Tag Archives: Food Obsession

Don’t Want to Hear About What Kind of Food You Hate (ooh)…

… You won’t get no dessert ’till you clean off your plate
So eat it…

-Weird Al Yankovic

I love food. More to the point, I love well prepared food. I long for beef that is well seasoned, and not overcooked. I find handmade pasta to be inspiring, and dried pasta, so long as it is not over-saturated in boiling water, to be quite good as well. I despise over-reliance on processed sauces of any kind–Thai sweet chili to chipotle honey glaze. And to me, the chain family restaurants such as TGI Fridays, Applebees, and Outback Steakhouse, are the worst (even more so than fast food restaurants).

I believe food has the capacity to inspire. If one is lucky, a thoughtfully, and/or lovingly prepared plate of food can facilitate an exciting, comforting, jarring, and even an euphoric moment; fleeting as it may be. I have experienced these moments, myself, and I hope others get to have inspiring food experiences due to well prepared food too.

Quite often there is an added cost attached to my qualifier, “well prepared,” and as such, I have been labeled bourgy, elitist, and a bit of a food snob. This may be unfair, or it may be true. If the latter is the case, I think I can accept it as one of my many permanent character flaws.

I have one friend in particular who likes to remind me of my food snobbery. Recently, we ordered takeout from a restaurant called India Clay Oven, rather than

"What can I say? Their chicken tikka masala was just... better."

our usual spot, Star India. After I remarked on, what I believed to be, an obvious difference in quality (Clay Oven proving to be superior), my friend shook his head, and smiled. Food, he explained to me, was food. He could not, for the life of him, differentiate between the quality of the two. All food was good to him. He pointed out that my understanding of quality was socially constructed and subjective. Furthermore, he explained, food was fuel, and he believed we should be appreciative to have food of any quality, as some go without.

I agree that we should be appreciative of the food we are privileged enough to have. I do not, however, believe I should settle for poorly prepared food. I’m not saying we should spit out sub-par food and berate the chef. I do, however, believe in frequenting establishments that prepare things that I like, and foregoing the establishments I do not enjoy as much.

As for my friend’s assertion that my idea of quality preparation is something that develops through socialization… I had to let that one fully sink in a bit.

He is probably right. Is there really an objective and universally accepted set of criteria for a “refined” palate? Some folks find rare meat to be revolting, so who am I to say that their  perspective on meat is wrong. Raw fish was mostly seen as abhorrent (and to some, still is) before sushi became mainstream. And, while one can be taught to notice and appreciate the nuances of an ingredient or food, ultimately all the analytical stuff falls short of answering the most important question one can ask about a dish: Does it taste good?

Taste–in the face of food competitions, food blogs, food critics, and foodies–is

"In all fairness, the title suggests subjectivity."

subjective. I am guilty of being judgmental of the palates of others; secretly waiving them off as picky, unadventurous, underexposed, unimaginative, or just plain wrong. Reader’s choice awards, and “best ofs,” may reflect the populous, or an astute person’s perspective on food, but the fact of the matter is, one can never be wrong about what one likes.

Take one of my favorite meals on earth, burritos, for example. I have observed countless ways people have chosen to use a flour tortilla as a pocket for flavorful ingredients. Clearly, folks have different understandings of what a burrito should be. In San Diego, there are a lot of places that do burritos without beans and cheese. Also in San Diego, I consumed a burrito the size of a small baby, deep fried and topped with sauce (This was not bad, just different… and potentially life-threatening). A friend of mine, who is considering opening up a restaurant of his own, says that in Mexico, the quality of the tortilla is as important as the filling, if not more so.

So in the spirit of acknowledging my friend’s assertion that food quality comes through socialization, here are my personal socialized beliefs when it comes to burritos:

I have been socialized to think of a burritos as flour tortillas filled with rice, beans, cheese, pico de gallo, and meat (guacamole, hot sauce, and sour cream is optional),

There are ways to ruin this beautiful parcel:

