Lessons learned from a mercifully short excursion back into processed/industrial food
It’s now been about 4 months since I returned to cooking most meals for myself (as opposed to eating out) and a little over 6 weeks since I saw Food Inc. and changed my emphasis to non-processed, local and (where possible) organic food. This month, I had to abandon these temporarily during 2 short trips, and my experiences eating out shocked me!
My first short trip was a long weekend quick getaway to the LA Area. Flew down Thursday afternoon, visited an old family friend Friday, visited Disneyland on Saturday with my 6 year old niece – it was her first visit! – and flew back Sunday morning. With 2 exceptions, ALL of my meals were tasteless and unappetizing!
The worst? I ate at Olive Garden for my first – and most definitely LAST – time. Frankly, because of my long exposure to their advertising, I expected food that was, at least, palatable. Boy was I wrong! Let’s talk first about their “signature” table dressing – bread sticks: The first bite started OK with an initial salty taste, but that was followed by … nothing! No taste at all! Texture just barely better than Wonder Bread. Next, let’s talk about their house salad – which I didn’t realize was included with every entree. My first bite was my last – at least of the bowl served for consumption by all at the table. Why? In a word: dressing. That first bite had an overwhelmingly acidic taste due to the dressing being one of the worst (if not THE worst) I’ve ever tasted. Still hoping to enjoy a salad, I asked the server for a small plate of salad with no dressing. Unfortunately, that also lasted only 1 bite. Without the dressing, the salad had NO taste. I thought my fork full included iceberg lettuce, 1/2 of a cherry tomato, and a bit of onion. That’s what my eyes told me. My palette told a different story – a story of foods engineered/processed to keep well and look good, with no regard for taste – or in this case, the LACK of taste.
On to the entree… You can look at the menu online here in case you want to follow along with me very closely… Whoops! I just tried opening some of the links on that page, and you may need to enter “Arcadia, CA” to find the specific Olive Garden that hosted my meal … My approach was to try to find an entree that had the best hope of delivering on the promise of it’s description and with ingredients that were most likely locally sourced and prepared in house, rather than centrally. I settled on the “Shrimp & Asparagus Risotto” which is described as “Large sautéed shrimp served over creamy parmesan risotto with asparagus.” (Spelling mistakes are not mine, I copied and pasted the descriptive text from Olive Garden’s website.) This time I made it through 4 or 5 bites, but only because I was excruciatingly hungry — we were eating dinner about 4 hours later than I normally eat! Shrimp — OK, they were large, but they had no taste. Asparagus – far too few tasteless pieces. As for the “creamy risotto”, if cream tastes like glue, then the description wasn’t false advertising!
By now I should have learned my lesson, but ravenous hunger overcame my common sense and I tried dessert: Tiramisu. And you guessed it: tasteless! The ONLY food I enjoyed was the beverage: The Peach-Raspberry Iced Tea was delicious! I could actually taste both peaches and raspberries! Of course, it WAS overly sweet, but despite that I downed at least 4 large glasses – but it was the only thing with ANY nutrition – even almost empty calories from the sweetener – that I could consume without revulsion!
The best? A tie between the assorted, homemade salads my old friends served me for lunch on Friday, and the Saturday night dinner at an incredibly expensive steakhouse. OK, so the beef was corn fed, which I’m trying to avoid, but it was Prime beef, beautifully aged, prepared lovingly, cooked exactly as I like it and accompanied by a perfect Bearnaise sauce. Accompanying it was a wine that is frankly the best Pinot Noir I’ve ever had – Beaulieu Vinyards Pinot Noir Reserve 2004 with grapes exclusively from the Carneros growing region in Napa county, California. I’m trying to find a case that I can buy and put down!
Lessons learned from this first trip? My recent changes in eating habits have fundamentally changed my palette. I can no longer stomach restaurant foods produced for the masses.
The second trip was a 3 day conference in Tuscon. As the conference was right smack in the middle of the week (Tuesday morning through Thursday evening) AND because I’d never been to Tuscon AND because I’ve got a LOT of vacation time accumulated, I extended the trip a full day on either side. I flew down Sunday afternoon and returned on Saturday. This time I did some research ahead of time to try to select organic restaurants, at least for those times outside of the conference where I could choose my own food instead of consuming the food catered for the conference.
What I found was Arizona Restaurant Week – the exact week (Sunday through Saturday) when the finest restaurants in Arizona were showcasing their food through a $29 prix fixe, 3 course menu. It even included one of the restaurants at the resort where I was staying! Wonderful, flavorful, lovingly prepared meals for all 3 dinners that I was on my own. The best was the organic pizza parlor that makes their own mozzarella. Breakfast on Monday and Friday was at an organic diner. Breakfast on Saturday didn’t count – my flight was so early that my only choice was airport food – which completely matched my very low expectations!
Other highlights included finding a local co-op – and buying organic fruit for snacking the rest of the week and organic milk to keep in the refrigerator in my room. Oops, did I say “refrigerator”? That’s what the resort advertised as in every room, and it certainly looked like a refrigerator, but when I first put away the milk, I was confronted with the fine print on a small tag attached to the key (I paraphrase and the emphasis is mine): “This beverage chiller is provided for your convenience and has been loaded with 3 bottled waters to keep you cool. It cannot be adjusted to a temperature lower than 48.” Needless to say, I drank a LOT of milk that night!
One good surprise was the convention continental breakfast on Tuesday, the first day. I attended a special task force meeting that preceded the real conference. Only 40 people. The conference organizers sprang for the “healthful” option and it included organic milk, fresh squeezed and organic orange juice, locally sourced and organic granola and organic carrot bran muffins- all with proud displays of the original packaging to show the origin. Wow! Now I was actually looking forward to breakfast on Wednesday! Alas, such was not too be. Wednesday and Thursday the continental breakfast wasn’t the “healthful” option. Unlabeled milk, prepackaged Kellog cereals, etc. I asked the conference organizers about this, and they readily admitted that they couldn’t afford the healthful option for the larger (200 people) breakfasts on Wednesday and Thursday, but they were able to squeeze the budget for the Tuesday, smaller breakfast, chosen as a “thank you” to a meeting of volunteers who have done essential work for the organization.
Overall, the rest of the conference food was far better than what I ate in LA (highlights excepted), but nowhere near truly tasty, with no way to determine freshness or amount of processing.
The overall moral of this story: Mass market food is TASTELESS. If you have recently switched to a locally sourced, non-processed and/or organic diet, be prepared for the disappointment you will undoubtedly have when you revisit what used to be your favorite eateries! Also, when going on vacation, plan and research ahead!