We now interrupt our regularly scheduled program of recipes, vignettes of everyday life and Ann Arbor food news for a brief rant about the state of dining out in America.
Photo by Jeremy Brooks
Possible appearances to the contrary, I’m not a food snob. I know I go on about the finer things in culinary life here and that I eat less junk food than your average American, but potato chips make a regular appearance in my cupboard, I’ve been known to go out for a box of Chuckles in the middle of a bad work day, and I make a point of eating chicken wings whenever I go home to Western New York. When I was pregnant, I thought longingly and often of fast food breakfast sandwiches and sometimes went in search of them. I don’t buy Cool Ranch Doritos or Cheetos, but I’m hard put to stop eating them if they are put in front of me.
In a lot of ways, I’m really pretty easy to feed. As long as there’s not too much mayonnaise involved, I’m pretty happy. But I’ve spent the past few days in a fit of food-induced rage, occasioned by the consumption of a Northwest Airlines Snack Box (the red box, for those in the know). I’ve traveled a lot in my life. I’ve spent entire nights standing up in Chinese train cars that were loaded to twice maximum capacity and where the temperature went over a hundred, and those nights were made bearable by the stops in small cities, where vendors ran to the windows and held up baskets of chicken feet, dumplings, fresh fruit, tea and Tian Jian (a rather awful Chinese cola, but at 3 a.m. on a tropical night, not bad). I usually passed on the chicken feet. The toenails are a bit much for me. I rode a bus across southeastern Turkey where we all hauled off at random military check points and the Kurdish passengers, especially the boys, were prodded with machine guns and had their pockets turned inside out before we were all allowed to go on. And after we got back on the bus, the conductor came around with cold, dark cherry juice, little yogurts that put Fage to shame and packets of almonds and dried apricots. Not luxurious travel, but no one questioned that travelers needed to be fed and that it keeps everyone in better spirits if they are fed well.
On NWA, if I eschew a lunch of Pringles or Twizzlers (the latter hard to pass up; I love Twizzlers), my choice is not a choice, it’s a snack box with a bag of Wheat Thins, a Beef Stick, a little tub of processed cheese spread and Chips A-f-ing-hoy. Thank god for the Wheat Thins, even though their ingredient list is almost as long as this blog post. I finish off the snack box by munching my way through the trail mix, laden with salt and bad chocolate. Who knew trail mix could turn into such a disaster? For a few minutes, I eye, with envy and regret, the “fresh vegetable tray” purchased by my neighbor. I didn’t know this was an option until after I had broken into the snack box. But then I realized that he’s paid seven dollars for a piece of broccoli, two sticks of celery, a baby carrot, two slices of green pepper and less than a handful of cherry tomatoes. Plus Ranch of course. Seven dollars.
I know. I could have planned ahead and picked up my Zingerman’s Dancing Sandwich and Magic Brownie or even packed up a peanut butter and jelly at home, and I would have been a lot less grumpy, but I was running late, and it didn’t seem unreasonable to expect that I could get a decent sandwich at the airport. Nothing fancy. Turkey or tuna on wheat would be great, thanks. But in the airport the sandwiches at Caribou were wiped out by 11:40, so my choice was Taco Bell Express or Charley’s Grilled Sub Shop, neither appealing and both potentially messy in a small seat space. I peered at the salads at Charley’s, but the iceberg lettuce was so startling white and the chopped canned olives so flat and dull that I thought “surely the snack box will be better — some whole grain crackers, a small wedge of cheese, maybe some raisins.” Dreamer. I pay for the box because it’s been a long time since the morning pancakes and coffee, and I pay my penance by eating it all. When it’s done, I feel better because my blood sugar is back up, but I’m miserable at the crap I’ve put into my body and miserable about that way Americans allow ourselves to be treated. We’re always on our high horses about commanding the respect of the rest of the world, but we show ourselves the fundamental disrespect of eating what corporations decide we should instead of using our voices and purchasing power to demand a decent snack.
So I spend two days doing business in Anaheim, with a short break to stroll through “Downtown Disney” (far more variety in the mouse ears than the food), and by the end of the second day, I feel like I’ve eaten nothing but plastic. I try to choose wisely. On the first night, I go to a Market Broiler which features fish, and I order grilled Oregon red snapper with a chili-lime sauce and a side of steamed vegetables, hoping to cleanse body and soul of the Snack Box experience. Simple food. How far wrong can it go? And it doesn’t go wrong exactly. It tastes good enough, but just good enough. Mostly, it is soul-less. I’m sure every bit of it has been pre-measured and apportioned at corporate headquarters, and any cook who gave it love or personal attention would be violating restaurant policy. Love is not efficient. Love does not maximize profits and minimize waste.
Ditto the next night at the Alcatraz Brewing Company. Yes, I should have been warned off by the jailhouse motif and the booths made to resemble rugged rocks, but I wasn’t in pursuit of haute-cuisine, just a burger and some small batch beer. Again, how wrong can you go? And again, it didn’t go wrong exactly. It fed my stomach and it was not unpleasant, but it did not feed my spirit. No one cared about this food, either in the making or the eating. The beer was good.
Then on my last morning, unable to face either the hotel breakfast buffet or Starbuck’s, I walk along the almost-highway next to my hotel, go past a series of small strip malls and find Hof’s Hut perched on the edge of the parking lot of the surreal Crystal Cathedral (in-car worship aka a prayer drive-in? Say what?). Hof’s looks a little sixties and there’s a bunch of old guys in Hawaiian shirts in there and a sign outside says “strawberry festival — fresh pies this week” — so I go in and sink into an aqua-colored vinyl booth and get called honey by waitress and for seven dollars get a warm corn tortilla stuffed with scrambled egg and topped with some nice ripe avocado, fresh salsa and sour cream, with a small fresh-squeezed orange juice that is twice the size of the juice I paid five dollars for at the Doubletree the day before. There’s a hunk of watermelon and another of cantaloupe on the side, ripe and a bit rough cut, and peeking over the service counter and into the kitchen, I see the fifteen year old (or so) dishwasher slicing up melons. Is the food amazing? No. But it’s good, and it tastes like its been made by real people who actually care about what they produce, and I see this care in the way the cook puts chickens carefully into the rotisserie and hear it in the utterly unaffected way the waitress talks me through the slight differences between the three flavors of hot sauce that are on the table (“that one a little bit smoky, honey, that one, whoo-ee, it’s hot”). I read on the plastic menu about how Hof’s started as beach shack to feed surfers, but how Hof Père decided to move inland when he got married and needed a year round gig and how Hof Fils has grown the family business into a small chain (there are six Hof’s locations in Southern California) and tries to keep the place true to his father’s spirit. I leave with more of a hopeful outlook on life than I’ve had since the Snack Box.
Hof’s wasn’t great. It’s not a diamond in the rough or a roadside treasure. Don’t make a point of finding it next time you’re in Anaheim, unless you’ve only eaten plastic for the past few days. It wasn’t great, but it was good, and when I left I knew I had eaten food (and watching the cinnamon rolls come out of the oven as I paid the bill, I wished I had room to eat a little more).
Oh, and I stopped at Starbuck’s on the way back for a double short latte, whole milk, 150 degrees please, because I am a coffee snob.