  1. Stiff Tortilla/Failure to Heat the Tortilla– During my two-year stint in Burlington, Vermont, I was pumped to see a burrito shop open up near my place of residence. Sadly, the burritos from this eatery turned out to be a disappointment, mostly due to their inability to get the tortilla right. I watched as the woman pulled out the stiff flour disk, laid it upon the cold steel counter, spooned meat rice and beans onto the disk, and folded the disk around the wet contents. The tortilla cracked, thus failing to hold the package together. Moreover, the tortilla was cold, contrasted poorly with the hot ingredients, felt crumbly, and tasted chalky.
  2. Ketchup/Marinara Sauce–I hate to pick on Vermont, but this should really go without saying. Ketchup or Marinara sauce is no substitution for salsa. I should be more understanding, considering my aforementioned adolescent theory that ketchup should replace tomato sauce with pasta, but I’m not. Grown people with a business should not substitute salsa willy-nilly with other tomato-based condiments/sauces. Thanks for teaching me this lesson, Vermont (by the way, this egregious mistake was actually made another “Mexican” restaurant, not the burrito place mentioned above).
  3. Undercooked Beans–I didn’t even know that one could undercook beans until I tried our cafeteria’s version of a burrito. I found the hardness of the beans to be unpleasant among the otherwise palatable ingredients. Similar to the cold tortilla, the beans were chalky.
  4. Lettuce–I am not necessarily a stickler for this one; it is more of a preference. I don’t like lettuce in my burrito. I can, however, take a little. I do believe that too much lettuce, and especially the wrong lettuce–romaine, and especially lettuce cut up–romaine cut like it is being used for a Caesar salad,

    "I know you all are friends and all, but STAY OUT OF MY BURRITO!"

    can really ruin a burrito.

  5. Peas and Carrots–Personally, I’m just not a fan of peas and carrots in my rice.

If a burrito does one or more of the following, there is a good chance it will make my mental list of burrito debacles. On the flip side, is my all time favorite burrito spot, which can do no wrong, Gordo Taqueria, specifically the one on Solono Avenue in Albany, California. Would it be selected as the best, highest quality, and most authentic burrito place of all time? It is debatable; I have seen it on a few lists, but it also has its long list of detractors.

Gordo’s, however, if I am being completely honest with myself, makes the burrito I have been socialized to believe is the epitome of excellence.

When my parents decided that their two pudgy sons should cut down on Burger King and McDonalds, it was the Gordo Taqueria burrito that helped my brother and I ween our way off of trans fats. When my parents were too tired to make dinner, Gordo’s. After long games of pick-up at the elementary school, Gordo’s. After our middle school basketball games, Gordo’s. After our high school basketball games, Gordo’s. When I came home on break from Vermont, the land void of burritos, the first thing I wanted was Gordo’s (Yes, I know it is called Gordo Taqueria, but we call it Gordo’s).

I have come to think of the men at Gordo Taqueria as masters of the burrito-making craft. They effortlessly construct each burrito with blinding speed. The tortilla goes into the steamer with cheese, the lever is pulled, a sound like a small locomotive coming to a stop sounds; the tortilla fused with cheese is tossed on to the counter; rice, choice of beans, choice of meat, “tomatoes?” (pico de gallo), “cream?” (sour cream), “guacamole?” (which I think is actually a combination of sour cream and guacamole), “hot sauce?” (“yes, please”). The master splatters the flour-based canvas with each ingredient like Jackson Pollock. Then, with a few flicks of the wrist, the maestro has the burrito neatly wrapped up. With a silver flash, and a few more flicks and twists of the wrist, the burrito is in tinfoil. A minute later, the burrito is out the door.

I drool a little bit, just thinking about a Gordo burrito. The cheese melts and congeals beautifully with the beans. A chewy tortilla encompasses the meal. Loose, yet not overly seasoned rice acts as a canvas for the rest of the flavors. Simple, juicy, lightly-charred chicken, hot sauce that is actually spicy. The burrito is not overly-soppy with excess salsa or sour cream, which I like, since personally, I want my burrito to be more composed, and less drippy. In the end, this dense torpedo becomes a product I would rank among my favorite comfort foods.

Now I must admit, I was a bit unfaithful when the flashy High Tech Burrito opened a block away (seriously, it was called High Tech). I also believe that Cactus Taqueria, about eight blocks up, might be a better restaurant. Yet after all these years, I still believe Gordo’s serves up the best burrito. Does this really mean anything? I don’t know… since it’s all socially constructed in the end.


