The appeal of formalizing the sacrificial process is understandable for both farmer and customer: There is clarity, ease, convenience. My younger uncle and I could’ve easily walked out with the meat and skipped the hassle of bargaining with farmers, but we still did things the traditional, more humanistic way. Days like Eid may unify the nation, but when you come across the scene at a Carrefour, it symbolizes a reality that’s almost laughably on the nose: Turkey, in all of its modernist efforts, is just covering up the smell of its own shit.

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Moonshine: The Black Tradition of Distilling ‘White Whiskey’

Culinary appropriation is a thorny phenomenon to pin down. More or less everything we consume came to be through hybrid, murky lineages: people move (whether by choice or by force), communities clash and interact, and tastes evolve. Very few food items have a neat, uncontested origin story. But as Lauren Michele Jackson shows in her Eater essay on the erasure of black influence from artisanal-food culture, some trends are impossible to deny. Black labor and black innovation had been instrumental for many American staples, yet by the time barbecue, beer, or malt liquor resurfaced in recent years as craft items with major cultural cachet, they’d been (and still are being) thoroughly whitewashed. The same goes for what might be the whitest of spirits (in the popular imagination, at least): moonshine.

For now, the public image of what distilling looks like in America remains white, even in the face of more recent history. Moonshine, experiencing a craft renaissance of its own, almost exclusively conjures a certain image of backwoods whiteness and Prohibition-era bootlegging — a product, in part, of the white cultural monopoly on all things “country,” while black people are endlessly “urban” — an image that continues to be burnished by vested interests. “We as a society have created its value and meaning, bound up in images of mountains and overalls and shotguns and the way a man wears his hat. I played my part in this fiction,” admits the writer Matt Bondurant in an essay about his family’s moonshining legacy and his efforts to tell their story.

The rural is as much a domain of black life, and moonshining was a part of it. “I lived in a totally black world,” the artist Jonathan Green said in a recent conversation with the poet Kevin Young about his family’s moonshine production. That world was not an urban jungle but a Southern, rural community of landholders, farmers, hunters, and store owners. “Moonshine was also called a happy drink, it was also a medicinal drink,” Green said. “I only knew of moonshine as a sort of miracle liquid, if you will.” As a child, Green’s grandparents allowed him peeks into moonshining; he recalls the long early morning walks with his grandfather to stills that “were always hidden” deep in the woods, and how family visiting from out of town always left with crates full of moonshine. “I only saw moonshining as a major part of my family history and culture.”

But now that moonshine is a part of craft culture, what’s ultimately left to do is “package the story, feed the legend, make some money,” as Bondurant writes. Only white stories seem to have made it into the package.

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The Editor Who Brought Julia Child to America

Image: AP Photo (Richard Drew)

The adjective “legendary” has been losing its lustre in recent years. We often use it to connote longevity and persistence rather than greatness. The descriptor feels quite apt in the case of book editor Judith Jones, who died today at the age of 93. (She stepped down as Senior Editor and Vice President at Alfred A. Knopf in 2011, at the age of 87.) Imagine the second half of the 20th century without The Diary of Anne Frank (which Jones rescued from a pile of rejected submissions), Julia Child’s cookbooks, or John Updike’s fiction.

In a 2015 profile at Eater, Charlotte Druckman wisely gives Jones the stage. What follows is a string of observations and casual aphorisms on the evolution of food writing in the past few decades — including how she championed Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

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Looking Back at Pride Month

Photo: ufcw770

No matter what 45 says — or, in this case, doesn’t say — June is LGBT Pride month. It’s a month of joy, protest and, this year, mourning. June 12, 2017 marked the one-year anniversary of the attack against queer Latinx and Black folks at Pulse in Orlando, Florida. The day before, thousands of people came together in Washington, D.C. as part of the Equality March for Unity and Pride, protesting the presidential administration and standing against discrimination.

Here’s what I’ve done this month, Pride-wise: I interviewed Kelly Madrone, the author of GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens, and our audience was full of queer teens and their families. I writhed in ecstasy at a Tegan & Sara concert, sporting my “Boyfriend” hat. I stood in silence next to my friends at a local vigil for the victims of the shooting at Pulse. I helped the bookstore choose which queer-centric titles to stock, and I resisted the temptation to drop too much money on rainbow Doc Martens. I spent a hot, happy day strolling by the canal with my friends during Frederick Pride.  July looms; I’ll downgrade my gay apparel to a simple rainbow wristband. The work continues, whether it’s leading LGBTQ sensitivity trainings, correcting people who misgender me or continuing to learn about allyship, organization, and liberation.

