|Stanley M. Fried|
When in a rush to eat and I must seek out a quick bite on the run, I tend to search out a decent burrito, falafel, donburi, or gyros. The seasonings and textures of these items allow me to feel as if I have had a complete meal. The occasional hamburger is usually relegated to a sit down meal where the meat will be fresh and the bun has some substance. French fries are an especially sought after delight that I love to douse with vinegar or Tabasco sauce. On a trip to Belgium in the mid-1980s, I reveled in the frites that were served up fresh from stands throughout every town and offered with a choice of seasoned mayonnaise. There was a garlic mayonnaise and another seasoned with the Portuguese hot oil called pili-pili that worked well with the hot fries I ate while standing in the snow at midnight in the small college town of Leuven. I learned a long time ago that what is normal for me is not to everyone's taste.
While running around to complete a number of errands with my dear friend Mary in Los Angeles recently, we had occasion to seek out a quick bite to eat. Knowing my taste for the irregular, Mary drove into Glendale to regale me with a taste treat that I have avoided for years. Glendale is a sleepy suburb of Los Angeles best known as the home of Forest Lawn Cemetery. This once WASPish town has recently become home to a growing population of Armenian immigrants. As Mary drove to Glendale, my taste buds grew hungry for the heavy garlic tastes and lovely tomato sauces I associate with Armenian food. The thought of lamb or chicken excited my palate.
We drove up Central Avenue to an office complex that was modern and tastefully designed. The ground floor of this building housed a large eatery filled to capacity with people on their lunch break. Into the parking structure we drove. Cars were lined up in the parking structure for the drive through service that was offered here. We parked the car and walked across the cobbled driveway to enter the place through the rear door. Through the elegantly appointed entryway, we passed through a well appointed room with marbled floors and pleasing artwork on the walls. Faux marble columns of a green hue rose to the high ceiling from real marble-faced pedestals. Mary and I made our way to the center of the crowded yet quiet restaurant. Men and women in their business suits sat eating. Mothers with their children were calm and quiet in this space. Shoppers with their bags of goods sat over their lunch talking and joking. We were in a rather elegant MacDonald's.
The burgers at MacDonald's are my least favorite of any provided for a quick eat. The meat is without flavor, the buns have no taste, the sauce tends to taste metallic by the third bite. Ye, Mary chose this place because of its design. MacDonald's was reaching beyond its lowly burger-joint past to being a part of American cuisine. I felt as if the film Blade Runner had become realized in this place. The artwork on the walls were real paintings and collages that were well framed. The abstract minimalism worked well with the opulent surfaces of the room. People sat quietly here. Children sat quietly. This was MacDonald's as a dining experience. The concept made my skin crawl. The food upset my stomach. People sat in a well appointed room eating mediocre food that was wrapped in foil and paper off of serving trays. Beverages were drunk from paper cups. The room was lovely. The people were well dressed. The concept was awry. Worst of all, the coffee was dreadful. It ranked on a par with what is served on Amtrak or on airlines. The meal was a strange nightmare made real.
Thinking this MacDonald's experience was well behind me, I left a few days later to meet with some friends in Las Vegas. About a dozen of us were to convene there form all over the country. Partly to save money and partly as a joke, we chose Circus Circus to be our headquarters. As it turned out, MacDonald's had also chosen Circus Circus as its headquarters for a national convention of some sort during the same week.
I had not been to Las Vegas in a number of years. Not being much of a gambler, Las Vegas has never been a destination for me. It was a town I would stop over in while on my way to travel through the Navajo and Hopi lands of Arizona. It had been a number of years since I was last there with my friend Bob after such a trip. We spent a night there losing money in slop machines at Caesar's Palace and sleeping in some dump of a cheap motel. This was before the new family orientation of Las Vegas had begun. This was before all the new development had taken place.