Grandma’s Hands…

… Used to hand me piece of candy
Grandma’s hands
Picked me up each time I fell
Grandma’s hands
Boy, they really came in handy

-Bill Withers

It was my grandmother’s 90th birthday recently. Our family made a trip down to Los Angeles to surprise her. She was definitely caught off-guard by the unexpected presence of her bobble-headed great grandson… in a good way.

Despite the fact that I tend to downplay my own birthday, I do like how the tradition of birthdays forces me to stop and celebrate the life of people close to me. I enjoy having the opportunity to do things with the people I love; things that make them happy; things that make them smile.

Usually at some point in the celebration, the guest of honor will do something or say something that reminds me of something they did or said in the past–usually a funny story–and I find myself smiling inwardly; wading blissfully in the nostalgia.

In the weeks leading up to my grandmother’s birthday, I found myself reflecting early. Cherry picking stories about her turned out to be more difficult that I expected. For some reason, I had trouble peeling away individual stories, as they have mostly seemed to congeal into a single collage of memories.

I spent the better part of a day feeling guilty about not being able to recall stories about my grandmother. I found myself picking bits and pieces out of my mind; but not just a few, tons of them! They were like an infinite number of  little rice-sized pieces of spaghetti–taking up a lot of space all together, but not the fully intact strand that I could wrap methodically around my fork; not the fully fleshed-out story I was looking for.

The segments of memories of Grandma or memories I associate with Grandma came in flashes:

Grandma calling the dogs back when they came to welcome my brother and me as children, with their somewhat scary jumping and slobbering.

Grandma feeding the golden retrievers cooked vegetables.

Grandma taking me to the museum.

Branch’s strawberry candy in a bowl on the coffee table.

The smell of chlorine-treated water drying on hot concrete by the swimming pool.

Grandma talking about how wonderful Trader Joe’s was when the first one opened up.

Grandma toasting my brother and I egg bagels and serving them up with peanut butter.

Grandma being a very careful driver.

Water wings!

Rye bread.

Picture collages.

Throw pillows.

Lavender scented hand soap in the bathroom.

Vibrant orange and purple birds of paradise.

Matzo ball soup in shallow bowls.

A jar filled with chocolate almond squares in the refrigerator.

Grandma just smelling sweeter than anyone else in the world…

… the list kept going.

After I took a step back and began looking at the memories, not as individual specks, but as a collection, I noticed a reoccurring theme. I tie all of these memories to feelings of nostalgia and comfort.

I have, absolutely no memories involving fear, guilt, anger, or trauma tied to my grandmother. While Grandma was never a push-over, I cannot recall ever thinking she was mean, even in my most immature and self-centered days.

For me, I now realize, Grandma was, and still is, the living embodiment of comfort and kindness. She always did her best to foster a sense of home away from home when we went to visit her.

This ethic of care actually ties to one of the stories of Grandma I eventually unearthed:

Throughout my childhood, probably since the age of four, I wondered why my dad bothered making chunky tomato sauce with spaghetti. I hated big chunks of tomatoes, and I yearned for something with less texture to pair with my pasta.

Eventually, I learned that ketchup, which regularly acted as a dip for the food I deemed the pinnacle of eatable excellence–french fries, was actually a product of tomatoes; the same tomatoes that made up the chunky sauce on my pasta.

I remember regularly asking my mom and dad if I could have pasta with ketchup, since it seemed like a logical enough substitution to me. They would both reply, with scrunched faces, “No,” giving little justification for their resistance; only going to far as to say that the idea was “disgusting.”

"Culinary genius, no?"

Little did I know, Grandma would provide me with an opportunity to experience this ketchup-laced concoction in due time…

When I was about eleven years old, my brother and I came down to Los Angeles during our annual summer visit with the relatives. For some reason, we stayed for one night in a house my grandparents were occupying for the days in between moving out of their old house in the San Fernando Valley, and moving into their new house in Santa Monica.

I do not know why it was only one night, nor do I remember why only my brother and I stayed with my grandparent that night, but I do remember the house being filled with boxes stacked so high that navigating through it all made me feel like I was in a labyrinth.

We got in fairly late, and it was already dark outside. My grandmother knew we had not eaten dinner, so she went to the kitchen to prepare us a meal. About half an hour later, my brother and I sat down at the kitchen table and my grandmother brought out a heaping pile of my culinary theory put into practice–spaghetti mixed with ketchup.

