Why We’re Not Eating Out Very Often These Days

There are several reasons, actually.  Here are the most important ones:

The Economy

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s been some economic problems in the US (and the rest of the world) lately.  Obviously, most of us are being conservative with our paycheck and monthly budgets.  That alone is a reason to eat out less.  But the more important reason has to do with the economy of running an eatery.

A restaurant has to make a profit for the owners to stay in business.  If food is more expensive (it is) and customers determine where they eat based on how much it costs (they do) — then cooks and owners have to find ways to keep their menu prices low to keep customers coming through the door.  A café can keep prices low in several ways —

  1. They can operate with fewer employees.
  2. They can sell more liquor.
  3. They can charge for extras – like chips & salsa, or rolls & butter.
  4. They can make serving sizes smaller.
  5. They can use cheaper ingredients.

And it’s that last one — #5 — that’s my biggest problem with eating out these days.

When a café (or a home cook) opts for cheaper ingredients than they have used in the past, it is quality and health that pay the price.  Margarine is cheaper than olive oil or butter.  Fatty, assembly line meat is cheaper than high-quality lean beef or pork.  Farm raised fish is cheaper than wild.  Stale is cheaper than fresh.  Industrially grown — with all its massive amounts of pesticides and herbicides — is cheaper than skillfully farmed and organically farmed.  Pasta, rice, potatoes, and white flour are cheaper than fresh veggies and fruit as side dishes.  A fried chicken sandwich — which is a small piece of chicken wrapped in breading and then wrapped in bread — is cheaper than a piece of grilled or roasted chicken.  A milkshake made with partially hydrogenated fats + high fructose corn syrup solids (a non-dairy alternative to fresh milk which all but 2 of the leading fast food chain serve) has no milk and is therefore completely shelf stable (no wasted food) and is therefore CHEAP, compared to the real MILKshakes people think they are drinking.

And the truth is — even after our economy picks back up — don’t expect any of the places you eat at to go BACK to spending more money.  After all — if their customers didn’t notice or didn’t mind, then why sacrifice profits in favor of higher quality food?

All it took was one taco salad last fall where I found an artery mixed in with the ground meat –And eating-out lost its appeal.  That would never go on a plate in my kitchen, and I’ll be damned if I’ll pay somebody else to serve it to me out of theirs.


Anthony Bourdain

You know the great executive chef (emeritus?) of the brassiere, Les Halles in NYC, Anthony Bourdain, from the show No Reservations on the Travel Channel?  Do you know how he became famous outside the kitchen of Les Halles?   You know Bourdain because he wrote a book in 2000:

And it was a helluva book.  It still is.  And it was a sensational book at the time he wrote it because professional chefs had never talked openly about their profession — the business of buying/cooking/preparing/selling food, or the sub-culture they live in and perpetuate.  That TV kitchen-Brit, Gordon Ramsay, would have been nothing more than a passing breath of hot air if Bourdain hadn’t blown restaurant kitchen wide open, first.

But the initial result was — Bourdain was not just the black sheep of the profession — he was tainted.  Hated.  Resented.  Scorned.  And if the culinary industry had succeeded, he would have been black-balled from the profession entirely.  It didn’t matter that he was a GREAT french chef.  In fact, that may have made it worse.  He was one of the stars of the culinary world.  And like a snake in the grass, he bit  — and it was venom on those pages.  And it was also humor.  And it was enlightening.  And self-deprecating.  And well written.  And something we all need to know about the food we eat, from the lowliest café, to the most high-brow plates of the night.  That he has since become more famous as a foodie is a funny turn of events, but doesn’t diminish his skills with a knife — or a pen.  His excellent history on Typhoid Mary is also a great read, as is his Les Halles Cookbook.

A few tips until you take time to read it: never order your food well done, don’t send food back to the kitchen, and forget brunch — have breakfast or lunch instead.

For why all those warning (and hundreds of other things,) you need to read Kitchen Confidential.  It’s named after a crime-rag for a reason.


The Preponderance of Bad Taste

Okay.  I’m a snob.  I like good food.  I like good service.  I like to eat in attractive places that are crisply clean, well imagined, and smell wonderful.  I don’t care if it’s cute and campy, or table-clothed and candle-lit — but I do care if the people running the business care.

Unless you can afford eating among the Michelin Stars, there’s not a lot of originality out there.  And worse — where there is originality, it’s not always good — either because of taste, because of the quality, or because of nutrition.

And there are enough places out there in the bigger world where the food is good, that I know the difference.  And that’s why it’s impossible for me to tolerate going somewhere just because it is cheap, or close, or easier than cooking myself.  None of those is a good enough reason.  And since I live in the land of lazy, tight-wad old sticks — the restaurants here have fallen to appease lowest expectation.  The result is — there are so few good places to eat within 100 miles — that I’d grow tired of any one of them if we only patronized them, but did it every few days.

