Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A New Year’s Resolution In November? Why not?

“I’m gonna grab a quick bit.” How often have these words been spoken?

Americans, in most respects, eat to live. The fast food culture is engrained in the mindset of so many in the US that this industry has a most unusual abbreviation, QSR. When I first saw these three letters it took me a few minutes to convert it into its full meaning. But when I finally discovered that QSR was the acronym for Quick Service Restaurants, both a smile came to my lips and a heaviness came to my heart.

Imagine an entire industry whose goal it is to feed “quick.” Not “well” or “healthy” or “nutritious” not even “tasty”, but the adjective used to describe the industry and the business model itself is “quick.” I cannot imagine walking along the Champs Elysee, or through the streets of Madrid, and hearing people discuss a “quick Poisson” or “quick Gambas.” Yet, in America, there is an entire industry, and a multi-billion dollar one at that, built on this one, precious, element, time.

What I find interesting is that if you arrive at a QSR during the anointed times of 12-2PM or 5-7PM and expect a quick meal, you might be confronted with a lengthy wait with others who are also looking for that same, quick meal. In fact, I have seen discussions on some of the food blogs concerning how many Happy Meals you can order before you are considered inconsiderate to those behind you in the Drive Up Lane. Has the bar been set so low that we actually trip over it?

It is disturbing to me that the American family has “progressed” to the point of not possessing sixty minutes to sit and eat as a family. Are we so busy and have we scheduled our children so rigorously that there is no time for a relaxing and decompressing meal? When can you discuss the day’s events or the different issues facing the family or the world if not at the dinner table? Little Suzie may know how to cross a soccer ball and Tommy may know the difference between a two-seam and a three-seam fastball, but do they know that Iran and Iraq are different countries?

There are numerous reasons why families are not in the position to eat seven dinners a week as a unit. And the economy has not helped with this situation, but does the alternative also need to be a nightly event? I understand that many need to work longer hours or more than one job to make ends meet, and others have more than one child to schedule and are performing these tasks as a single parent, while others have never gained the skill set to cook. While I totally sympathize with these, coming from a single-parent home where my mom worked more than one job, I believe that these parents should be given medals for their heroic efforts in raising children. It’s the others that are not facing these challenges that concern and upset me.

Last night my youngest returned from her first year of college for the Thanksgiving break. After dinner, the doorbell rang time after time as her friends arrived to visit. How great it was to have all of my “extended kids” give my wife and me big hugs as they visited. I’ve missed those times when the dinner table had both our children and their friends. The days of listening to their high school adventures were so enjoyable as they spoke of their soccer and field hockey teammates with both pleasure and disgust and then in their senior year of high school, hearing them cope with the pressures of applying to college. Now that they have three months of “freedom” under their belts, hearing their tales of being Freshman Coeds are very funny. My wife and I truly enjoy hearing and seeing how they all have adapted so well.

As we enter the holiday season, I think about the Norman Rockwell painting, “Freedom from Want” depicting the Thanksgiving Meal. The proud grandparents bringing that perfectly roasted turkey to the table to enjoy. All the family gathered around the table, no one noticing the bird, but enjoying the company and laughing and telling stories. This was one of four “Freedom” posters from World War 2, and depicted why we were fighting. Is that what we have evolved from, a once a year event when we can enjoy family and friends? I am sure that Rockwell was not thinking that at the time that he painted this memorable poster.

