If you want to know where I believe the line should be between where we expect our country to intervene on the subject of public health and where it should stay out, here's where: somewhere between putting guardrails on the interstate and the newly-announced FDA guidelines mandating the publication of calorie counts on menus.
The new law requires a lot more than that: prepared foods in markets must have their calories listed, as must snacks in movie theaters and bakeries. Same with fast food meals, and even some alcoholic cocktails(!). Arguments could be made against all of these, I suppose, but I won't bother- if you're ordering while standing, then it's not a sacred mealtime, and you might just have to see (ignore) the stats on the potato wedges you're packing into the box. A convenient point of pause- a little "Hey Pal, are you sure you want to do this?"- might be useful there, although if you're in the prepared food section at Kroger, chances are you've already ignored some pretty compelling health advice.
But you have crossed a line on this one, FDA. On the menu. That's where you are going to find the calorie counts for dishes at restaurants with more than twenty locations. I know, I know- the first thought is "Chain restaurants, who cares?" Can you really harm the menu of a restaurant whose name contains the word "factory" and already has ads- ads!- in the fucking menu? No, you can't. Those menus are like Madeira; anything harmful you can do to them has already been done, on purpose. But not every chain restaurant out there is a Cheesecake Factory or Applebee's- some, despite their dreaded "chain" status, do aspire to delivering a more genteel dining experience. But a line had to be drawn, and it was drawn under the number 20.
I know that chain restaurants don't have the most romantic reputation, especially among the Bourdain-worshipping, food porn-consuming, 21st century Prousts who populate Yelp! and are our answer to Brillat-Savarin. Among this set, the second location is always inferior to the original, unless it brings the chef/artiste's unique brand of foie gras and cough-syrup donuts a little bit closer to the abode. Uniqueness and authenticity* are paramount, and having to step over a hobo in the doorway certainly doesn't hurt. An unmarked, menu-less four-table operation operated by a illiterate Peruvian grandmother would rival Per Se for cred with this crowd. And these folks might line up for $12 tater tots served from a truck, but they'd only enter a chain restaurant to make a mocking Instagram post.
I'll go easy on chain restaurants, though my affection for them certainly has its limits. The protection of quality does come at the expense of creativity and spontaneity; as the chain grows, so does the oppressive Audubon-sized employee manual. Chances are that you'll be placated more than titillated at a chain. But at times when I want predictability over precociousness, I'm not too cool to hit up a familiar player. Not Applebee's, not Friday's, but something in between; no white tablecloths, but no license plates on the walls. Think Houston's. Think Nashville-based J. Alexander's. These places guard quality fiercely. They make their own sour mix. The wine list is practical, but thoughtful. Minute details have been fretted over, and there is art. Is it art at its most frighteningly provocative? Well, no, but I'm not sure a Mapplethorpe or Serrano would complement my roasted chicken. These places do just about everything food snobs expect high-quality restaurants to do, only they've cursed themselves by cloning.
I come here not to praise chain restaurants, just to acknowledge them as places that have not abandoned all hope of providing a comprehensive experience for the guest. That intention is still there in the service. It's in the politeness and the music and the atmosphere. And as a diner, just because you have chosen a chain does not mean that you don't want those things. And it certainly does not mean that you want boner-dropping measurements on the menu.
These menus have been designed, and their language has been chosen carefully. They're not perfect- chain-menu language** has the tendency to lean hard toward the matter-of-fact ("marinated"), the overused ("artisanal"), and the purple ("unctuous" comes to mind). And now we'll be privy to more unwelcome descriptors- neck-padding, muffin-topping, wheeze-inducing- in numerical form.
So good luck to the chains that boast more than twenty restaurants but still want to create a fine experience- you have been lumped in with the Cheesecake Factories of the world; your menu is no more sacred than one lousy with corporate come-ons. Oh, I'm sorry- did you mean to enable a dining couple to have some kind of romantic meal? Well, maybe they can heat things by up discussing how long it will take to fuck off 212 calories of Béarnaise.
