Sunday, December 28, 2008

Rotten Tomatoes

I had the most untasty culinary experience of my life on Saturday night.

I had nothing to do with it (in my defense I make a much better dessert than I do dinner). My mother had nothing to do with it (in her defense she makes damn good Blueberry Buckle). My mother-in-law had nothing to do with it (in her defense…uh…yeah….like at Thanksgiving when I tried the cookies and had to do a napkin hurl and Chris said well what did you expect look at who made them!).

None of that. No – I actually paid money for this.

Saturday night. Time to eat. Again. Do you ever feel this way? Like, must we eat – again? But we have to. If not for survival then to get through the workouts the next day. It’s a holiday week which means the grocery shopping has been neglected for about a week while we sponged off of other people’s holiday tables instead. That left us with a box of withered spinach, a can of pumpkin, some pita chips, lentils and a gallon of milk that I swear has been in the refrigerator for three weeks.

None of that spells dinner so I made a suggestion – let’s go out to eat.

Now you should know something about me. I do not like going out to eat. For one thing, it’s really not healthy for you. Even if they say it is – it’s not. I know this. How? I’ve worked in restaurants. I know that nothing spells flavor like three sticks of butter into a giant vat. Use two and it’s low fat. Another thing, I really don’t like other people touching my food. I get REALLY freaked out at the idea of someone touching something that I will eat. Why? Because I know that my hygiene in the kitchen is marginal at best. There is a dog. Sometimes I pet him. Then I cook. Notice a step missing? Right, wash your hands.

Not a big fan of the eating out.

But desperate times call for desperate measures. So I suggest we not only go out but we try something new. The sirens should have gone off right there. You see, to get around my fear of eating out, I stick with my safe places, about 4 restaurants that I can rely upon to sell me somewhat tasty, consistent and moderately priced food. I order the same thing to keep my anxiety low and satisfaction high. I know that there is no such thing as a safe place but work with me here – I have found 4 places that I think are ok.

Tonight I say to Chris that I want salad. I want a giant salad with lots of good stuff. I love salad. Eat it every day but not your namby pamby lettuce leaves, tomatoes and crouton salad. No, I like a hearty, fancy pants if you will, salad. Give me a bed of spinach, grilled chicken, sliced avocado, mango chunks, greek yogurt, cinnamon – more than just a bunch of leaves, I'll make salad into a meal.

Usually when I want a meal-type salad we go to Whole Foods. Sure it’s overpriced but if you hit it at the right time you have some tasty and fresh choices on their salad bar. Go too late at night and you get crusty overcooked remnants. Most of the time, though, it’s decent and worth it. How often can you get rosemary roasted harvest vegetables in your salad? Grilled tempeh? Cranberry couscous? Not often – that’s what makes it worth going to.

For some reason I’m feeling risky tonight. I say to Chris – let’s not pay 30 bucks for salads at Whole Foods. Let’s try something new. How about ___________(enter name of restaurant that shall remain unnamed)? I don’t know – I drive by it often enough and the sign looks nice. It looks healthy. And it is a place for salad. So why not?

GarbleGRRRR(#$()@#*($)#($)(#*@(!!!

The first thing that should have tipped me off was grabbing a tray. Ok. But I play along. I come to a bowl of spinach. Fair enough. I like my dark leafy greens. Then I come to your standard fare salad vegetables. Things like green peppers, cucumbers, broccoli and mushrooms. At this point I’m getting a little confused. This is all nice but I had envisioned a mecca for salad. You don’t call yourself a salad restaurant and put carrot shreds on the salad bar. I expected things like grilled chicken, balsamic roasted vegetables, fruits, nuts, special cheeses – things you might actually go out to a restaurant to pay money for to put on top of a salad.

Right?

Instead I find sunflower seeds next. Garbanzo beans. Peas? Cheddar cheese? The freak out is starting. This is not good. Buckets of dressing. Low fat ranch. BARF ICK ACK! LOW FAT RANCH!??!

I just realized I have possibly walked unknowingly into the salad version of Old Country Buffet.

It gets worse. There is no chicken. No meat. No fish. No non-meat meatless substitutes. But but but but but where is the tempeh? The sesame tofu? But…..harvest vegetables? No walnuts?

