This must by my first post about food, ever. Anyway, was just commenting on a friend’s pic of a some pie on Facebook—can’t link to it, but the Instagram’d version’s here—and realized that the reason I have yet to try keylime pie (that’s what the pie in question was), even though I promised myself to after it looked halfway-good in Million Dollar Baby/on Clint Eastwood’s fork is that new food terrifies me like little else. Seriously. Meaning: new restaurants? I’ll go, but there’ll be some kicking, some inside-screaming, and just hours or pre-dinner dread. I mean, it’s never as bad I imagine it’s going to be—there’s usually something nearly-recognizable on the menu (the other night? it was what I called rabbit hushpuppies, as that’s what they were)—but that doesn’t mean I’m going to be better about this next time. I’m going to be just the same, actually.
Here’s what I look for, every city I go to:
That’s from . . . somewhere I was last week. Probably Texas.
Anyway, anybody remember that episode of Married with Children, where Peggy or one of the Bundys wins a prize that means Mr. Jupiter—the healthiest dude in the land of Fox—comes and lives with them for a week? That’s always been a touchstone for me. I mean, the fact that Mr. Jupiter, living on the Bundy diet, he dies during that week. And this is what the Bundy household thrives on (this only works if you consider their lifestyle to be ‘thriving,’ of course).
Example: I’m in high school, at some girl’s house in the afternoon, and she asks do I want some nachos. Of course I want some nachos. Couple minutes later, she comes back into the living room with a plate of cheetos covered in cheese slices, all of it microwaved for a couple minutes, to bring out the cheesy flavor. Mr. Jupiter would have died, I suspect.
Not me. Me? I remember going to town with my stepdad on Friday nights, growing up. We’d stand behind Long John Silver’s at nine o’clock. That’s when they carried out bags of leftover fish, for the trash. We were that trash. We’d sit in the cab of his oilfield truck by the dumpster and eat, our fingers and faces greasy. Years later, impossibly broke one summer (and also taking an overload of Shakespeare coursework—like, ALL the plays, all at once), those crunchies, as we called them, which LJS calls “crumbs” (they’re the golden-fried batter that floats to the top of the grease everything cooks in), I LIVED on those. Which doesn’t mean I ordered them on the side, or got them as extra. It means that I went to the counter over and over, asked for another boat of crumbs, please. They were my main and only nutrition. It takes a lot of them to make a meal, but, man, what a meal it is, right? Some of the best eating I’ve ever done, right there. It got me through that broke summer, when I was dreaming in iambic pentameter. One of my better summers ever, really—I was paying $110/month rent for the brokedown house I was living in, and, when I told my landlord I wasn’t going to be able to swing that anymore, he came down lower, even. Which I still had to turn down, as I had somewhere else to crash. But still: that house was by no means good—there was gunfire on Friday nights, usually, people running across the roofs, and you didn’t much want to go outside alone—but, less than $100 per month? That’s not bad living, right there.
Anyway, all the fancy restaurants I get taken to, I always order the exact same thing: salmon, with steamed vegetables. Near as I can tell, most salmon is highly edible. I mean, I like a good steak, don’t get me wrong, but to me ‘good’ means very burned, no pink whatsoever, and these high-dollar places, I usually end up in some sort of stand-off with a chef when I insist on no pink. So, it’s easier for all involved if I salmon it up. Provided of course the salmon’s all-the-way-cooked, not just seared. However, I have ordered a seared-salmon plate (this was in New Orleans) where I asked that it be cooked all the way. Which involved the chef coming out to loom over the table and try to glare me into submission.
Far as I’m concerned, the flavor in a steak, it comes from ketchup.
So, going to do a top-ten or so list here, but should preface it by saying that I don’t eat dairy (lactose intolerant—however, I CAN eat CostCo pizza, which makes me suspect that “cheese” that’s on it . . .), I don’t even get near onions, or mushrooms, I try to stay away from garlic—really? What I don’t like, it’s spices, or a lot of flavor. That bums me out tremendously, when my food has all this taste to it. Also, I’m some kind of chocolate-allergic, which means ‘real’/dark chocolate, it heats my mouth up, like instantly starts burning holes in it (Coke does this as well; Pepsi, not so much). Meaning: for candy, I stick to Sixlets, as—as with the CostCo pizza—I have certain suspicions about the brand of “chocolate” being used there. Also, I’ll only very reluctantly eat barbecue. I’m somehow from Texas, too, I know. Problem is, barbecue nearly always has been onion-proximate at some point or another, and when I get anything like that in my stomach, I’m done for the day. Like, bowled over, fetaled up, just let me lie here and hurt, please. Also, when I can, I order my french fries without salt, as salt is so hot. Burns my mouth. And, pepper? My last experience with pepper, I was five years old at Dairy Queen, and ended up with a bloody nose. So, needless to say, pepper’s far from the list.
