Walking with an old classmate toward Union Square one blustery night, I asked her if she was hungry. “I know a good felafel place nearby,” I said, “Its cheap, and then we could go over to the Strand Bookstore.”
“Well, I did have felafel once in LA,” she said uncertainly, and I remembered that she is a strictly white meat and white bread eater. So when we passed a pizza place she eagerly accepted my suggestion to eat there. I hesitated, though, upon entering. The pizzas lay dead-looking, long-cold and hard as beef jerky behind the glass. The place itself didn’t help: a big box with too much space at the front for the ovens and refrigerators; no more decoration than a Japanese cat waving, in gold atop a refrigerator, and chairs and tables in back with a counter selling Chinese food. No tomatoes or Indian corn or tall bottles of oil with olives and peppers inside decorated the barren counter. There was a neon sign in the back, perhaps a steaming bowl with a pair of bright yellow chopsticks.
“Look OK?” I asked Heather.
“Sure,” she said, “I’ll have one cheese, please,” and the lone pizza man tossed a rigid slice in the oven. I followed suit with a pepperoni and sausage. With sodas, it was only 4.50. the cashier was a Chinese girl. When I shook on some garlic powder she kindly asked, “Do you want parmesan cheese?” and reached it out of the fridge for me. I sat down and told Heather about all the Tex-Mex places run by the Chinese in New York, and how the food was damn good.
“I know it can’t be genetic, but whatever it is, they have a knack for food.”
“Mmm, its really good,” she exclaimed, chewing.
“Damn,” I agreed, blindsided by the taste and texture. “But why is it so good?”
“I’m a sauce person,” she said, “I think its the sauce. There is enough; you know some pizzas they scrape a little on with a knife just for some red color.” There was no outstanding feature to the pizza: no thick mat of cheese, Pizza Gut style; no smorgasbord of toppings to blow customers away with a vision of colorful excess; no outrageous gimmicks involving pumping up the calorie count, like Stufft™ Krust™ wit’™ pepperoni inside™.
It was an old fashioned pizza, a pre-1980’s pizza. It was a classical pizza, descendant of those legendary rounds made on the Parthenon. It was classical because it formed a perfect unity of effects through moderation in all its parts. This pizza was restrained – and so it was wildly sensual, melting me with intimations rather than assaulting me with the overwhelming force of a direct sexuality.
I may be so bold as to argue that the Powell Doctrine has found its way from the military to America’s restaurants: overwhelming force, an aggressive use of oil, cheese, salt, and meat. Much focus is placed on the food’s appearance. This appearance focus sets up an oppositional dynamic. The consumer is held to be the prize that must be competed over and captured, thus every trick in the book – including the photography book – is justified. Th most aggressive corporate chains – say, McDonald’s, or Outback Steakhouse – rely on such tricks.
Have you ever tried the onion blossom at Outback Steakhouse? Your encounter with it starts even before the luscious effect of the photographs in the menu. It begins when you walk in the door. There is an air of excitement, of a happening, the Hindenburg’s arrival. People in the suburban uniform of jeans and sneakers or boots are lined up looking bored and distracted, peering over at the lucky early arrivals gorging on the taste of Down Under™.
Besides the excitement of The Big Event is that whiff of the foreign (but not too foreign) which Australia fits perfectly. Australia in this case is a kind of America in a different suit of clothes, a country like us of white English-speakers who ran roughshod over natives, raised cattle, and got rich – but remained stubbornly provincial. They fought the Japs, too, so they are tough, and they maintain a charming affection for a distant queen. They are a quirky version of us, our alter ego. The decor in Outback seems an odd take on our own aesthetic cliché of “The Southwest”: pastels, faux adobe, geometric designs, cacti, and arched windows. Like Taco Bell, but not! The main difference seems to be a predominance of lavendar purple, grey, and beige – no doubt an authentic expression of the aboriginal culture.
So, even before one lays eyes (or mouth) on the Onion Blossom, one has already been drawn in by the aura of the event around it, the crowds of people eager for it, and the hints of an exotic Reality just slightly different from our own exotic desertlands. We know this much: this place is the Real Thing.
And then we see the Onion – the glorious onion. It is there, blasting golden-brown out of a poster on the wall of the waiting area. It is a blockbuster movie now playing. It is massive, five times bigger than life, crispy and hot, so real, promising to fulfill our fantasies of Something (anything) New – to soothe our cravings for the thing we cannot put our finger on because we have never seen it, to scratch the itch we cannot seem to locate in the belly or soul. It promises to make us feel complete after all our restless searching and net surfing. It is photographed to grab us, to punch us in the face, after all the foreplay of excitement at the entrance. And it does.
After all the wait, the onion hit us like a ton of bricks: oily and piping hot and strange, delicate and crispy, driving us insane with That Taste™ from Down Under. Maybe those bricks were of cocaine, or MSG, for that was how we snorted those petals down, unstoppably, joyous as pigs in a trough. By the time the entrees came out we were wiping our oily fingers and shifting in our seats, ardor cooling, a slight queasiness roiling our bellies. The last few fragments of onion lay cold on the plate, and no one wanted to so much as lay their eyes on them. The rest of the meal was meat filling for the stomach.
This is the strategy of mass market American dining, which straddles the line between supermarkets and more upscale restaurants. Such places resemble supermarkets in relying on luscious visuals and mass-produced, simply-cooked items that hit the stomach hard with a thousand calories. From restaurants they borrow the concept of “atmosphere,” reduced however to a few names or symbols and an easily reproducible color scheme. The way to Americans’ stomachs, in other words, is through the eyes on the one hand, and through a fantasy association, usually with some far place or time, evoked with interior decor. The visuals, like blockbuster advertising, are meant to stimulate a desire, a craving for possession; the decor is meant to satisfy the need for the object of desire to fit into a larger fantasy world, a narrative of emergence: the emergence of the onion from the bush, across the ocean, to my very own plate.
When the desired dish appears, it is eaten half with the mouth and half with the mind, which is in a state of agitated expectation for the act of possession. This expectation is a channeling of forbidden carnality toward gluttony. What forbids carnality in Americans is not, however, the church, but the church of work and efficiency; its moral warnings are more effective than that of the Puritan elders.
The experience of eating, in other words, is primed first by the luscious picture. The picture taunts: this is the pleasure you lack. It also promises: your lack can be drowned in gooey waves of sauce or cheese. So when it finally enters the mouth, the satisfaction is of a dream come true, a dream as much of wallowing in excess as of tasting something delicious. Like most dreams brought to life, however, the pleasure deflates very fast. Only that pleasure which is partly deferred lasts. The initial fireworks, provided by lots of oil or cheese, turns mildly repellant when the cheese hardens or the grease cools. The dream is nudged aside by a mundane reality. But never being fully satisfied, the visual promise remains, never disappearing, always promising the ultimate satisfaction in which the mouth’s total indulgence satiates the longing of the soul for fulfillment.
Pronto Pizza is the exact opposite, and even though I see through the fake brightness of Taco Bell’s lit-up images of Tacos and Chalupas, it does not necessarily follow that a place with no atmosphere and ugly food is good. Nor does a critical eye mean one does not continue to secretly hope against hope for a food paradise to put all longings to rest. Herein lies the mystery of Real Food: appearances lie, but not consistently. One never knows. Which makes the first bite, of blissful surprise, so precious. Beneath the belligerent hard sell of mainstream American food – as aggressive and misleading as a movie preview – good food can be found, disguised.