So as Thursday approaches, the menu is finalized, the preparation begins and the meal is served, I realize that those times when we insisted on “family dinner” and answered “yes” to the question, “can my friends stay for dinner?” or “can you call Joes Pizza and order 4 pies” was the absolute correct answer. Please enjoy your Thanksgiving Dinner with your family, and try to make a Thanksgiving Resolution to have this “line-up” more than once a year. When the kids leave, you’ll wish you had.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Rip Van Winkle - “I fell asleep and when I awoke the dining paradigm changed”

“Why don’t we go to Goodman’s for dinner?” On rare occasions, my father surprised us with these words and my family strolled down the street for dinner. Money was very tight growing up and Goodman’s was the local “booth and counter” restaurant that served great sandwiches for lunch and typical deli dinners. This phrase always brought a huge smile to my face and, more importantly, granted my mother a reprieve from her daily cooking chores after working an eight-hour day. My favorite meal was the hot-open faced turkey sandwich, on white bread, smothered in giblet gravy, served with a side of crispy French fries. Eating at Goodman’s was a great treat for the family. The five of us squeezed into a booth designed for four people, covered in green Naugahyde and trimmed in shiny aluminum. As we sat in the booth with our legs dangling and swinging in front of us, too short to reach the floor, the three children hoped that dad would order our favorite appetizer, potato pancakes. But most of the times there was a tinge of disappointment when we were told that dinner that evening was only an entrée and a glass of water.

Twenty years later when my wife and I were newlyweds, we worked long and opposite hours. At one point it was necessary to “schedule” time to see each other. But every Friday night the two of us, exhaustion coming out of every pore of our bodies, ventured to a local restaurant to treat ourselves to a relaxing meal on our “date night.” We were both diligent and frugal about the cost of our meal, as with many newlyweds, and we frequently used coupons, split dishes, enjoyed free and fresh salad bars at local mom and pop restaurants and stretched our limited disposable income to the nth-degree. It was a wonderful time and we truly relished those quiet evenings together. Today, our paradigm is different as our children have grown and, fortunately, so has our disposable income. It is now commonplace for our family to eat at a “real” restaurant, and the area’s delis and diners are rarely visited.

Recently, I became aware that certain issues might arise between the restaurant and the customer in the simple acts of seating, ordering, eating, and paying. Many of the varying viewpoints were both disheartening and enlightening. I discovered that I was probably an innocent participant in some of these concerns, as I naively believed I was merely relaxing with my sweetheart and family and enjoying a wonderful meal. I am not sure if I am now better or worse off knowing of these various positions as well as my unknowing participation as a newlywed in many of them. Likewise I was totally unaware that the path my wife and I used to obtain an inexpensive dinner might have actually annoyed some of the owners and servers. I was probably happier not knowing of these issues when I ordered the roasted chicken, the least expensive item on the menu, for the fourth week in a row because the steak was $3 more; or when I carefully read the Friday newspaper hoping to find a new restaurant running a 2-for-1 special. But in any event I now have a greater understanding and my perspective of the dining experience has changed. Progress, sometimes, is not a step forward.

I wonder at what point those relaxing meals with my family become a fencing duel between the restaurant and the customer? If it were not for many who have educated me on the workings of many of these establishments, I would be totally unaware that certain situations that I previously thought were merely the result of an aggressive server was actually the business model dictated by management. I understand completely that a restaurant is a business, but gaming the customer into ordering more items under the guise of no-extra cost is completely unacceptable. Upselling has become commonplace in some restaurants (thankfully a small minority) and should be frowned upon by both management and customers; deception is not a good business model for long-term customer loyalty.

It is very disappointing that certain restaurants try to capitalize on what many families view as a treat, like mine did growing up, by discreetly (until the check arrives) reaching deeper into the patron’s pocket on that special “family night out.” And, unfortunately, the chain restaurant’s management psychologically forces its staff to participate in these practices by ridiculing, in front of their colleagues, those that are unsuccessful in advancing these deceptive practices. I wonder whom the managers are trying to service in their business model, the customer or themselves. These bad managers have, regrettably, taken the service industry to a lower level.

And many customers contribute to this us vs. them mentality. I remember a restaurant in the early 1960’s in Brooklyn where the waiters were responsible for collecting all the silverware from the table. I was four or five years old when I saw two waiters arguing over a dirty fork and spoon. Why? They were held personally liable for the cost of any utensil not returned at the end of the evening.