So, here’s where I live breathe eat:
- Salmon. Which I mentioned already, yeah. I’ve been to fancy hanging-over-the-water places in Seattle and had all the different kinds, which were and are amazing, of course. But the salmon I return to again and again? Applebee’s. I’m not sure how they do it, but they do it right. It’s somehow the right kind of crisp on the outside, perfect on the inside. I bet I could eat three plates of it, given the right gift card.
- Sweet tea. This is supposed to best in the South, I know. And it is great there, definitely. But, for my money, where I go when I want some really excellent, truly bottomless sweet tea, it’s Jason’s Deli. Also? Those cups are to-go, so you can drink your fill, then take some with you. That’s pretty much the dream, right there.
- Burgers. Once people figure out I’m into burgers, they always take me to the best place in that city. And it’s usually cool, of course. However, I’ve yet to find any burger that matches up to a well-done triple-meat with bacon and ketchup-only from Whataburger. Seriously, there’s nothing like it. It’s heaven in your mouth, pretty much. On book-tour through Texas just now, I was there for three days, I think, and, in those three days? I hit Whataburger five times.
- Donuts. Growing up, since me and my brother never dug cake, we always got Winchell’s glazed donuts for our birthdays (which are one day apart). So, I always figured they were my favorite—so long as there was no drive-by chocolate on the side, or errant sprinkles, or surprise-fillings, or other people’s fingerprints. Until, one Texas Book Festival, Joe Lansdale and me stood in line at that Starbuck’s on Congress for so long that I figured I had to order something, so I did: one of their cakey donuts. Which hooked me, completely and forever. I don’t drink coffee, don’t even like to be around that smell, but I’ll hold my breath just to stand in that line, get another one of those old-fashioned donuts, please.
- Rolls. My favorite rolls come from Texas Roadhouse. They’re not the most healthy creations to ever come out of a kitchen, I suspect, and what they’re doing is making you feel full so you then feel like you’ve eaten a bigger steak, but still, man: they’re so, so excellent. Haven’t had one for years now, but I still think about them pretty regular.
- Steamed vegetables. I’ve had them everywhere, and the most dependably-excellent steamed veggies, they’re always at Red Lobster for me. I know—I say I don’t like spices, and I’m pretty sure that’s the secret here, that they’re doing some slight spice on their vegetables. But I’m falling for it. Every chance I get. Though second in this category would be Boston Market. And, it’s surprising to me that I even like vegetables. Until I was about twenty, I never ate them, was strictly red-meat-only please (with some occasional fried chicken). Well, red-meat and loaves and loaves of bread.
- Caesar Salad. I’m always so bummed when I’m somewhere fancy enough to put actual anchovies on my salad. That’s not the taste I’m after. My favorite caesar salad, it used to be from Sooper Salad, because it would sit up there on the bar long enough for the croutons to get soggy. And soggy croutons on caesar salad are about the most perfect thing there is. However, the Sooper Salads close to us closed, so, it’s been a long while since I got to experience this wonderfulnessocity.
- Shark. I had this once, off a stick, at a renaissance festival or something in Florida, back in the mid-nineties. It was impossibly delectable. I’ve had other prey-fish since, trying to look for that flavor, but have never found it again. And, also, I’d feel bad picking ‘shark’ off a menu now, as I want them to stay in the water, keep doing shark-things.
- Neck roast (venison). Been eating deer and elk all my life, but still, nothing I’ve ever shot’s matched up with a neck roast my friend at Danforth Middle School down in Wimberley, Texas smuggled to school one day in foil. He’d stolen it from his dad, said he was getting beaten black and blue when he got home. But that’s what all my friends’ dads were always doing anyway. Might as well do something to deserve it, yeah? This and the shark, they’re tied for the best single bite of food I’ve ever had.
- Eggs Benedict. A recent discovery. Who knew something this weird-looking would be so excellent? However, I order the hollandaise on the side (way to the side . . .) when I can remember to, as I can’t understand how that’s supposed to make this experience any better. Think I discovered these at BizzaroCon, too, so: thank you, BizarroCon.
