Monday, May 5, 2008

In defense of pablum

Megan is, like, so totally not an elitist. Sure, she's a vegan, and sure, she couldn't eat the meat at Outback if she weren't as it ain't cruelty free (I presume), but just because she doesn't actually eat chain-restaurant grade junk food that doesn't mean she wouldn't, were it to meet her not at all elitist requirements. She's not a food snob, and, like David Broder, Megan knows how to connect with the little people.

Matt Yglesias points out just how affected most of the wide-eyed contempt put on by New York snobs is:
Ezra Klein's right to bemoan the sneering condescension in this NYT piece on suburban chain restaurants. For me, this is made all the worse by the knowledge that the attitude of contempt is almost certainly fake. I was actually born and raised in Manhattan by fancy-pants parents who wouldn't dream of darkening the door of an Outback Steakhouse. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge by father has never tasted the joys of Chili's (those two are my favorites).

All of which has mostly made me aware of how rare this is. Most of New York City's elitists grew up in very conventional middle class suburbs and then moved to the city sometime after college. They may look like -- indeed, be -- Greenpoint hipsters now, but they come from the same places as all the other college educated white people in this country.
Matt, tho I live in Bushwick, not Greenpoint, I'm otherwise probably the type you're trying to smear as a hipster. I grew up in the suburbs, and guessthefuckwhat? These chains didn't really exist back then. When I was a kid, we went to local restaurants owned by individual people that served their own menus. Sure, I also went to Pizza Hut and Friendly's, but trying to lump those places in with theme chain restaurants is yet another stroke of fucking stupidity. Pizza Hut is a pizza place, and Friendly's is a high end diner attached to an ice cream shop. But let's move on from Matty Y's not at all snobby presumption that hipsters from the suburbs were actually raised in malls without a hint of culture or taste to Megan's attempts to validate this reverse snobbery. Matt, at least, actually eats at these places, as opposed to independently owned restaurants producing much higher quality food. Megan can't eat at Outback, yet she's still not a snob, dammit.
I was raised on the Upper West side by a woman who made her own croissants. I am actually one of the three people in the country who is neither an Orthodox Jew, nor living in a vegetarian cult, and yet has never eaten in an Outback Steakhouse. And there is nothing--nothing--more grating than born again food snobs writing articles like this.

First of all, as Matt points out, the odds that you grew up like we did, without darkening the door of a chain restaurant, are slim-to-none. I probably meet someone else who was raised in Manhattan an average of once or twice a year. Raising two children in a six room apartment and paying half a million dollars to educate them is the province of a few dedicated hobbyists.
There's just so much bullshit in that small section I don't know where to begin. I've never eaten in an Outback Steakhouse. When I visit friends or family outside the city and we eat out, we go to good restaurants, not glorified fast food joints. Megan is basically acting like your friend who, when growing up, wasn't allowed soda or fast food or processed junk by their parents and thus always thought they were some forbidden ambrosia, as opposed to crap that you're better off not putting in your body. Chain restaurants are exotic treats, because she didn't have them. Those of us who grew up understanding there are always better choices are just snobs.
Second of all, if there's anything sadder than people who act like having grown up in New York makes them the apex of the social universe, it's people who act like this when they grew up in Shaker Heights.
... what? wtf does that have to do with anything? Megan's exorcising some personal demons, here. Or at least putting them on display.
And third of all, those of us who enjoyed that rare experience have a genuine sense of the exotic when confronting a suburban chain restaurant. I've been on multiple first-time excursions to various chain restaurants with native New Yorkers, and the modal reaction is to wriggle with joy like a small puppy. I have no idea why it should be so exciting to eat what is basically decent hotel food, but I suspect we all have a lingering sense of having been left out of some vast national shared experience.

Besides, I have eaten perfectly good meals at places like Ruby Tuesday's, Friendy's [sic], Legal Seafoods, and Chili's. I like Pizza Hut breadsticks, KFC mashed potatoes, and Houlihan's stuffed mushrooms, even though these things were not easily available when I was growing up. In fact, that article made me so indignant that I'd march out right now and eat at Outback Steakhouse right now, if they had more vegan options. [Emphasis mine]
Like I said, it's an exotic adventure to Megan, which is in no way among the most ridiculous things I've ever had to contemplate. Megan has just demonstrated why even native New Yorkers can be as provincial as peasants from Romania and she thinks it makes the rest of us snobs to find it laughable. She can't even get the names right, ffs. Megan, you sound like an NYC tourist who says, without a hint of irony, that they had authentic NYC pizza because they went to "Ray's".
The sad part is I think Megan and Matt feel like they've displayed their connection with the common man here, or the connection they'd have if they actually ate like the common man, in Megan's case. They don't understand, or recognize their own participation in, the basic rich asshole fallacy of thinking that "slumming" is some kind of kitschy adventure where they connect with the common man. M&M truly are David Broder. Stopping in a Cracker Barrel must be the closest these people get to anthropology, at least in their own minds.
Know why people go to Outback? Because they're all over the fucking place, and they make your life simple, especially if you have kids. The kids can order something they know, as opposed to legit good restaurants which might involve trying something new, and there are often enough distractions to give adults a moment of peace. Sure, some of these places have items that taste good, but fried fat and sugar are available in a large variety of places. If Megan had to eat like a harried, underpaid middle class American the allure of these places would vanish inside a week. People go to them because humans are creatures of habit, and you don't have to cook or clean up afterwards.
There are Olive Gardens in NYC now, but Little Italy is no more than a block in Chinatown. I wonder if M&M can even see the problem in that. Probably not, they do love them some breadsticks.