I wanna go to Whole Foods! (I’m gonna throw my tray, really, try me, I’ll throw it…far)

But I can’t. I’ve got the tray and I just happened to slide it right in front of the cash register. Meanwhile, Chris has piled two dishes high with what looks like picnic food – creamy salads with potatoes and macaroni and…get me a napkin. I need to do the napkin hurl.

I pay for this stuff. It costs over twenty dollars. You are kidding. I might have said that. I also might have grabbed the wrong beverage cup. Apparently you can only drink water out of the blue cup not the clear cup. I was told this twice. When I finally realized the mistake I made I just said “gotcha” and put my clear cup back.

Sorry.

It gets better. There is a bar full of soup (rule #239879384 of eating out: never ever eat soup on a buffet bar). There is a baked potato bar (do those really still exist?). A pizza bar (no comment). A pasta bar (do one thing and do it right – is this a salad place or a potato/soup/pasta/pizza place?). And, as if all of this wasn’t enough to make you want to go back for seconds or thirds….there it is:

Vanilla pudding

Someone call for help. I am eating at a place that considers vanilla pudding a high demand item. And it’s not my dad’s nursing home.

Before I get to all of those good eats I hunt for protein. Besides garbanzo beans there MUST be a source of protein here. Grilled chicken. It is nowhere. Did I look desperate or crazy when I mumbled NO CHICKEN to one of salad bar-rettes? (really what do you call someone that replenishes canned soup and peas on a salad bar) – because he said the chicken is over there.


Oh. There. I realize I didn’t see it because it is in little plastic cups with a label that says $1.25. You have to pay extra for 6 little pieces of (cold and rubbery) grilled chicken? So what exactly did I pay 10 bucks for? Oh, right. Having the choice of not one but two types of croutons. I cut in the line (don’t make me throw my tray at you), bought my chicken and sat down.

Chris meanwhile is in buffet heaven. So much that he tells me he has big plans for going up for vanilla pudding. He has about 10 different salads that he is trying – commenting that the tuna one is not so good. REALLY!?! I am scowling. I am concerned I will get salmonella, botulism, hepatitis C, strep, if not bird flu from eating at this place. I can feel myself getting sick already. Germs. Bacteria. The guy – him! – the salad bar-rette, I know he did not wash his hands! Chris tells me not to worry. The only thing that I could possibly get sick from is the spinach or mushrooms.

BOTH OF WHICH ARE PILED HIGH ON MY PLATE!

In my head I am plotting to wash my mouth out with Windex when I get home for cleansing when I notice something to my right. It’s a woman rubbing her hands with antibacterial Purex. Excuse me, ma’am – you do know that you are eating at a salad bar. A place where people touch things, scoop things and change their mind about things all while breathing maybe drooling all over those same things that are on your plate? And what will Purex do for THAT on your hands!? Cover the entire dish in Purex. Be super safe. And when you’re done with it, hand it over so I can rinse it in my mouth!

Chris distracts me with conversation but all I can see is a sign that says “cottage cheese” at the bar in front of me. And then…it comes into view…it can’t be…oh my god it is…a soft serve ice cream machine.

I haven’t sat in a place with a soft serve ice cream machine since I lived in a college dorm. Do you remember eating in the dining halls? A place with so many choices that were just so wrong that you lived for two straight years on nothing but Golden Grahams (true story)? A place so wrong that you got yourself a job in the catering department just so you had a fair chance at edible food each weekend as you hoped there would be leftovers from the receptions? A place where if you were feeling risky on a Friday night you would switch from Golden Grahams to Crackling Oat Bran (really high fiber on a Friday night is NOT a good idea).

Does anyone else remember that?

I do. All too well. I still cannot touch a Golden Graham.

I look around and realize it’s not just like the dining hall, it’s like a high school lunchroom. There are trays, counters and lots of noise. The only thing that is missing is a rack holding Little Debbie’s and a really large woman wearing a hair net and holding a spoon.

Help?