Sounds incredible? When did the restaurant become the setting for free pickings for the customer? The sugar and sugar-substitute are not there for Uncle Mickey’s bridge game over the weekend. The silverware is not there to fill out Aunt Minnie’s service at the condo and please, asking for a basket of bread with dessert so Cousin Daffy can wrap it up and take it home for breakfast the next morning is not acceptable. Likewise, when did a tiny mistake lead to free meals for life? If the restaurant serves you rice with your entrée instead of potatoes, it is not an opening to have your appetizer, entrée and dessert served gratis by the restaurant.

These are a few examples of the changing dynamics of the customer-restaurant relationship as some owners try to squeeze every penny from the customer and some customers try to grab every freebie possible from the restaurant. This constant push me-pull you can, if you allow it, create undue stress at a time when you should be relaxing and having an enjoyable evening with friends and family. Hopefully we all experience them on vary rare occasions, if at all.

Maybe it was my complete and total unawareness of the situation as a newlywed; maybe this is a new technique for many restaurants to make additional revenue; maybe the customer has become more self-entitled. In any event my blissful ignorance as a newlywed has changed. I can only hope that the restaurants that participate in these practices and the customers who do likewise will perform some inner reflection and return the eating experience to that special event I remember and cherished as a child and a newlywed.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Holidays = Rejoicing our Past; Preparing for the Future; Eating Traditional Meals

A Letter to the Editor appeared in my local paper last week and asked parents to reflect on the constant pressure that they place on their highly scheduled families and to please slow down and smell the roses. It continued by stating that it was not imperative that little Johnny and little Sarah are scheduled 24/7 and that one day per week needs to be set aside for religion, family and traditional meals. It was interesting that the letter chose Sunday as its religious day, obviously written by a non-Jew, in the middle of the holiest period of the Jewish calendar. For many of us who just finished this period of atonement, how timely it was reading a letter from a non-Jew and poignant that it was written about reflection and celebration.

As I look back over the last two weeks, I am grateful that it was a time when both family and inner reflection were more important than soccer tournaments and college essays. On four separate occasions, Jewish families gathered around the holiday table and participated in prayer, asked for forgiveness, remembered those no longer with us, and prayed for a happy and healthy new year. On the table, glorious foods from our past adorned each and every available space, preparation of which began days before each holiday.
Prior to commencing each holiday meal, we commemorated the beginning of the holiday with the candle blessing, followed by thanking God for fruits, and finally for bread. How fitting it was that each of these holidays thanked God for the day, for the food, and for the drink. How pleasurable it was to share these days with friends and loved ones, and how sad it was not to have the participation of many who shared the table for so many years. These were times to reflect, gives thanks and hope for the future. The meal was the background for the beginning of Rosh Hashanah and for the break fast at the end of Yom Kippur. But in the end it was family and friends that gathered for the celebrations that was of ultimate importance. At the culmination of this reflective period, numerous platters of various breads, fishes, dairies, and casseroles followed a daylong fast. If you have never seen an entire room filled with people who have not eaten in twenty-two hours craving their food fix, it was quite a site.
And as I enjoyed the various traditional dishes, I thought of how many of these recipes pre-dated all the participants and, in some cases, brought forward thousands of years of tradition. As I looked at the various components on the table, I realized that my ancestors prepared many of these dishes similarly for numerous generations both throughout Eastern Europe prior to their emigration to the US and subsequent to their arrival. Knowing that my great, great grandmother prepared similar vegetable and noodles dishes in Latvia in the 1800’s and that my great, great grandfather enjoyed similar meats and potatoes in Romania over 100 years ago reminded me that I needed to promise myself that I taught my children to continue with these traditions.
And speaking of the children. How easy it would have been to forget about passing our traditions to them with all the pressures of school and sports. How easy it would have been to consent to their playing in that soccer tournament versus going to Temple. How easy it would have been to allow them to finish their college essay instead of breaking fast with friends and family. All of us have faced these internal conflicts and we can only hope we chose correctly. Because when traditions die there is no CPR available. And at the forefront of all traditions are the holiday meals, the centerpieces of our past and the building blocks of our future.
This Jew agrees with the non-Jew who wrote that reflective and timely letter to the editor. We all have the responsibility in understanding the past and the requirement to ensure its continuation into the future. Fortunately our traditions also allow us to perform many of these duties surrounded by beautiful displays of meats, fish, salads and breads, in a setting where everyone is relaxed, engaged and, oh by the way, very hungry.
So as this holiest of seasons in the Jewish calendar is sealed in the Book of Life, I wish all of you a healthy and happy New Year. Please remember to pass on the traditions. It may only be a meal to many, but it is the torch to transfer from our ancestors to our descendents.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Food Glorious Food