And will it really be 212 calories worth? Listing accurate counts on food cooked to-order by humans is much more fraught than listing those of a robot-produced, -weighed, and -packaged bag of chips. There are just too many variables. As The Roost chef Johnny Keenan coached me (when we were roomies) on basting a steak bistro-style: "throw in a fat knob of butter." How many grams, exactly, is one "fat knob"? And how much of that basting butter is going to remain in the skillet after the steak is plated? It's hard to say, it differs every time, and while these places may get strong-armed into nailing their offerings down to the calorie, the boys in back will still be cursing special requests, still be smoking American Spirits, and still be "measuring" by the fat knob.
The fast food example illustrates this issue. In Tennessee, places like Chipotle don't have to list their counts on the menu- yet. But they do in Maryland, apparently, because I noticed during a layover that the board at the BWI Chipotle is plastered with useless nutritional counts. Why useless? Because the myriad filling combinations enable the eater to opt for a burrito ranging from 700 calories to over 1300- so that's the posted range. They don't have the room on their board to specify what amounts*** of which ingredients will take your burrito from the Dennis Kucinich to the Peter King version, so what the hell is the point? It's complicated, and we're blessed with the technology to allow Chipotle to build a nutrition calculator- which they've done, and which you can access to your heart's delight on your smartphone- so can't we just leave it at that?
I remember when it became customary for fast food outlets to make nutritional information available in the form of depressing pamphlets hanging in the hallway. But there's no need for pamphlets now, and no need to take a trip to the shitter to pick one up- we all have the world's entire menu in our pockets 24/7. Christ, you can have lunch at a mom-and-pop diner in Saskatoon next week and decide what you're having today- what would it take for restaurants to post their nutrition facts online for those who want them? Maybe that's you, maybe it's not. Transparency does not necessarily mean a flashing neon sign pointing to high-calorie foods blinking Care! Care! I don't mean to get all Ayn Rand on you here, but sometimes a moral obligation is more than fulfilled by leading the horse, bucking and fighting, down to the stream. It's his choice from there- maybe he drinks deeply, or maybe he takes a sip and looks around for a Whataburger.
We've got our health problems in this country, sure. But is this really the place to fight that battle- at relatively nice restaurants that, for most diners, is not an "everyday" place? I mean, it's like foisting Gamblers Anonymous literature on the ticket holders of a Little League raffle.
And all logical argument aside, some things are just wrong. Have you ever read a menu that instructs you to "pick a protein" to put on your pasta or salad? A pox on whoever first decided it was ok to put science words on a menu. Yeah, skirt steak is made of protein (and fat), but it's not "a protein." This is the colliding of two reluctantly related worlds- those of the Great Pleasure of Eating and the Hard Facts of Health. There's no untangling these strange bedfellows, though their language and points-of-view could not be more different. Crisp. Melted. Braised. These adjectives are evocative poetry, capable of igniting desire out of the slightest twinge of hunger. Roquefort. Glidden Point. Place-names that conjure the steep hillsides and rocky, chilly Atlantic waters from which your cheese and oysters have come. These are the words that belong on a menu: flashing Eat Me! signs that signal great things to come. Compare those words with calorie. It's just an anodyne word that represents an objective measure of a food's energy content, but only scientists and triathletes read it that way. To most, it's a danger word that that tells us not what benefit we're going to derive from a food, but how it's going to harm us. Maybe I just made the other side's whole argument, but we're seated, we're hungry, and we're about to enjoy one of the most elemental pleasures known to man- can't we just have that?
So subvert, chain restaurants! Print it in 6-pt., and print it in cream on an eggshell-colored menu. Imprimez-le en français. Use Zapf Dingbats. Don't break the law, but don't bow completely to it. Let the cooks make us food, and let the words make us want it- and don't let the numbers take that away.
*Authenticity as determined by 25-34 year-old tech or finance worker who spent a year abroad.
** A recently published book called The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu explored these trends, noting that lower-end, hoi polloi-geared menus abound in descriptions: gooey, smothered, etc. Higher-end, chef-driven places aimed at savvier diners tend to stick to one-word tip-of-the-iceberg-type "descriptions." This is true. For example, under Wedge Oak Farm Pork (which cut?), it might read: Soy-Roots-Sesame, which inspires and necessitates such a comprehensive description from the server that you wonder why they didn't just save a tree and give the whole menu in soliloquy form.
*** Next time you're at Chipotle, ask one of the assemblers for "a little" of something on your burrito, then watch in horror as she glops about 1 c. of sour cream on there with a mini-trowel. They don't know what "a little" means.
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