1. “Should Pride Be a Party or a Protest?” (Shannon Keating, BuzzFeed, June 2017)

The protests at different Pride parades around the country have inspired conversations about working within the system versus overthrowing it and about the intersectionality (that should be) inherent in the LGBTQ pursuit of equality.

2. “Why Can’t My Famous Gender Nonconforming Friends Get Laid?” (Meredith Talusan, Vice, June 2017)

Meredith Talusan analyzes the dynamics of sexuality, gender identity, and gender expression in the dating lives of two of their friends, activists and non-binary femmes Alok Vaid-Menon and Jacob Tobia.

3. “Where Can We Find Queer Space After Pulse?” (John Birdsall, Eater, June 2017)

Outside the queer zone of Orlando Pride, or our misterb&b, in Okeechobee, we’ve tried keeping to the shadows, our own private zone of safety. I realize how much work we all do as queers to enlarge the bubbles we live and move in, make them nice, fill them with friends and allies. But being on the road makes it clear that, fifty years after Stonewall and the active struggle for LGBT civil rights, so much of our lives still exists in isolated safety zones that don’t always keep us safe.

4. “Protests, Parties, and What We Have to Be Proud of at LGBT Pride 2017.” (Rachel, Autostraddle, June 2017)

We don’t lose our opportunities for joy and celebration when we make space for our struggles and the struggles of our most vulnerable, and when we elevate and center those in need. More than that, our celebrations as a community come out of our struggles, and our survival of them, and the ways in which we’ve helped each other survive no matter the cost.

5. “‘I’m Not Done Living My Damn Life Yet’: Disabled Queer People Speak Out on the American Health Care Act.” (Carrie Wade, Autostraddle, June 2017)

Honestly, every month under the Trump administration feels like a year, and one of the awful things that bubbled up during this year-month is the Senate Republicans’ bogus decision to write a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, including massive cuts to Medicaid. Many smart people have written about this better than I ever could, and I found the experiences of these queer and trans disabled folks who rely on the ACA to live equal parts compelling and terrifying. (I’m a fan of 5 Calls, if you’re feeling moved to contact your congresspeople.)

6. “Being Gay vs. Being Southern: A False Choice.” (Brandon Taylor, LitHub, June 2017)

The opening paragraphs of Brandon Taylor’s essay slammed into me like a wave and drove me down to the ocean floor. Take these sentences, for instance:

God suffused everything in our lives the way heat suffuses every particle of air in the summer. There is a time of day in Alabama when the heat reaches its most critical point, when even shade is of little comfort; Sundays gathered all of God’s power to its most frightening pitch and beamed it down on us, testing us, daring us to wither.

7. “Born Before Stonewall.” (Barry Yeoman, Medium, June 2017)

Over two years, Barry Yeoman interviewed over 40 gay, lesbian, queer, and transgender Baby Boomers–“the Gayest Generation,” according to professor Jesus Ramirez-Valles. They discussed their struggles (reconciling the trauma of the AIDS epidemic, aging without the guarantee of a support system) and triumphs (fighting for and winning marriage equality and forming treasured friendships with other LGBTQ folks). Their stories brought me to tears and reminded me of the importance of taking care of our LGBTQ elders.

8. “Little Fish.” (Casey Plett, Plenitude Magazine, June 2017)

New writing from Casey Plett is cause for celebration. Plett is the author of the seminal work A Safe Girl to Love, which spotlights the lives of trans women. “Little Fish” is an excerpt from her upcoming novel.

Finally, you should read Edgar Gomez’s essay for Longreads, “Pulse Nightclub Was My Home.” 

Bonus: I love the adventures of these lesbian cattle dogs. 

The Circle of Las Vegas Life Is One Never-Ending Buffet

Las Vegas is a twinkling, cream-filled temple of excess where millions of pounds of food go to waste each year. At Eater, John Semley profiles the multi-generational family business that turns casino food waste into the slop that puts fattened pigs back on Vegas buffet plates. R.C. Farms is high-tech, smelly and growing. And that smoked pork shoulder sure is good.

