To eat truly terrible food every once in a great while can actually be a blessing in disguise. As I unloaded my treats and treasures carried from New Orleans this weekend into my fridge last night, I gave thanks for all the great food I eat.
I very rarely eat really awful food anymore. I’m not talking McDonald’s French fries, to which I’m morally opposed, and which are terrible for you, but let’s be honest folks, taste amazing. I’m talking food that tastes, looks and if we’re on such levels, acts in such a way that you expect it to come from a child’s diaper.
People eat bad food for whatever reason: They’re too lazy, they don’t know any better, they failed to plan or there were unpredictable circumstances that force them into it. That last one was my excuse. Having just eaten my way through New Orleans, my belly had completed a whirlwind tour of no less than 14 meals, at least five of which involved bread pudding in 4 days, I was now stuck in the Ramada North Houston at 11pm at night with little food recourse. Our flight out of NOLA had been delayed, we’d missed our connection and now the empty Texas suburb enveloped us in its strip-mall glow.
I’m not saying it was healthy or enjoyable to eat food this bad. I just debated adding quotes around the word food in that sentence. In fact if you had suggested that any good would come out of the meal, I would have aggressively pointed at the misshapen, supposed dumplings and said, “Really? That?”
“Do you have the number for Domino’s?” C, with whom I was stuck, asked. The front desk didn’t think that they still delivered pizza at that hour, but rather handed us the menu to Chef Henry’s Hunan Cuisine, which delivered until 1am. Briefly I allowed my mind to flit back to the beautiful Hunanese food that we ate in Beijing: Spicy donkey meat, unidentifiable wild vegetables and rich, simple duck soup. I shook myself back to reality and we giggled with glee at the prospect of some good old Americanized Chinese food.
Unlike some people in the world, I don’t automatically categorize inauthentic as bad. One of the best cooking tricks my mother ever taught me was a stir-fry sauce made up of only ketchup and soy sauce–and if you ever need to cook in a college dorm or hostel kitchen, trust me this dish will make you friends and save you money. Americanized Chinese food falls into that same category. I’m not saying I’ll pick General Tso’s over Dan Dan Mien any day, but I’d rather have good General Tso’s than any Domino’s. Though I will make a side note to admit that while in high school I was acutely aware of the fact that it took three orders of the breadsticks to make minimum delivery and that if you didn’t ask for Garlic Butter dipping sauce 3 times, they’d forget it. What? Chinese food? Right.
An hour later Chef ***’s arrived at our door. We unbundled the food and supplies–the lack of chopsticks included should have been our first sign of disaster to come. We ordered a variety of things, starting with dumplings on the basis that even a terrible fried dumpling couldn’t be too bad (Open mouth, insert words). I cannot express in words just how bad these dumplings were. When showing people how to fold dumplings I always say that it doesn’t really matter, they all taste the same, but these were so poorly folded by someone who clearly cared so little, that it contributed to the awfulness. It was like frozen square wrappers were simply folded over, then squeezed, so instead of a meat filled part with dough border, it was a pouch of meat at the bottom with a large rooster comb of dough on top. But rooster comb’s are prettier.
By visuals alone, I was already noting how much better most of my meals are. I love bright oranges of citrus, beautiful greens and purples of vegetables, spicy reds from peppers, the rainbow on my plate. Before we even began to eat, I was already reviewing how lucky I am at most of my meals.
We tried the Orange chicken, thinking perhaps they excelled only at super-American dishes, we tried Hunan beef, thinking we needed to try more authentic. While I saw a pepper in there (and not just the one next to the dish on the menu) I couldn’t actually taste, well, anything. Cornstarch has no flavor, you know. The rice was dry and old and the fried rice seemed to have lacked the “frying” step and to be simply rice with soy sauce and stuff in it. With little left to say, we opened our fortune cookies, squinting to shield our eyes from the strange yellow glow coming from them.
Now, looking back at the meal I’m glad I ate it. To remind myself how much I enjoy the great meals. To show how low the standard can fall. So that I leave no nuance of deliciousness undescribed when I write on this blog. With my batteries drained to low, I’m now recharged, ready to go out, and build back up to the most delicious foods I can find.
P.S. The final irony? When we got to the room, we realized the number for Domino’s Pizza was on the advertisement on our key cards.