Then it hits me. What’s really bothering me here. It’s standard crap food guised under the cloak of “healthy for you”. It’s once again giving people what they want (permission to be bad) and making them feel all good and green about it. The place was literally covered in “it’s healthy for you!” signs. Sure, it is but then finish it with Cranberry Apple Cobbler and wash it all down with pink juice and….no. And when was the last time a healthy salad was covered in cheddar cheese, bacon bits and ranch? It’s like an edible oxymoron and it costs over 20 bucks. Not saying that any of my “safe places” are any better but I sure do feel a lot better under their cloak of “healthy for you” than surrounded by tray clatter, sprinkles and all you can drink Pomegranate juice made with organic green tea.

What?

At that moment, Chris comes back with a bowl full of vanilla pudding. We make a pact – never to return again. I make a pact to myself – grocery store tomorrow to buy all of the things I like to eat. Another pact – wash my hands, a lot. And the next time I want a salad away from home - I’m sticking to my safe place.

Can we go now?

14 comments:

Jennifer Harrison said...

YOU DID NOT GO to Sweet Tomatoes!? NO NO NO, not you! It is gross. I LOVE places like that and can eat anywhere, nothing like that even phases me...I don't even think about germs...but I went there ONCE (in Tucson with Spencer and his wife and Jerome) and I thought it was awful....and this was after working out for god knows how long that day and there I was: Sitting in plastic booth with crappy food and gross people.
Yeah....I agree with you. But, I have to say, I LOVE their vanilla pudding. :) HA.

E.L.F. said...

Yes, it was. In theory it should be have been a "safe" place. I could not have been more wrong. It was like fast-food salad. It was so wrong.

Wes said...

Eight to ten bucks for a salad is just more than I can stand... Being in the restaurant business, I know the wholesale prices on that stuff. Cheaper and better to make it yourself.

jtrimom said...

I wonder if this will work

cat. said...

did they have the mini wafer cones at the soft serve machine?

i'm just WAITING for you to come to l.a., there is a salad bar i go to that will, I PROMISE YOU, make you think you've died and gone to salad heaven.

it doesn't get healthier than this place ... though i always dash off to wash my hands after building my salad ... no telling whose been touching the tongs.

Jennifer Cunnane said...

I also give to thumbs up to Whole Foods or as I like to call it "Whole Paycheck" - their salad bar rocks!

Keith said...

Expensive? Yes, no question there. And there is a real possibility of getting sick from eating at a restaurant. Yes, I agree, a real possibility, in that one more advanced in mathematics than I am could calculate. But lets step back just a bit for some perspective. Food poisoning risk is somewhere between falling, and drowning, and way below motor vehicle accidents. Here's a good article with a chart. http://www.ific.org/foodinsight/1999/nd/worthriskfi699.cfm

Jenny Garrison said...

I have to admit that I LOVE Sweet Tomatoes. Kids are practically free and I am soo used to germs now:) Sorry!

Andrea said...

Grody.

Benson said...

Oh dear GOD!
That sounds so horrible.
My girl friend makes the salads, I add the protein. Yummy.

GoBigGreen said...

We had all the ice cream you can eat in college and yes it was right next to the cereal ...all day all night.

We were about 20 minutes from the Ben And Jerry's "factory" home base so needless to say I dont know if i can ever eat HeathBar Crunch or White Russian B and J again.

That sounds terribly traumatic! I hope you in salad heaven now..at home!

Drew said...

Ha! You just conjured up fine memories of softserve ice cream machines in the Miami dining halls, it really took me back to freshman year in the dorm. Thanks for the warning, I've had people recommend this restaurant to me but have never been, now I know not to bother!

Bob Mitera said...

I thought you were at OCB for a while. ST didn't exactly "blow my skirt up".

The eating out thing...love to...but just try to get healthy food for under $25/plate and not be in the City of Chicago.

In Chicago...Goodwin's Franklin and Lake! Arlington Heights - Chow Pattie - Veggie place that rocks on AH road.

Andra Sue said...

Well, *I* thought you were at a Souper Salad. So, since you weren't, I'd recommend staying away from those as well--sounds exactly like that Sweet Tomato mess or whatever it was. I haven't eaten in one since the end of college...although I do remember it being marginally better than our cafeteria, and they did have freshly baked gingerbread. The soups all looked like barf, though. Ick. :(