Red, yellow, green, hot, cold, spicy, mild, salty, sweet, vertical, flat, so many choices, so little time.

Why do so many people love food? What is the attraction? Why do people spend hours preparing a sauce that will be consumed in less than twenty minutes? Why does grandma wake up before dawn to start cooking Holiday Dinner? Why does everyone believe his or her Bubby makes the best brisket?

To many, meals represent family time, to others the time to transition from sleep to work and school and then to a decompressing and relaxing evening with loved ones; to others it’s a time of adventure and creativity to prove that the geek can cook. There are so many paths to this perfection, because perfection is in the mouths of the eaters. The perfect cheeseburger to some is the Tofu risotto to others; people can plan and prepare, wing-it, venture to one of numerous restaurants or decide on an ever-expanding “Take-out” menu and enjoy in the comfort of the new Barca-lounger. It’s all a personal preference and every day creates a new experience.

Can anyone imagine a world where family gatherings were food-less? The family meal, one of the cornerstones of our traditions, dates back hundreds of years in some cases and thousands of years in others. Try to imagine Thanksgiving without turkey, Christmas without ham, Passover without matzah, New Year’s Eve without, well I hate to say it, champagne. Over the years Holidays have adopted food as the welcome stepchild to the occasion. Likewise meals are now the ad-hoc canvas onto which many friend-filled gatherings occur, the first date that many may share with their future mate, the ground breaking event for many promising careers and the most glorious of traditions that are transported from generation to generation.

And there is also the expansion from the family meal to the extended family events: the picnics, clambakes, BBQ-contests and then the ultimate event of Open Food Presentation, the Tailgating Parties. Who could have predicted that a $0.50 hot dog at Yankee Stadium forty years ago would evolve into a multi-course competition with numerous testosterone-charged competitors spending hundreds of dollars a week and hours before The Big Game (remember that every game is The Big Game) to create the ultimate pre-event food-event. The sheer assortment of foods in any stadium parking lot every weekend confirms that food has matured from a simple burger to a multi-faceted competitive sport. All for the sake of the best steak, chili, ribs, brisket, chicken and fish.

So why the attraction? To many, boiling water was a daunting challenge, but after years of diligence, these boiling-water challenged individuals are paging through Hazan and Child and preparing excellent renditions of many classic recipes. In millions of homes, the family question of the day has migrated from “what’s for dinner?” to “what did you make for dinner?” a very subtle change in the question indicating a level of anticipation versus acceptance.

I think the Internet has played a significant role in this evolution. Mathematically the number of different recipes is probably greater than the most used word today, “Google.” Could you imagine a cookbook named “A Google of Recipes”? Yet, if you Google “chicken recipe” you receive more than 2.5 million hits (still a far cry from a google of recipes, but that’s just chicken). If you made each of these chicken recipes for your daily family dinner it would take almost 7,000 years to serve them all. And that’s just for chicken.

So I decided to spend time and expand my horizons and give thought and pen to numerous topics in the great food tradition. From history to current events, likes and dislikes, reviews of great food cities and the various aspects that can make a good eating experience, a better experience. To this Jfood-on-Food inaugurates his first entry to jfoodonfood.blogspot.com.
Welcome all of you to a marvelous trip. Hope we can enjoy together.