So, Thumper won by default; and I took his life to heart in my childish way, as I did with all of my favorite anthropomorphized friends.
His mother was wise, and wisdom always has been as important to me as friends; the two are as tandem as Thumper and Bambi.
I must have listened well, learned well enough – from Thumper, that is, if not so well from his parents. For, though I’m not always “nice,” I’m certainly honest almost always – which is far more valuable a trait in friends, I’ve found. And honesty is far nicer, in the end, than lies – as Thumper surely knows.
…I kept trying to lose the gift card I received for Christmas. Not deliberately, but I kept leaving it out, anywhere but in my wallet. The card was a thought, well-intentioned for sure. But I tend not to eat at corporate-style restaurants, if I can help it; I’ve worked in one, eaten in far too many, and know too well that the passion for food is severely lacking in nearly all who work there. They’re glorified fast-food restaurants: stressed patrons fly through the doors to scarf down meals and fly back to their cars, calling that “a night out”; and servers are likewise tense, miserable creatures who only take such jobs for the fairly-guaranteed presence of tipping customers. And the kitchens are filled with those poor souls who want to get their foot into the industry but are rarely good enough to stage in finer kitchens.
It’s no wonder the food is always mediocre. At best.
There’s never a challenge to the diner’s palate in the food, beyond, sometimes, an ethnic name used for the kitsch of it, to make the place seem more authentic.
But I’m a challenge in this place.
My companion loved his bottomless-glass of house-made Italian soda; I asked for a doppio macchiato – a double-espresso with foam on top. My companion, not a coffee drinker, understood my instructions precisely; our server, and the bartender who made the beverage, did not.
I was served, and drank, a cold pseudo-latte (that was more like a wet doppio-corto); I needed the caffeine. At least it was not sour, as I’ve found America’s Favorite Coffeehouse and so many other so-called Italian restaurants serve. But it is always surprising to me that any establishment claiming to be Italian, or claiming to serve Italian-style coffee, should produce a cup more revolting than the ulcer-inducing bottomless cups at American-style diners – and that the “baristas” should fail to be educated in how to produce hot steamed (not scalded!) milk and the thick, creamy, sweetly-rich beverage actually called “espresso”.
And we ordered.
Rather than falling into a diatribe, revisiting every detail of a wholly mediocre meal, I’ll instead relate how I made it right.
It occurred to me, as my companion laughed throughout the meal at my improvement of every single dish, that most people do not consider the possibility of correcting kitchen neglect with some of the very simple things one might acquire from that kitchen or from the bar. In this specific case, the addition of olive oil (already on the table) and chili flakes (requested) dramatically improved the flavor and texture of bland, pasty marinara served with the appetizer, and again the not-so-spicy arrabbiata on my pasta. Half-a-dozen fresh lemon wedges made the Caesar salad quite delicious and a nice end to the meal. Naturally, it wasn’t served last, but I prefer to eat my salad in the Italian style; it makes for a fresh taste lingering on the palate if you’re not going to indulge in sweets, and a nice buffer if you are.
There are some things, like pasta, about which one can do little to improve. In most places it’s unnecessary, and most people don’t really notice the difference unless they’re really looking for it. And, to be frank, most diners don’t like truly fresh, house-made pasta when they have it; it will never achieve the firmness of dried pastas that the average person eats.
Other aspects of meals are easy to make palatable, as I did. Which begs the question: why not improve them in the kitchen, before they arrive at a diner’s table?
Because, of course, the conception is that the North American palate cannot handle a challenge, does not know the difference between a zesty, fresh Caesar dressing and a one that tastes and looks bottled, regardless of whether or not it is.
And because we confirm that notion by going back, solidifying the mediocrity of America’s dining experience with our money while adhering firmly to “Thumper’s Rule.”
It’s not Thumper’s rule, remember; it’s his parents’. He’s the honest one, who simply noticed the obvious.
As for me, I have my opinions, and I make do while I must; and, for my own reasons, I mind Thumper’s parents’ rule:
Having worked in the industry for long enough, I know this is the worst thing possible for a restaurant, of any kind.
Because they’ll never know what’s wrong with their dishes, and I’ll never return.
*Interpreted into grammatically-correct language, Thumper remains true to himself. Double-negatives removed, Thumper’s rule is actually: “If you have something ‘not nice’ to say, say it.”