It happened to me today. The moment, a magnitude of moments, building up in the back of my mind, relentlessly shoved aside when it rose to consciousness and threatened my everyday happiness with their existence. The moment that happens to any cook, home or professional, who relentlessly pursue their craft to a higher plane. The moment when you realize that the food you are eating in a restaurant, in almost any restaurant, simply isn’t any good. It’s a sad moment, when you realize that the experience of eating out is not about the food anymore. No matter what you eat, no matter how fine the dining establishment, you are one day enjoying yourself in a spot of sunshine with your favorite dish in a favorite joint, and it happens. You think the terrible thought: “I could have made this at home! Better!”
I was doing just that, enjoying the sunshine heating up my back and having one of my favorite sandwiches in my adopted local restaurant. I was happy. It was cold outside. A cold that I’m still not used to, the bitter chill of temperatures just above freezing, which is practically shirt sleeve weather in the mountains. There, at higher elevations, the frost of the night is burned off on most mornings by brilliant sunshine. The rising temperatures create steam off the roofs of houses and fog over the river valleys and steeply descending icy cold streams as they plunge down in their relentless pursuit of sediment and scour. On the shore, here by the Chesapeake Bay, the local weather is best characterized by the term raw. I’m still not used to it. The relentless wind from the northeast, combined with steady humidity around 60 to 80 percent, which makes your skin cool from evapotranspiration that makes even so called normal temperatures miserable.
That was one of those mornings. I’d been outside most of the day, still glorying in the new and unfamiliar, even the temperatures. I was finally driven in to the restaurant by my own timidity of my increasingly good health and falling temperatures, which felt to me like a storm was on the way. My arthritis was howling, reminding me of past stupidity and to make sure my son is not successful at riding his new little bike off the bed in his room, or at least keep him safe while he does it.
I pulled myself up to the bar, blew on my hands, ordered a coffee and a prime rib sandwich. Holding an ever changing lead with a great cheeseburger and a Bahn Mi, a prime rib sandwich with au jus is a meal dear to my heart. Warming and sloppy and filling on a cold day, there is little to go wrong with that choice. I make it my mainstay in judging the quality of a restaurant: If you can get two of these sandwiches right, then you are most likely paying attention across the board.
Philly Cheesesteaks are also one of my favorites, but my standards are too bizarre to make that a judgment call. It simply isn’t fair to evaluate most establishments on the quality of this sandwich, but if I eat there, and you have it, it had better be right! Melty cheap cheese on a high quality prime rib or sirloin chopped beef with a homemade loaf, onions and peppers, they are like crack to me. If they are good.
This place didn’t have a cheesesteak, but it did offer an American Cheeseburger. You had to look for it, hard, under all the burger options, but it was there. Along with its gourmet brothers, who were covered in everything from oysters to Foie Gras, it was there. A burger, with American Cheese, rather embarrassingly sporting a trio of unripe tomatoes, onions and limp lettuce with ketchup and mayo in little cups on the side, it was still there. I tried it. It was ok. Not great, but ok.
I expected more from the Prime Rib. After all, isn’t it the grown up and sophisticated cousin of the cheeseburger? The Au Jus alone makes it worth the price of admission, or it should. With two hands clenched around my mug of coffee for warmth, it was hard to let go to take my first bite of the sandwich. It looked good. It was steaming in the afternoon light, the kind of sunshine that reflects just so off the windows and gives you a good, unfiltered look at what you are breathing. When I was a little kid and first saw all the dust, mites, dander, pollen, carpet funk and other particles that you suck into your lungs for life, I held my breath until I fainted. I was afraid to breathe. How I ended up in a coal mine from that is beyond me.
I let go of the coffee cup reluctantly and made a grab for the sandwich. It looked good. It was on a toasted bun, and piled high with what appeared to be prime rib. I took a bite, then another look at this sandwich. I felt like Christian in “Pilgrims Progress,” seeing things as they really were for the first time. The bread was dry. It was old. It was still cold inside. There was no mayo, no cheese, no onions, no umami from the beef. Nothing. I dipped it in the Au Jus, my heart sinking a little. The second bite confirmed my initial venture. It wasn’t any good.
People who cook professionally represent a very small community. Pare it down a little further, and the air becomes a bit more stratified. With that said, it can be hard to be somewhere new very long, buying produce, getting to know farmers, butchers, fishmongers, grocers and the purveyors of kitchen equipment before people begin to put out feelers. Your reputation, for better or worse, will immediately follow you. In other words, the community was getting to know me. Far faster than I was getting to know them.
The sandwich was bad. Plain and simple. I disassembled it, poked around a bit and surreptitiously examined my catch of the day. I didn’t eat it. The Jus was cold, and the meat looked dangerously close to a frozen mystery product I used to clobber together as a cook at a summer camp and there was nothing else on it.
Seeing my dilemma, my bartender wandered over. “Did you like it? Sure. Are you not hungry? No, not really. Want something else? No, I’m good. I’ll just pay rent on my space for a while.” He studied me, then my plate. “That’s our best seller.” I offered no further comment, my day dampened a bit. Not ruined, by any means, but rendered a bit raw.
He collected the cast aside parts of the sandwich and ignored fries and wandered away, dismissing all of it immediately. I felt abandoned, somehow. Like all wannabe artisans of a craft, I wanted to think that maybe, just maybe, I would be told if something was off that day.
With my delicate ego in balance, I thought of other dishes I’d had there, and at other restaurants, good establishments, all of them. Nothing whatsoever jumped out at me. Whenever I went looking for something good, I didn’t find it.
Where I did find it was during a street sale in a small town, where oysters were being shucked in the freezing rain for charity only. From a pink joint, where the owner laughingly made me a hot dog piled high with slaw, baked beans, mustard, ketchup and hot sauce. From a roadside fish stand, where crab cakes and trout were being deep fried and people gathered in the freezing cold, regardless of race, economic status or creed to enjoy the fatty goodness of simple food. I thought of the impromptu neighborhood barbecue I had crashed a few days earlier, carrying a case of Keystone Light, with my cargo pants stuffed with pork rinds and dragging a cooler full of ice and Mountain Dew. I thought of my wife’s handmade pasta, carefully shaped as she cast the dough over the flour dusted workspace, over and over and over again. Her potato gnocchi, her mother’s spaghetti and meatballs, all of them cooked with love, with little regard to what needy little foodie bitches like me would think.
I thought of my grandmothers deep fried chicken and squirrel brains with red-eye gravy and biscuits, served to me on my eighteenth birthday, the day I went to work in a coal mine. Six years later, as I was lacing up my boots on her porch, which was overflowing with herbs, flowers and plants growing out of every conceivable container, she told me: “No matter where you go, always take your boots.”
So, the sad day of realizing that I was missing something when I dined out was replaced with the memories of why I started cooking in the first place. Out of love. Love, and the pursuit of perfection.
I’ll never view dining out the same die, cast as I have come to opinionate it. Instead, I will eat what is put before me where I enjoy it most, in the homes and backyards and back kitchens of the world, and I will appreciate every bite.
Maybe I’m not a pretentious bastard, after all.