Fuji was a Japanese restaurant located close to where I live. We used to go there often because the sushi was fresh good and their bento boxes were terrific. The service too was excellent and the people who ran the place were very friendly. In spite of all that, the place was never full. They tried all kinds of things: 15% off your check , a hibachi room , special offers, weekend specials etc. Nothing worked and one day , inevitably , they closed down.
A month or so later, the Sushi Palace opened on the same premises. The first time I went there , I only had the beef negimaki and wasn’t able to form an opinion of the quality of the food. Last week I went there for the second time and was amazed to see how different the Sushi Palace was from it’s predecessor. The place was jam packed ; so many people were waiting for tables that I had difficulty making my way to the counter to place my take-out order. Mind you, this was inspite of the premises having been expanded and the tables being crammed closer together in order to increase the seating capacity. Wow, I thought to myself. The food must really be good.
I couldn’t have been more wrong as I found out when I went home with my order. The tempura was oily, the sushi did not taste fresh ; it fell apart easily and , in general, the food was not tasty. I wound up throwing half the sushi in the garbage, something I’ve never done before. The prices, it is true, were cheap, cheaper than at Fuji , and the portions were large. That , I suppose , accounts for the popularity of the place. The food is not good but they do give you a lot. As I was waiting for my take-out order, I overheard one of the patrons commenting about how he loves the restaurant because they give you so much food. In other words, quantity, not quality, is what diners want. It doesn’t matter how good the food is as long as there is a lot of it.
We have become a nation of gourmands , not gourmets. The hankering for large portions is a natural urge in all humans but it has been enhanced by the food channels on TV. In my opinion, one of the most reprehensible shows on TV is Man vs. Food , where Adam Richman regularly makes a pig of himself, wolfing down extra large platters of food. This is , by no means , the only such show. Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and a recent Travel Channel special 101 Best Places to Chow Down are two others that readily come to mind. Even in Anthony Bourdain’s show , there was an episode set in Texas where one of his crew members tried to finish a 6 pound steak in one hour.
And then there are the eating contests.
When I used to read about Nathan’s Hotdog Eating contest held every Fourth of July, I thought it might be fun to watch. Then I saw it on a TV food channel and I was completely turned off. It was disgusting to see the contestants cram the food into their mouths , sprayng out bits of it as they struggled to swallow. Some wetted the hot dogs in water in order to make it easier to force them down their gullets.
Nathan’s might have been one of the first eating contests but such “competitions” have proliferated in the past decade.Nowadays there are competititions for eating the most chicken wings , the most hamburgers , the most mayonnaise, the most donuts , the most bagels and a dozen other things. There is even a competitive eating circuit and the cash prizes for the winners are substantial. The winner of the Nathan’s contest , for instance , pockets a whopping $ 10, 000. Not bad for an afternoon’s work.
All this has somehow fostered the notion that it is somehow good , even heroic, to eat a lot. Food purveyors have been quick to pick up on this notion and encourage it. One of the N.Y delis, I think it’s either the Stage Deli or the Carnegie, features overstuffed sandwiches that are so packed with meat that it is impossible to get your mouth completely around them. The sandwiches , by the way cost between 16 and 20 dollars each , which is not cheap but it’s a bargain , right? There is s-o-o much food. A couple of years ago, We had been to the Palm Too steakhouse in New York a couple of years ago and the size of the desserts blew us away. Luckily , one of us had been there before and so we knew enough to order just one piece of chocolate cake . It was more than enough for six of us.
Luncheon buffets and all-you-can-eat restaurants are where you see the worst manifestations of greed. Some people seem to believe that unless they gorge ourselves at these places, they are somehow ‘losing’. Not only that, such people also believe in concentrating on the most expensive food choices, particularly meats and seafood. At Indian luncheon buffets, diners load up their plates with tandoori chicken . At the Majestic, a Chinese restaurant featuring an all-you-can-eat buffet, a man and his preteen son seated themselves at the adjoining table , their plates piled high with only two items : spareribs and chicken wings. No wonder, they were both grossly overweight.Such behavior is nothing new. I remember my friend , Arnie, boasting to me, forty years ago, about his exploits at a now defunct Brooklyn restaurant named Cooky’s. The weekend special was a lobster dinner that included an unlimited seafood bar. Arnie told me that he filled himself on shrimp and clams and suchlike and then had the waiter pack the lobster for him to take home . I suppose he felt he was putting one over on Cooky’s ; never mind that doggy bagged food doesn’t taste that good when you eat it the next day.
At wedding banquets , you see guests piling on the roast beef before they tackle anything else.They think nothing of filling their plates to overflowing and then wasting half of it. Is it that they feel they have given a gift and want to recoup it’s expense ?
We used to go to the Pegasus Restaurant overlooking the Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Patrons could partake of the sumptuous buffet, sit at the tables, dine and watch the horses through the floor to ceiling windows. It was an enjoyable experience , an affordable luxury to be indulged in once or twice a year. I’ll admit it was a treat to see the array of food stacked on three fifteen foot long tables ; one for the salads and appetizers, one for the entrees and one for the desserts. But , in time, we grew to dislike the sight of so much excess. We haven’t been to the Pegasus in the last five years at least.
For me the reason to go to all -you-can -eat places or buffets is that I get to sample a number of different dishes. One place we love to go to is Ichi Umi, a pan-Asian restaurant ( an East Coast version of Todai, only better). It offers an unlimited array of salads, sushi, satays , tempura and Japanese style fish dishes. The food is laid out so beautifully that it is a pleasure just to look at it; the desserts look like jewels and all the individual pieces are small so that you can sample a lot of different items.Recently though, there was a warning notice on all the tables. Some diners had been in the habit of eating just the fish from the sushi and dumping the rice; the notice warned patrons that in such cases they would be charged for the sushi by the piece, over and above the prix fixe.
Reading this post , it may seem that I’m getting curmudgeonly in my old age. Perhaps I am, but it has always bothered me to see food wasted. Food in this country is so plentiful and cheap that those who have never traveled abroad are not cognizant of how fortunate they are. If they had traveled , particularly to Asia or Africa, and seen how people have to struggle for their daily food , perhaps they would treat food with the respect that it deserves.
Our gourmandizing ways are not without their consequences. We have all read about how we Americans are dangerously obese but what really struck a chord with me was something a doctor friend of mine said . He told me that , in parts of the mid-West, large numbers of young people are suffering from childhood diabetes, the result of ingesting too much sugar.This is a pernicious disease which will cause them daily misery for as long as they live and also shorten their lives . We Americans are woefuly ignorant of our nutritional and dietetic needs and it would be a blessing if such information were made part of the school curriculum early on. It is ironic that unlike most other parts of the world where the poor are skinny and the rich are hefty; in America it is just the opposite.
Gourmet (n): a connoisseur of food and drink.
Gourmand (n) : one who is excessively fond of eating and drinking.