The Las Vegas I flew into on this trip was overbuilt in a manner that Walt Disney could have never dreamt of in his worst nightmares. Standing in front of the lion head that beckoned people into the Oz casino of the MGM Grand Hotel, I looked out at a vista that made me nauseous. In the foreground were giant Easter Island-like tikis at the entry to the Tropicana. Beyond them was the architectural disaster of a medieval castle - that was not Bavarian nor French nor Slavic in design but merely clunky - that served as the portal to the Excalibur. Just a bit farther resided the obelisk, sphinx, and pyramid of the Luxor. All these designs clashed in a grand fashion. The juxtaposition of the elements made me queasy. I wasn't sure if I were going to be sick or if I were coming on to a hallucinogen that may have been slipped into my last drink. Las Vegas was surely not a place I wanted to return to anytime soon.
Worst of all, as one made his or her way along The Strip past casinos and hotels, there was the largest concentrations of MacDonald's I have ever seen. Most hotels or casinos seemed to be host to yet another MacDonald's. And each of these seemed to be always filled with people consuming the tasteless products offered up in vast quantity. Neon signs over casinos hailed the potential gambler with the allure of winning enough to purchase yet another Big Mac. One lone MacDonald's store held court in the middle of The Strip as if a flagship for the fleet that had invaded the massive hotels and casinos. This store had a huge sign that glittered with the best of the signs along Las Vegas Boulevard beckoning all who passed to enjoy the taste which here was everywhere and in Glendale was to be savored in a pleasing environment.
While walking along The Strip one hot afternoon with my friends, we passed a large group of people dancing some variant of the Conga in front of a huge MacDonald's sign. They were part of the convention and were being filmed for a commercial. I had entered into MacDonald's hell. It was everywhere. I was not safe from the Chicken MacNuggets or QuarterPounders. I could not escape from the Large Fries or the new offering of Pizza. The litter of golden arches printed wrappers were strewn along The Strip. Everywhere I looked there was a MacDonald's.
One afternoon, with nothing better to do, a group of my friends suggested we all go to MacDonald's for lunch. There was one above the casino in Circus Circus. I could not eat anything there. The place was filled with people consuming MacDonald's products in massive amounts. The friends who were form the South and MidWest seemed at home there. The Californians all seemed amused. It may have been Vegas, it may have been a vacation, bit it was still MacDonald's. I craved a decent burrito. I longed for a good falafel. Later that day, I was able to find some udon at Caesar's Palace. MacDonald's was behind me. Real food was possible.
Later in that week, I was in Seattle. Here was a town where I knew sanity would prevail. The nightmare of Ronald MacDonald would be behind me. Riding from SeaTac Airport to North Seattle, we passed what would become a new norm for my visual experience. Seattle is home to MacDonald's burger shops that sport signs touting they serve espresso. What is it in the American experience that requires mediocrity to pervade our lives to the extent nothing can be kept from being assimilated by corporate consciousness?
At the entry to the casino at The Luxor hotel in Las Vegas, there were two mannequins of camels that are electronically animated to talk with each other. People stand around watching them move and listening to the recording. While there, I didn't listen to what they said. But, I did stand for a long time while watching people mill about staring in wonder at them. What was it they saw? What held their attention? What could two dummy dromedaries say to each other that would be of worth to anyone? Beyond them was the call of gaming tables and slot machines. Above them rose the pyramid that housed hotel rooms and an amusement area. All this excess to entertain people enough to keep them spending money.
Taking a taxi to the Luxor one day, i was driven by a cabby from Ethiopia. We joked about the design of the Luxor. I asked him about good coffee in Las Vegas. We talked about Moka Harrar and Moka Sidamo. He was impressed when I mentioned Yrghacheffe and pronounced it close to correctly. It was a moment of sanity in the midst of a bad dream.
A Note: when traveling to Las Vegas, espresso is offered at many of the hotels. The MGM Grand Hotel serves up a poorly brewed coffee from Superior. The Luxor has a thin and bitter brew without any crema. Caesar's Palace has a number of espresso offerings. Cafe d'Italia and Mr. Espresso are most popular here although one place does serve up Illy Caffe. I had to ask the barrista to make my espresso over at this place. She blamed the bad coffee on the espresso machine not being any good. But, having watched her brew it, I remarked that all she needed to do was tamp the espresso tightly. On a second try, she produced a perfectly fine double espresso made from Illy Eschuro.
"Most people don't know the difference," she said to me as she handed over the cup.
"How can they if you don't let them know what is possible?" I responded.
|Stanley M Fried ©2007||Stories Commentary Images Links About Contact Home|