Food memories? Everyone seems to recall being mesmerized by a female family member preparing meals lovingly: forming the perfect gnocchi, composing a sublime kugel, rolling the flakiest biscuits. It helps if they were immigrants or Southern. With the exception of one mock apple pie, I can’t remember a single thing my grandma ever cooked (though it’s impossible to forget slogging through a sad bowl of puffed wheat poured from a plastic pillowcase-sized 99-cent store bag when we spent the night) and I have no idea where her ancestors hailed from.
In our household, enchiladas and lasagna, time-consuming to prepare and fit for a crowd, were reserved for company. I guess that made them special (in fact, I recently reconnected with distant cousins now in their 50s and one brought up how she remembered my mom being a good cook, her lasagna, in particular, stood out, which is more of an indictment of their mother’s culinary skills than anything) but there wasn’t much kitchen wisdom to be gleaned. We ate a lot of fried eggs and bacon for dinner. There was a spell in 1982 where we ate taco salad with Catalina dressing on a weekly basis. My entire senior year in high school we nearly subsisted on Taco Bell takeout, later supplemented by my summer job at Pizza Hut. My mom had long given up the charade of cooking.
What we didn’t do was go out to eat very often. Fast food was a rarity and a sit down restaurant practically unheard of. Maybe Salty’s or Sizzler for Easter, Rheinlander for Christmas and graduations, Denny’s when you were too young to get into bars but wanted to sit someplace and smoke in the evening, and Heidi’s to discuss bad grades over marginally German desserts (never in academics, but grade school benchmarks like makes good use of time and gets along with others—two subjects I still haven’t mastered).
I do remember the colorful plastic markers indicating the doneness of your non-aged, un-prime conventionally raised steak and cast iron pots of sharp alcohol-spiked fondue, every last nub of rye bread skewered and ready to wipe out any last remaining streaks of cheese, black forest cakes piled high with whipped cream and filled with canned, syrupy cherries. This was fun, certainly more so than home cooking, even if the food wasn’t exemplary. That kind of wasn’t the point.
This was also before the rise of the chains we know today. Applebee’s, Olive Garden and all the heavy hitters didn’t seep into my consciousness until I was an adult. Shiny, caloric, excessive, they held a lot of foreign appeal, particularly in brown rice burritos and tofu scramble-laden Portland, Oregon. Radically suburban, blowing away even my own suburban upbringing with a grotesque luxury I wish I had known sooner.
In 21st century NYC there’s little need to fall back on the safe and predictable. We have food diversity in spades, in all price ranges. Mediocrity feels more egregious when unnecessary. Yet I feel myself drawn to chains with semi-alarming frequency. I will admit I prefer them in their natural habitat, as the charm doesn’t translate well to the city’s constraints–and I don’t want to be responsible for pushing out the old-timers, a very real trend that seems to pick up speed weekly.
Comfort is meatloaf or mac and cheese for some. For me, it’s settling into a spacious booth and being dazzled by promotions and carefully calculated menu offerings. Nothing soothes rattled urban nerves like a big parking lot and equally gargantuan portions. It’s all about balance. There’s no reason why someone can’t enjoy a Never Ending Pasta Bowl and Marea’s spaghetti with sea urchin and crab.
Recently, I have been feeling apathetic to mad rushes, anything involving waiting in line, gilded dining, and chefs, butchers and foragers as rock stars (maybe this is passe? I originally wrote this in 2011). So, I will be writing about chain restaurants, the misunderstood, vilified genre—from classics like Red Lobster to independent offshoots like Fatty Crab (man cannot live on Cheddar Bay Biscuits alone). Either the novelty will soon wear off or I’ll gain a deeper understanding of…something. Maybe chains just need a little love.
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The Chains of Love logo is inspired by the 1946 cover of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Robert Jonas, my favorite paperback illustrator. I think he’s still alive and hope he doesn’t take issue with my infringement, er, homage.
For more examples of his work, here is a bountiful Flickr set. I have a couple that aren’t in this batch but never have the energy to take on scanning projects. Thank you, people of the world who do.