Saturday, March 1, 2014

We Really Need to Stop Overdoing Everything

There are way too many overachieving businesses out there these days, and I for one would like them all to take it down a notch. Let me explain: This week I met a lovely co-worker of mine for dinner in my neighborhood. We picked a place neither of us had been before. It turned out to be one of those bewildering, high-concept, locally-sourced-everything places with inscrutable menu options. I was so confused I almost ordered a plate of raw beef by accident because I didn’t know what “crudo” was. About the only thing on the one-sheet menu I recognized was pizza, but the toppings were all foreign and most of the vegetables weren’t ones I’d heard of. To make it additionally confusing, they grouped everything in these bizarre plate combinations, so I had to decide if soppressata, gem lettuce, pecorina and frissee in a raw kale bowl was going to be palatable. It got even more upsetting when the server came over to explain the specials. She not only told us what the specials were, but the location of the farms each animal came from, where the semolina for the pasta was “sourced”, who butchered the lamb, and the full life cycle of the Jerusalem artichokes.  

Up until then, I had considered myself a pretty adventurous eater. Not a sophisticated gourmand by any means, but at least someone who was up for trying new things. But this was exhausting. I just wanted to have dinner with my work buddy. I was in no mood to be educated, and I was uncomfortable with having that much intimate knowledge of something I was about to chew, swallow and digest. It seemed pointless. I know this is sacrilege in the era of Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, but I don’t really want to know where my food comes from. (Anyway, Michael Pollan made me mad once for making fun of my beloved canned beef soup on NPR.) I just don’t view food as an intellectual exercise or an “event”. Here are my requirements for food I put in my mouth: It needs to fuel me for my work day, be reasonably tasty, and require minimal thought on my part. Even when I go out to dine, I want to spend that time enjoying the company I’m with. Yes, I love and appreciate good food, but to me, the food itself is beside the point. The last thing I want is to have to puzzle through a confusing menu and engage in a frustrating conversation with the server while trying to suss out what nettle bucatini is.

A few weekends ago, Mr. Typist and I decided to be tourists in our own city. We went downtown and rode the giant Ferris wheel and visited the aquarium and tooled around the Market. We popped into a downtown mall to warm up, and I went into Shop-o-Soaps-That-Look-Like-Desserts. (Not its real name.) My hands were chapped and cold, so I slathered a sample of delicious-smelling hand crème on them, while politely declining help from no less than three hyper-friendly retail clerks who offered to take me on a “scent journey” or explain that their peppermint was purchased from a sustainable cooperative in the Brazilian rainforest.

It was a cold, windy day, and the last leg of our journey was a fifteen block walk to the Spaghetti Factory, so I jammed my hands deep into to my parka pockets the whole way. The next day, I noticed an odd smell coming from the parka. It wasn’t unpleasant, just strange and unfamiliar. Then I realized the cream on my hands must have sweated into the coat fabric. I figured the smell would go away soon. The next day, I hung my parka up in my office and went out for a meeting. When I came back, my entire office was redolent with the hand-cream smell, which had morphed into something sickly and floral, but somehow even stronger than it was the night before. When I got home, I sprayed the coat with Febreeze, but it had no effect whatsoever. For two full weeks, whatever room I hung up my coat in reeked with this scent. What the hell did they put in their hand cream? Why must they overachieve with their products? I just wanted something for chapped hands. I didn’t think it would marry me to a weird, frighteningly tenacious odor for two weeks of my life.

I think it’s time for all this overachieving and over-complicating to stop. I want a return to the days of the simple diner, where the coffee comes bulk in foil bags and you can choose omelets, chicken fried steak, or oatmeal. I want unscented Pond’s hand cream. I want a corner drugstore that sells burlap sacks of flour and penny candy. I want a lack of consumer choices. We’re gotten way to complex with everything and it’s making life one long marathon of absurd information overload. It’s not that I dismiss the importance of having some awareness as a consumer, but it becomes a matter of diminishing returns at some point. Everything is so massively interconnected now that there really aren’t any purely ethical choices left anymore. And darnit, sometimes a girl just wants an industrial, chemical-laden hot dog on a stick cranked out in some anonymous factory in Kanas.

Full disclosure: At the restaurant, I ordered a lamb pasta dish. And it was so heavenly I have thought about it every day since. So I will grudgingly admit there may be something to their annoying methods.

--Kristen McHenry


John Socrates said...

Love it. This is your most brilliant post, in my opinion. Just brilliant. You could send this in as an article Bon Appetite magazine and make a pretty penny. I used to be a "foodie," so I highly recommend you submit this piece to several prominent food magazines. Some of them pay a dollar per word!

Kristen McHenry said...

Aw, thanks for reading as always, John! I will have to look into that food-writing thing. Maybe my total ignorance of the gourmet world could be my "angle". ;)

Steven Cain said...

Kristen... Fully agree with John. This is brilliant. And funny. And true. I feel like I need to send you a check just reading it.