Tuesday, April 5, 2011

On Casual Dining: Beginning

I didn’t grow up going out to eat often. I am the oldest of four, and not of a family wealthy by American standards. We went out to Olive Garden, Bertucci’s, and Chili’s for special occasions, and loved the bottomless breadsticks, salads, and chips. I don’t recall having been to a restaurant that wasn’t a chain before high school. This year, as a Penn freshman, eating out most weekends has been a new and strange experience. I haven’t spent over $15 on food for one yet, and I’m not sure when I’ll be able to brace myself to do so.

From Wawa hoagies to White Dog is a big leap. I haven’t much experience to draw on when discussing food, and I’m not qualified to write a restaurant review. I’m tempted to rag on fine dining sometimes. Rather than doing so, though, I want to argue the virtues of littler, humbler experiences which I think are undervalued and often underrepresented. I want to find the people, restaurants, and places that are using food to facilitate conversation, community, and real life.

Those are the ways in which I first saw food, through my mother’s cooking for my family and for our friends. She does well. She has been known on our block for her desserts since our first summer here, and I’ve always been proud of that. It’s an accomplishment, I think, to surprise and amaze people with average foods. She does chocolate-chip oatmeal cookies like nobody’s business.

Last weekend I took a friend home for a short visit. “I like your house,” she said. “People live here!” It’s true. There are books, shoes, and keys everywhere. “It’s not,” my friend explained, “like Better Homes and Gardens, but it’s not messy. It’s homey.” The books are on shelves, the shoes in a heap, and the keys are never lost. My home, like our food, isn’t careless and it’s not pretentious. It’s unassuming and doesn’t need to be. It’s humble, but it’s nothing ordinary. I want to make, eat, and argue for food like that.

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