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Topic #16
I Eat, Therefore I Am

I'll be the first one to admit it: I am a hedonist. I mean it! I love wine, women (ok, woman&#41 and song… but I especially love food. It's fitting that I live in San Francisco, one of the culinary meccas of the world.

When Janet and I moved here, we were under a very tight budget. We had to budget for all of the normal household expenses, and on top of that we had to purchase business clothes. However, regardless of what little amount of money we had left after paying our bills, we would always take what was left and go out for a nice dinner.

It was these dinners that made our scraping by week-to-week bearable. We would plan the restaurant carefully… reading through all of the restaurant guides and the Sunday Datebook in the newspaper to make sure that we selected just the right restaurant.

Talk about a challenge! San Francisco lays claim to be the only city in the country where if every resident decided that they wanted to go out to eat at the exact same time, they could. If almost a million people decided at 6:45pm on a Saturday night that they wanted to eat at a restaurant, there are enough seats to accommodate all of them. Eight hundred thousand chairs at almost six thousand restaurants all waiting to be filled. Which one for us to choose?

Since we were in California, we decided that the first cuisine that we should throw ourselves into would be the traditional "California Cuisine." So we went to all of the great California Cuisine Restaurants: Stars, Fringale and Postrio. About five hundred dollars (they ran about $150 a pop&#41 later, we realized that California Cuisine was just another name for: expensive entrees bearing small proportions arranged vertically with some sauce drizzled around it and a slice or two of avocado.

Once we got out of our expensive fru-fru restaurant phase, we started trying the "ethnic" restaurants. The great thing is that with such a large immigrant population, they tend to bring their "homestyle" foods with them. San Francisco has hundreds of Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Mexican restaurants. After sampling a good number of ethnic restaurants I had a realization: Just because it's homestyle doesn't mean that it's good.

Flashback: Avery's Childhood. My mother is a vegetarian. She has been since I was a little kid. You would think that because she was a vegetarian that she would be able to do amazing things with vegetables, right? Wrong. My mother had two preparations of vegetables: raw and boiled. String beans? Boiled. Lettuce? Raw. Asparagus? Boiled. Get the idea? Throw in some spaghetti and sauce and you have my meals growing up. Spaghetti? Boiled. Sauce? Boiled. Sometimes I would get Campbell's Tomato or Chicken Noodle Soup. Boiled, of course.

As bad as her vegetable dishes were, her meat dishes were worse. You see, my father was the ultimate carnivore. His idea of dinner was a pound of flank steak on the barbecue. He was the sort of person that would barbecue in the middle of a blizzard… "Hey Avery, come on out here and help me light up the Weber!" So, sometimes my mother would try to compensate for her vegetarianism by cooking up a steak. The last time she tried to make a steak, she baked it in the toaster oven. An inch-thick sirloin turned quickly into a 1/4 inch piece of shoe leather. It soaked up the A-1 sauce like a sponge. Sigh.

Then again, nothing could compare with my Aunt Norma's famous Thanksgiving dinner. Each year, the turkey would get drier and drier. So one year, my father and I picked up a great fresh-killed free range turkey and brought it over to Norma's new house. Her house was equipped with a gourmet kitchen. It had the gas range and the big fridge and the standard oven… and a convection oven. Convection ovens cook by using hot air. Foods cook faster… but get a little dried out in the process. Can you see where this one is going yet, boys and girls?

The turkey comes out of the oven… a perfect golden brown. My Grandfather gets out the carving knife, says a couple of words, and starts the slicing. The bird just split in half… completely dessicated. It was so dry that gravy did nothing. We had to use chicken soup to rehydrate it. Needless to say, nobody was asking for leftovers to take home.

Anyway, back to ethnic foods. The ethnic food in San Francisco is good… but aside from the Japanese, Thai and Indian food (some of the best in the USA&#41, the rest is just plain mediocre.

Take, for example, the Chinese food. Henry's Hunan is great, but everywhere else is just sort of plain. The Hot and Sour Soup is just pitiful, and if you go to a Chinese restaurant, they don't give you fried noodles and duck sauce to snack on.

The Mexican situation is even worse. The burritos? Great. The Tamales? Great. Everything else? Non existent. I love burritos as much as every other red-blooded flag-waving American (subtle sarcasm and irony… ain't I devious?&#41, but the other great full Mexican restaurants just don't exist. In the Best of the Bay competition this year, Chevy's Mexican Restaurant… a chain barely better than Chi-Chi's and El Torito… won the Best Mexican Restaurant award. San Francisco, the city that despises chain-stores voted a national chain restaurant as the best in the city. Icch, Double Icch and Triple Icch, all rolled into one.

So is San Francisco really the culinary hedonism capital of the west? Probably not. Though we have great burritos, Thai and sushi… and OK pizza, they screw up the basics. You can't get a passable blueberry muffin or a pastrami on rye… which is sad, because as everybody knows… man cannot live on bread alone… it needs some corned beef, chopped liver, horseradish and mustard before it's really a sandwich. Now that's living!