Clever Pseudonym said...

It's so cute when Megan thinks she's not be snobby when she's actually being totally hyper-snobby. I've never been to Outback Steakhouse and last time I checked I wasn't Jewish or in a cult either. The closest I've come is having visiting Australian friends go there for a lark, only to report that neither of them had eaten or seen food like that at home in their lives. Why does she think not eating there makes her so unique and special?

"without darkening the door of a chain restaurant"

Yeah. To "darken a door" is to be an unwelcomed visitor. I don't think restaurants believe this to be the case for their paying customers.

spencer said...

These chains didn't really exist back then.

brad, I'm a child of suburbia myself, and I think I'm a few years older than you are, so this strikes me as wrong.

I very clearly remember Outback, Chili's, Bennigan's, and TGI Friday's as existing - and doing a thriving business - during my high school years (late 1980s). I took dates there. My friends worked there. We all tried to get served beer there.

At the time, I didn't know any better. Now I just find them (well, most of them - I have a guilty pleasure or two hiding in the category) and their food completely unappealing. I can do way, way better in my own neighborhood - and I live in St. Petersburg, Florida, for Chrissakes. I don't have anywhere near the options that people like Megan and Big Media Matt have.

So I don't like chain restaurants. So what? Does that make me a snob, even if I don't think worse of people who do like them?

NutellaonToast said...

Well, I think the mid to late 80's were when they really started getting going. I was born in 1982 and I remember my older brother getting a job at the then new outback. He's nine years older so he'd have gotten that ~1980. To me, that's the beginning of them really saturating the market and spreading to ALL genres. But, that's just my anecdotal experience and, unlike someone, I know that that doesn't mean that it's true.

spencer said...

That sounds right, nutella - of course, I lived a few short miles from the very first Outback ever foisted upon the unsuspecting American dining public, which may skew my own perceptions somewhat as well.

NutellaonToast said...

oops, that should say ~1990

Anonymous said...

How do you reconcile these two statements of fact:

"I was actually born and raised in Manhattan by fancy-pants parents who wouldn't dream of darkening the door of an Outback Steakhouse. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge by father has never tasted the joys of Chili's (those two are my favorites)."


"I am actually one of the three people in the country who is neither an Orthodox Jew, nor living in a vegetarian cult, and yet has never eaten in an Outback Steakhouse."

M. Bouffant said...

Can't be reconciled. There shall be no reconciliation. Reconciliation is futile.

In the mid-'90s a co-worker on a temp gig who lived in one of the gawd-forsaken suburban hell-holes east of Los Angeles (an urban hell-hole) told me that the only restaurant in her suburb that wasn't successful was a family-owned Chinese place, & all the chain dumps in the mall were raking it in. According to co-worker, people just didn't want to go to a non-chain eatery.

Imagine those "snobs" who don't want to eat where the menu has been focus-groupped down to please the palate of the lowest common denominator.

brad said...

Anon- the first statement was by Matt Yglesias, the second by Megan.

brad said...

Spencer, you seem to come from one of the two epicenters of the phenomenon, along with Cali.
In upstate NY the closest we had to real chain restaurants up until the early 90s were probably Chuck E. Cheese and Ground Round, which were both obviously targeted at children.
On the other hand, I've never liked malls or their surrounding environs, and always gone to great lengths to find other options, so the last 15 years or so of that scene is largely alien to me.

Matt said...

So, when is the Atlantic going to hire James Lileks?

spencer said...

brad, I think that might explain it. I remember when I lived in Boston in the mid-1990s, the area's first Outback opened (I think in Stoughton) and at first nobody seemed to know what the hell it was.

So once again, my personal life experiences are explained by a freak accident of geography, and cannot therefore be applied to the population at large. I wonder if anyone else could learn something from this insight?