- White pretzels. They call them “yogurt-flavored,” but I’ve found that when I buy these from fancy places, they don’t sit well. Must be some dairy or something in there? Maybe rat poison? But when I get them from a gas station, then they’re perfect, man. Can eat these forever. Times two. They’re one of three recent discoveries, the other two being: cashews and guacamole (though, my guacamole, it’s just smushed-up avacados, nothing surprising mixed in there, please. which can cause some unpleasantness with wait- and kitchen staff, I’ve found).
So, yeah, pot-luck type affairs? I always try to skate away, skate away. People hide dairy and onions in everything, it seems. I’ll be the guy sitting way back at the far table, eating the most normal things I could find on that table of danger.
And, I’ll keep going to all the fancy restaurants, of course. They’re fun, man. Just, I’ll also always be ordering salmon, please. And I may be stopping at drive-through afterwards—speaking of: many years ago, on an invited gig somewhere, after the reception, all the dressed-up people were milling around, asking where did I want to eat, what do I like? I kept insisting that it didn’t matter, I can order something boring anywhere I go, but they kept on insisting, so finally I leaned out the front door of the place, pointed to the Wendy’s across the street, and there we all went. It was some good eating, man. For some dressed-up people, none of whom ended up having cash, either (this was before we call carried cards, and I kind of doubt Wendy’s was taking cards back then, either).
Anyway, the other night I was . . . I don’t know, going to a dinner somewhere, I guess, and whoever was doing the organizing, they hit me up, said do I like this, do I like that? My response: if a really picky second-grader would eat it, or if it would be on the kids’ part of a not-expensive Chinese food buffet? Then that’s right where my happy place is. I can live on chicken strips, man. Chicken strips, they’ve saved my life so many times. So, if the zombie apocalypse doesn’t have chicken strips? Count me out, please.
And, until then, I’ll be eating healthy, I figure. It worked for Al:
I mean, in the sense her survived that episode/lifestyle, it worked for Al. Many other things didn’t work out for him, though.
And, I know, I’m supposed to have searched up snapshots of all this stuff to go along with the talk, but, man, I just finally can’t fetishize eating that much (not meaning to be holier-than-though, here, don’t worry—I fetishize plenty of other stuff that’s hardly worthy of it). Really? Had a uselessly-fancy three- or five-course dinner the other night with a dude who was A) one of the two or three most stoned people I’ve ever sat with, and B) extolling the virtues of this “Soylent” stuff he’s living on. Just, drinks that taste pretty much like nothing. And then your meal’s over, no thinking, no hassle, just some fast nutrition, so you can go on, do something good. I’m thinking I need to order me up a case of that (not unrelated? I so, so love tofu. and this Soylent stuff, it sounds like tofu that requires zero preparation!). And? That three- or five-course meal we had—I don’t know, some kind of bloody-gross lamb, some soup that looked like melted radioactive waste, a dessert that, due to some curse, had pistachios sprinkled on it—me and this dude, we both just let the staff keep taking them away, please, after we’d moved them all around with our forks. Went to bed very hungry that night, but with my principles intact. And it’s always better to be true to yourself, I figure. If growing up on Louis L’Amour taught me nothing else, I at least got that: don’t compromise. Which I translate out to: order the chicken strip basket, dude. And: spend too much time thinking about your food, and you won’t have time to think about actually-important stuff, like trucks, and boots, and writing novels.
last-minute edit, which I can’t work in above: my all-time favorite meal. what I ask for whenever I can. If I’m getting executed, what I’d for that fabled last meal. it’s one I’ve been eating since I was fourteen. It’s 85% (or less) lean ground beef, crumbled-up and cooked in a pan until pretty black, no seasonings, served in a big bowl with a big spoon. On the side: spit-top dinner rolls. This meal makes me intensely happy. I love being able to just spoon meat in, without having to cut it. And each bite, it has like a crust to it. So, so good. I remember coming in from basketball practice in ninth and tenth grade, cooking up a pound or two of this, and just inhaling it. Been inhaling it ever since. And, always only at the house, too, as I’ve never seen “1.5lbs ground beef, crumbled, well-done” on a menu anywhere. And you can hardly buy split-top rolls anymore—though I did find a stash of them recently, at some hidden grocery store or another. Had a week of happiness, there.