Sunday, October 16, 2011

Blog Action Day 2011

Today is Blog Action Day - and this year's discussion is about food. I couldn't not participate, come on now! So here are some of my thoughts about the ways in which in writing this blog, although it is mostly frivolous in nature, I do have a subversive food agenda. 

Clearly I have strong opinions about food - if I didn't I would not spend so much time and energy documenting the restaurants and food producers that I encounter in my life. I am fascinated about the ways that develop our relationships with food, and how those are shaped by cultural, historical, and economic factors. There is much I want to write on that particular topic - too much to put into today's slightly hap-hazard post.

Even thought my decision to start this blog ten and a half months ago was a little bit impulsive, I realized pretty quickly that I did have an agenda in the kinds of restaurants I was choosing. This has developed into one hard and fast rule...

I will not review big chain restaurants

This might seem pretty obvious when writing about local food, but despite the fact we live in a city with an incredibly high number of non-chain restaurants I frequently found myself having to convince friends and family to try somewhere that was not a chain of some sort.  Slowly I have managed to convert most people I know to not eat at White Spot or Boston Pizza etc. when they go out with us. I think about 10% is probably stubbornness on my side (I flat out refuse to go to those places anymore) but I think the other 90% is that they have been converted by the good tastes and value.

There seemed to be some kind of misperceptions about chain restaurant foods that I have worked to dispel  in small ways with each post.

a) Chain restaurants are cheaper 
I think this is a myth perpetrated by large corporations who have used all of their powers of persuasion to convince you of relative value for food in general. This seems to be a general cultural belief that applies not just to chain restaurants, but also fast food and convenience foods and non-scratch cooking. It's some false equation where size, quick/easiness and relative cheapness equates to deliciousness. This is so blatantly false I am ashamed I once bought into this myth myself!

The fact is - if you know where to go, you can spend less than you would at a chain restaurant. Some of the easiest examples are a simple breakfast - several local diners offer the eggs - meat - toast breakfast for around $5 neatly beating out the mass-market competition. If I go to Starbucks and order myself a fancy latte, it's easily $5, but my favourite drink at local coffee shop usually runs me around $3 give or take a few quarters.

The other key thing that I really notice having made the switch is that if I eat the stuff that has been pre-made, processed and frozen I am hungrier again much sooner, gain weight faster and feel more sluggish. The benefit of eating something made from scratch even if it does end up costing a dollar or two more sometimes is absolutely worth it! Part of my point with many of these blog posts is to silently or not-so-silently compare a restaurant to its chain equivalent and point out the incredible uptick in value when you choose the local equivalent.

b) Chain restaurant food is more consistent 
Chain restaurants all work pretty hard to create a cookie-cutter experience where if you ate x dish in any of the locations across the country you would have an exactly identical experience. In fact, I think this is kind of a big part of the point.

The hard part with that is - the person at the other end of the frying pan may or may not have any culinary experience beyond the training specifically applied to making that dish. So yes, you will probably get pretty good consistency over all but when things go wrong they go really, really wrong. I once got a McDonalds hamburger with no burger in it (true fact!). The likelihood of that kind of baffling mistake happening in a restaurant where the person making your food is the owner and/or creator of the dish, or was hired directly by that person, significantly decreases. So while it may take a little bit more forgiveness when it comes to replication of the same thing across months or weeks or even years, the consistency of the food being delicious is much higher.

c) Chain restaurants are better or equal in taste and quality 
Here again I must quibble. As mentioned above, in the attempt to create food that is of the lowest common denominator and highest possible 'consistency' typically foods served in chain restaurants are not cooked from scratch.

This means many, many things when it comes to quality: less fresh, more weird chemicals necessary for stabilization of the product for the time between when it is created and it arrives at the table of the customer as well as cheaper cuts of meat and more fillers in order to keep the costs low.

Typically in order to balance out the tastiness this requires the addition of things that taste good but are not necessarily good for you in large quantities (namely salts, sugars & fats). This is less about really amazing subtle flavour and more about appealing to the instinctual, basic tastes that we can grab onto in a very binary way.

d) Chain restaurants are less scary
This one is a trickier one. I think many people equate "something new" to "scary" - so fear of the unknown. When it comes to eating out, I can understand this a little bit! You don't want to spent $10-20 on a dish that you might not like.

Here in lies a bit of a snag in my previous arguments... if you are someone who is scared of trying new things, you are probably someone who likes to order the same thing each and every time you eat out. These also happen to be things that are easy to reproduce consistently & cheaply in large quantities (burgers, steak, pasta etc).

This is part of the reason I have chosen to blog about the particular dish I ate that day. By taking a (usually) beautiful picture of the food, describing the flavours, textures and general experience of eating it I want to pull you into that dish, and hopefully inspire you to try it the next time you encounter it. Yes - a good steak is an amazing thing, and a nice pasta dish is to die for. These things are true - but I would argue that the value of that as an experience is low. On the other hand, trying something new and discovering it's fabulous is one of life's simple pleasures - and one I am flying high on every time I write a new entry for this blog.