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My wife admits to being a cookie snob. Carrie has, on occasion, sampled a chocolate chip cookie enthusiastically endorsed by some kindly fool, only to throw the offending treat into the wastebasket after a single courtesy bite. For years, I’ve been telling her about the cookies I used to eat as a child, these gooey snacks made with rolled oats and semisweet chocolate chips, and for years, I never made them. I think I was secretly afraid the cookies would suck.
Well, I recently phoned my mom in Kansas City for the recipe, and I have to say I was indeed horrified. Not by the story she told me about the recipe’s creator (who died in 1972 when her husband apparently pushed her down the stairs, or so says Mom, who has a thing for intrigue), but by one of the featured ingredients: a full cup of Crisco. Could this hydrogenated headhunter actually be the reason these cookies taste so great?
I’m afraid so. The first batch I pulled from the oven was as crunchy and wickedly luxuriant as I remembered; these things had body, like no cookie should. Even Carrie agreed. We spent the rest of the evening sneaking into the kitchen to nibble cookies in the dark.
The episode got me thinking about how many other crappy foods—or foods made with crappy ingredients—that I privately enjoy. (And just for the record, I used the Crisco that’s fully hydrogenated, which apparently doesn’t cause a coronary right there at the table.) This is not an easy subject to broach. We’re bombarded from all directions about what foods to avoid. It’s as if the Catholic Church has infiltrated the culinary world, telling us we’re all going to hell if we chow down on a Whopper.
Food writers, in particular, act like the high priests of gustatory wisdom. On one hand, you have Michael Pollan and Nina Planck issuing fiats on what’s food and what isn’t. Here’s a sample quote from Pollan’s new manifesto, In Defense of Food: “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Why your great grandmother? Because at this point your mother and possibly your grandmother is as confused as the rest of us; to be safe we need to go back at least a couple of generations, to a time before the advent of most modern foods.”
On the other hand, you have food writers like me dishing out stars and accolades to restaurants that buy cured hams from Spanish pigs that dine on acorns or raw beef from Japanese cows that drink beer and—seriously—get massages. We’ve become a nation of snobs and food-a-phobes. When a moderator at a Smithsonian panel discussion in 2006 asked Anthony Bourdain to pick a favorite between Burger King and McDonald’s, the celebrity non-chef shot back: “That’s like [choosing between] herpes or chlamydia.”
For his part, Pollan has been doing fine work in trying to unravel the mysteries of food science and marketing in his effort to steer us back to a saner diet. But I worry he’s off-base. His advice on eating seems neo-Luddite to me. We can’t force people to stop consuming fatty, sweet, processed foodstuffs any more than we can force them to ditch their iPods and retreat back to 3-foot-wide boomboxes propped on their shoulders. Commercial foods are here to stay.
I have a better idea: Let’s stop obsessing about nutrition, fat counts, carbohydrates, and scientific studies about which food or drink will let us live long enough to watch the Social Security system go bankrupt. Personally, I’m tired of all the fear and guilt tied to food in America (not to mention the books about how to overcome the fear and guilt tied to food in America).
I’d really like to take the guilt out of my guilty-pleasures. I mean, will one sweet, salty McDonald’s cheeseburger kill you? Of course not. Five thousand of them might, but so would 5,000 plates of crispy sweetbreads at your favorite four-star restaurant. And if you’d really like to swear off some highly processed ambrosia that’ll kill you over time, stop drinking those designer cocktails and pricey bottles of wine. Talk about something you can’t grow in your garden (as much as I wish I could plant a nice crop of single-malt scotches).
Ever since that Crisco cookie, I’ve reconnected with some of the foods, or some of the places, I used to like before I felt the need to squirrel away my pedestrian eating habits. You know what? I still really like the Burrito Supreme at Taco Bell, particularly when the pimply kid pumps the sour cream evenly across the beans, shredded lettuce, cheddar cheese, ground beef, and diced tomatoes. I also can’t believe how much I drool over the crumbly biscuits at Popeyes; they’re even tastier after you slather them with strawberry jam squeezed from a packet. And I swear that some days the cracker-crust pizza at Stained Glass Pub in Silver Spring tastes better than any of those boutique pies—especially when you can play Buzztime trivia while eating.
But I think the real eye-opener came when Carrie and I visited the Olive Garden in Hyattsville. We arrived around 9 p.m. on a Monday—and had to wait for a table. The diners here were not conducting some suburban eating experiment, as we were. People at two different tables were actually celebrating birthdays, clearly without a critic’s recommendation or even the promise of house-made pasta. This is the way America eats, and I can understand why. Olive Garden is our corporate red-sauce house; its lasagna and fettuccini Alfredo are as flavorful as anything I ever ate at A.V. Ristortante Italiano.
Which brings me to a final thought: Some places I enjoy really do serve their share of crappy food, like the late, lamented A.V. I was reminded of this while sitting at the Tastee Diner in Silver Spring, wolfing down the greasiest patty melt this side of Friendly’s. Despite this, I was content. I was content to dine with people who felt like my neighbors, not like the food cognoscenti test-driving the trendiest new restaurant. The woman by the window at Tastee was reading a Sue Grafton mystery. The man across the aisle occupied a four-top booth all by himself, with only his dishes and his thoughts to keep him company. And me? I had dropped 50 cents into the tabletop jukebox to hear Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell sing “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”