Most importantly, the new facility’s located on landfill property 30 miles north of the city, far away from the prying eyes of tourists and hypersensitive noses of neighbors populating new suburb developments. The Combs boys seemed baffled — and slightly annoyed — by the effect that exurban sprawl had on their dad’s farm. “As the city developed, and encroachment came all around them,” Hank told me, “we would go down to city council meetings and just tell ’em: ‘We’re not moving.’ They’d go ahead and approve the developments anyhow. Right next to him. They have three schools right near there, within a mile.” (The proximity to the farm earned one of these schools the unfortunate nickname “Pigsty High.”) It’s a problem they hope to avoid with their new facility, located on landfill property, surrounded by industrial parks. “That’s the reason we’re here,” Hank noted. “You don’t see a lot of people.”

Hank estimates that the family company currently handles about 15 percent of buffet food waste in Las Vegas. The actual amount is tricky to tabulate, as the total tonnage of food that isn’t diverted to the farms isn’t calculated. “We really don’t know the true number,” Hank said. “Some of these hotels are throwing out eight tons of food a day!”

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Top of the Muffin to You! 25 Great Food Moments in “Seinfeld”

Photo by Alan Light (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Food — from the infamous chocolate babka to the “big salad” — figures heavily in the popular ’90s sitcom, Seinfeld. At Eater, Chris Fuhrmeister serves up 25 Seinfeld food favorites, ranked “based on their influence on pop culture, accuracy at mirroring real life, and overall hilarity.”

Episode: “The Dinner Party” (Season 5, Episode 13).

One of many in which the gang is out in the world experiencing constant mishaps, the episode shines a light on the unwritten rules of a civilized dinner party. Elaine, George, Jerry, and Kramer must pick up a bottle of wine to take to their friends’ party (they can’t simply grab a bottle of Pepsi, as George would prefer). That’s not enough: There must be a cake, too. But in the events that lead to the group missing out on the last chocolate babka and having to settle for cinnamon, one wonders: What kind of New Yorkers are these? Forgetting to take a ticket in a crowded bakery seems like an amateur mistake.

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Back in the Kitchen: A Reading List About Gender and Food

I’m notoriously grumpy while grocery shopping. Once, my partner and I got into a fight in the Aldi parking lot because one of the eggs in our carton broke. He does his best to keep us supplied in soups and noodles–simple things I can heat up when I’m anxious and depressed — but I find myself yearning for expensive, fresh produce. As much as cooking intimidates me, I eat constantly — popcorn, apples, Toblerone, peanut butter and crackers — whatever I can find. I scry for news of the downtown market that was promised two years ago. I grow hungry and impatient. The world of food seems impenetrable, a place for people with money and time, and I never feel as though I have either. Read more…

Themed for Success

The theme cafe is one of the more viral-friendly aspects of Wacky Random Japan, and there are three major subcategories within it. First, and perhaps the most popular theme cafe export, are the animal cafes, most of which are less cafes than indoor petting zoos. The beverages are an afterthought, and an awkward one at that — it’s actually pretty hard to sip your Hitachino Nest Ale, the owl logo pointed out toward the camera, when you have an actual owl on your shoulder, no matter how on-brand. Second are theme restaurants, which are full-service restaurants where the decor, the menu, and the servers’ outfits all revolve around a certain aesthetic, and usually a pretty mall-goth one at that: the Vampire Café, the Prison Restaurant, the (many) Alice in Wonderland cafes. Lastly, there are the maid cafes and their descendants, including the butler cafes and the Macho Café pop-up, where the servers — and their, uh, service — are the stars.

The frivolity and almost willful pointlessness might seem like a leftover from the ’80s bubble era, but the contemporary theme cafe continues the lineage of Western-style cafes that emerged in the 1920s. After “modern” hangouts with names like “Café Printemps” had established themselves in Tokyo among the intellectuals and artists, they began to diversify for a growing middle class; “Europe” was the original theme of Japanese cafes, but once Western-style eateries became more of a norm, new establishments had to step it up. “Rather than small eating and drinking places with tables set with white tablecloths and Parisian or provincial German decor,” writes Elise K. Tipton, a professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Sydney, “the leading cafés became huge multistoried buildings glittering with neon lights, colored glass windows, light-reflective metallic surfaces, and rich furnishings.”

At Eater, journalist Emily Yoshida hits some of Tokyo’s absurd, popular tourist attractions trying to understand specifically what themed destinations offer and why they’re so popular. Her answer? I don’t remember. I got stuck on the part about the owl selfie.

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