My rate of dying is still above normal, but its delta-V, I am hoping sincerely, and thanks entirely to the medicinal properties of gins and tonics, is now negative.
Late this summer, when I was out of New York, a young man who knew I lived there told me he would be going for the weekend and asked what should he do. I discovered first where he would be staying (Staten Island), and with that information in hand, I rattled off a list of necessary activities.
After he returned, I asked what he had done. The usual tourist things: Staten Island Ferry, Wall Street to fondle the bull’s attributes, the Met, Union Square, Times Square, and so forth. “Ah, very good. But where did you do to eat?”
Can you guess?
Yes, Outback Steakhouse.
“You idiot!” I used my famous diplomatic skills. “Why in the hell would you go to New York City, the restaurant capitol of the world, and then go to Outback Steakhouse?”
The young man had the good sense to blush and blame it on his friend, with whom he had roomed while in the city, and on location. That restaurant, after all, is conveniently located in Times Square.
“If you wanted steak, you were mere blocks away from Keens, the oldest steak house in the city. World famous mutton chops. You were too far to make it to Peter Luger’s, but you were just steps from Smith and Wollensky. And restaurant row (46th street) is right there! Why travel all that distance and then go to a restaurant you have back home?”
Answer came there none.
But I understood. Times Square is home to The Olive Garden, Chevy’s, Forrest Gump’s (or some such name), I think Red Lobster, McDonald’s, and every other major chain. These establishments are, at least every time I have walked by, always packed. This in a city where every block has at least one homegrown dining establishment.
Familiarity surely drives many into these places. And I’m guessing worry over imagined sophisticated-restaurant-protocol plays its part. “Is some waiter going to try to lay a napkin on my lap? Do I have to tip the host? Am I allowed to wear these lovely jeans?” You might think cost is a factor, but this is not so. On 9th avenue, just off Times Square, are dozens of restaurants with modestly prices menus.
Fear of “weird food” is what must keep many stomachs filled with “endless breadsticks” instead of with…something new. A compact way to say this is food wimpishness.
The opposite of food wimpishness, incidentally, is not food adventurousness, nor is it food bravery, or any other such thing. You are not being brave or adventurous when you eat something which an entire culture considers ordinary fare. You are instead being a grown up. If an entire country regularly shoves pork blood cake down its esophagi, then the first time you try it you are being ordinary, not courageous.
My maternal grandfather used to shock the dinner table by insisting his cake be served on the same plate which formerly hosted his dinner. But what truly scandalized was that he would pour the gravy over the cake. To this day, my family insist he did this as a way of demonstrating his manliness. Nonsense. He did it because he liked the sweet and salty combination. And, yes, because he liked to annoy people. I have always looked up to my grandpa.
Grandpa’s non-customary, yet hardy food habits probably were formed when he rode the rails as a kid back in the Depression (he also rowed whiskey over from Canada into Detroit during Prohibition). He would become angry if anybody left food on the plate. “Take what you want, but eat what you take.” Yet he liked to see people enjoy their meals; his and grandma’s highest praise was that somebody was, “A good eater.”
And now, my number one son tells people that whenever we go out to eat, “Dad always orders the most obnoxious thing on the menu.” I do not. I order what I have not had before or what I can not have at home. I reason, if it were not good, it wouldn’t be on the menu. Besides, I love a lot of it.
It’s true that tastes differ, and that appreciation for some foods (like stinky tofu or cheese) must be acquired gradually. But these and unfamiliarity are not good excuses for refusing to try a dish for the first time.