Rather than grow tired of the few really excellent choices — I’ll just cook for myself, thanks, and save the eating-out for special occasions and celebrations.

Do I ever go out to eat?  Yes.  But my first consideration (okay — after taste) is this:

Are the people preparing and selling me food
trying to help my efforts (everyone’s) to be healthy?

Once that question is answered, that determines where I eat — the picking the right menu items, and deciding how much to eat is the whole task.  And like everything else — requires attention.


What Happens When Someone Dies?

It’s one of the ironies of modern life that we have become so much more healthy than our grandparents and great grands — and yet in spite of our longer lives, we haven’t managed to overcome the short-sightedness, internal conflicts and stress of grief.

My great-grandmother had 7 children who all lived into their 70s and 80s — but she also had 4 children that either were born dead or died in childhood. She talked about the children she lost with the same vivid memory she exhibited when talking about my great aunts and uncles and their children.  And out of all those great aunts and uncles, only 1 of them lost a child under the age of 20.  If you look at my parent’s generation in the same family tree — only 1 child out of 70 died before the age of 20, and that was due to drunk driving.

It really wasn’t that long ago that more than half the children born died of basic infections that are now a simple (and usually free) prescription for narrow spectrum antibiotics!  Combine that with the taken-for-granted vaccinations for pertussis, tetanus, pneumonia and diphtheria, and the far less deadly bouts with measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, and others members of the previously deadly childhood diseases gang, and children have now moved on to other more human monsters to haunt their dreams.

It has always been a dangerous world for children.  We just don’t experience losing our children at the same rate that previous generations have.  As a result, we tend to think it’s normal for parents to die first. The truth is slightly different — everybody dies.

Losing a child, a partner, a friend… is everything it’s cracked up to be.  There’s a space that person previously occupied. Both the physical space and the time spent together are now empty.


Except that other people and ideas and adventures and activities flow in to fill the vacuum.  Other children have stories and games and emergencies to demand our time. Other people move into to fill the space.  Or most of it.  It doesn’t happen right away, but it does happen.

Like generations from 200 years ago — or 2000 — we still fill some of the spaces with sleep, conversation, liquor, and busy-work. Death and loss are probably why busy-work exists at all.  There can’t be any other reason for it, because there’s more than enough real work to go around.

My Great-Grandma talked about each child she gave birth to as though they were just outside playing ball or hunting for horn-toads.  Each one was an individual with their own sense of humor, their own ideas and escapades, their own favorite places, and their own talents– and that’s how she remembered them.  The trap that some people fall into is made of clustering all loss together. The fallacy is in thinking it’s one enormous hole where all loss resides, that keeps getting wider and deeper as our lives go on and others’ lives end.  It’s not true.  Each person we love occupies their own space — and when that person is lost, it’s a one person-sized space that’s left behind.  We may have a checkerboard dotted with those person-sized spaces that are slowly filling in with other adventures of life, but that is far easier to deal with metaphorically than a Grand Canyon full of blackness.

Which is not to say that losing someone we love is a casual or a common thing.  The pain is real.  The emptiness is tangible.  No amount of dread or fear in advance can lessen it. Pre-grieving doesn’t do any good.  Real grief — the opening and stitching of a wound — only really happens after the person is gone.  Pre-grieving in anticipation of real loss is its own kind of self-inflicted wound that can fester — if we allow it — for years.  Grieving needs to be kept sacred — as an appropriate response to death before life goes on.  And there is a lot to be said of celebrating the lives of those we love, both before and after their deaths.

I knew a man once who made it his life’s mission to torture his wife with the threats of and preparations for his impending death.  He wasn’t dying of anything — he was just aging and couldn’t stand to fear his own death alone. So in the grandest tradition of “gifts that keep on giving,” he trained her to spend every day making her own bed of nails so she could sleep in it and demonstrate her suffering and grief for him.  It was abuse, torture, and masturbation.  It was King Lear but without the eventual recognition of Cordelia’s love. And 15 years later, he’s still alive.

Pre-grieving is a good way to prolong the pleasure of death and loss, but not much of a way of life otherwise.

Building a national monument-sized pit where you can swim in all the sadness and losses that you accumulate in a lifetime isn’t such a grand idea either.

The way to grieve is to wait until after the loved one is gone, then weep, wail, scream at God, curse the slow progress of modern medicine, promise to live a better life — and then move on.  Anything less, anything more, and anything else is theatrical and makes for a luxurious bed of nails — but is not life — much less life going forward. Grief must be given the respect it deserves — and still, eternal and everlasting sacrifice of self and happiness is more than is required.