One of the most difficult decisions I face each and every day is deciding what to eat. Everything has either too much fat or too many calories except for boring semi-tasteless fruit. When I moved to San Francisco a little over four years ago, I weighed roughly 35 pounds less than I do now, so consequently I've been obsessed with eating and not eating and what to eat and portion control. The recommended size of a single serving of chicken is about the same size as a deck of playing cards, and not those oversized Old Maid ones, either. Who eats like that?

When we went through our Let's Just Face It, The Scale's Not Broken phase a few months ago, we loaded up our freezer with Healthy Choice frozen dinners and made a pact that we would, in fact, actually eat them. And we did — we would put them in our little convection toaster oven (You can cook a turkey in it! so says the ad&#41 for 45 minutes, take them out, spice them up and eat. Five minutes later we were done. That's it? I'm still starving! we'd exclaim. Then we'd cook up a nice French Bread pizza and feel guilty, just for a little while. Needless to say, there are still several lo-fat frozen "dinners" in our freezer, in case there's a natural emergency and we can't get out of the house, I think.

At least the ingredients of frozen dinners are already chosen for you. These days, we have to alternate three cooked dinners and three takeout dinners in order to get through the week. At our peak, we were the King & Queen of delivery food: Chinese from the good Chinese place, Chinese from the cheap & fast Chinese place, pasta, pizza, burritos, grinders…we still have delivery-order-taker people who actually notice when a week goes by and we don't happen to call. When it comes to cooking, right now we're in the midst of 101 Ways to Cook Chicken, fooling ourselves into thinking that it's better than beef even though we're cooking and eating the entire pound and a half.

The sizes of things is what makes eating such a difficult thing to control. Practically everything these days seems to come in the humongous "family-sized" packages. When shopping at places like Costco with their literally giant-sized boxes of pasta and jars of peanut butter became all the rage, I was intrigued, but only for a moment. I just can't commit to 300 bowls of the same cereal.

Even in Safeway's chicken section, the smallest package of boneless, skinless chicken breast you'll find weighs about a pound and a half, more than enough for two people. We're generally not Savers of Food, so we make the whole package, and still haunted with childhood memories of that whole starving people in Asia thing, eat it all. I for one have never been able to eat leftovers. There's something about congealed Whatever the next day, sitting there all unappetizing in a Tupperware container. I still put leftover stuff in the refrigerator, though, with all the best intentions.

Food is a difficult subject for a lot of people, including myself. I love to eat; as a matter of fact it's almost always on my mind. In the morning I'm thinking of lunch, after lunch I'm thinking of dinner. Though I promise myself over and over again that I will eat things that are healthy and low in fat and calories, after a long stressful day at work I end up eating what tastes good rather than what is good for me. That Pizza Hut personal pan pizza that I had in the airport last weekend was one of the best things I've ever tasted, and I've been craving another one ever since.

But I try: all I eat for lunch on most days is a Nile Spice cup of soup and a bagel. I've stopped eating cereal in the morning, and have tried to eat leaner meats and more vegetables but still, nothing. So the cycle continues: I want to eat, I eat, I feel bad about eating. As bad as this sounds, I really do wish that I was one of those people who have the willpower to just eat a few crackers and a piece of bread a day.

I never thought that I would have this problem growing up. I was always skinny and actually used to wish I was fatter, because then I could exercise to lose weight and be more than skinny, but less than fat. In other words, the perfect weight. How naive was that? Well, I didn't get to eat any frozen TV dinners when I was young; we did, however, always have the kitchen stocked with enough white trash staples to create several memorable combinations. Fish Sticks and ketchup with a side of Macaroni & Cheese was a regular menu item, as was pre-packaged Beef Stroganoff mix (just add meat!&#41 over noodles. Yum! Don't forget the Steak-Ummms or the kosher hotdogs with white bread used as a makeshift bun! I have to admit though, I do miss the iceberg lettuce with bottled Italian dressing.

I never really got into cooking, perhaps because of my Only Processed Foods Diet of my youth. Oh, sure, I was forced to take Home Economics along with the rest of the girls, but in 1998, Eggs in Bologna Cups and Snickerdoodles does not an appetizing meal make. We have an entire years worth of Food and Wine magazine stacked neatly in a pile under the coffee table, filled to the brim with wonderful recipes. Do we ever open these magazines? No! Usually by the time you make the list of every little thing you need, the final cost is as much as going out to dinner and having a professional not only cook it for you, but cook it better than you. I know you're supposed to already have all the staples like sugar and flour and oil and eggs…but that's for people in the suburbs with families and time, not for people with an hour to make, eat, and clean up after dinner.

Grumble, grumble…is that me or my stomach? Or both?


Posted in Topics of the Week (1990s).

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