I was excited. The sharp scent of the ketchup’s vinegar still lingered in the air. This, was my moment! This was my opportunity to prove my long-standing culinary hypothesis, which had been thwarted for years by my parents, who clearly lacked the common sense and vision to combine these two ingredients in an effort to facilitate this flavor and textural dynamo.

Eager to confirm that which I already knew to be true–ketchup and pasta would be awesome together–I clumsily spun a large clump of noodles around my fork and slurped it into my mouth. My resulting state: confusion of the senses. How could something that looked like pasta and tomato sauce produce a flavor so distant from this savory dinnertime staple? Slightly tart and almost sugary sweet, even as an eleven-year-old with a palate that was easily satisfied by Skittles and Doritos, I knew the combination of ketchup and pasta had gone completely awry.

My brother and I quietly consumed the rest of the food on our plate, brushed our teeth and went to bed. That night I went to bed… confused.

Now, it would be easy to preserve the story in my mind as a culinary  disaster perpetuated by my grandmother. However, context, and a few details I neglected to mention actually help make Grandma even more endearing to me.

First of all, it was pretty late, maybe eight thirty or nine in the evening when we got in. It was time to go to sleep. She could have sent us to bed without dinner, but she didn’t. Grandma could have quickly taken us to McDonald’s, which was right down the street, but she didn’t. Grandma provided us with a home-cooked meal.

Secondly, how on Earth did she pull that meal together? We were practically staying in a storage space! She pulled that meal out of thin air! Did I mention there was meat in the dish? Now I don’t remember if it was chicken or turkey cold-cuts, but I do remember there was meat in it, and I think she might have sprinkled in a little dried basil too.

My mom later told me that Grandma felt really bad about feeding us that meal. I feel bad that she felt bad. Grandma did the best that she could in the situation she was in with the time that she had.

So I will always remember the night of spaghetti and ketchup, not as the failed meal, and not for the crazy laberynth of boxes. Rather I will always associate the night of spaghetti and ketchup with Grandma’s successful efforts to create a feeling of home within a moment of chaos.

She Said Don’t I know You From The Cinematographer’s Party?

… I said who am I
To blow against the wind

-Paul Simon

It was like a scene in a movie.

Our family is waiting for a table at Jerry’s Grill in Union City, and a waitress is gathering beverages behind the bar. I walk into her line of view as she is pouring coffee, and she freezes, only to be brought back to reality by scolding hot coffee burning her hand. The mug crashes to the floor. She apologizes profusely.

Eventually she gathers herself together, and realizes, “you are not him.”

Who is “him?”

“You look just like the guy from American Idol,” she tells me, “and I wanted him to win, too.”

Since I haven’t seen a second of a meaningful moment of American Idol in well over a year, and based on her comments, I assume she has poor eye site and thinks I am David Archuleta (can we talk about how nonsensical that sentence is on multiple levels? Meaningful?).

Truthfully, even I know she couldn’t have confused me with David Archuleta; I don’t care how bad her eye sight is. I mean, this is David Archuleta:

And this is me:

There is absolutely no conceivable potential for mistaken identity here.

If left unresolved, I know this case of mistaken identity will gnaw at me for a while.

Serendipitously, that night, I happen upon an online piece on American Idols: Where are they now? I cannot help but laugh out loud when I stumble upon a picture of this guy:

Danny Gokey: apparently, to the waitress at Jerry’s Grill, my celebrity doppleganger. Glorious.

By the way, the fried beef ribs were phenomenal.

You Spin Me Right Round, Baby…

Right round like a record, baby
Right round, round, round

-Dead or Alive

Last Monday, my partner and I transitioned from being a couple, to being a family of three. Despite our best efforts to educate ourselves on the birthing process, and general care for tiny sleeping infant, the last week and a half have been a bit of a whirlwind filled with joy and discovery.

Personally, I do not think I am an adequate enough writer to convey the range of emotions tied to labor, birth, and the first week of taking care of an infant. I can, however, share some moments and my accompanying thoughts regarding things that may only interest me. So here they are:

  • There are some examinations and anatomy-related processes that go on leading up to birth, which can simultaneously be TMI and take the intimacy of a relationship to a whole other level. I will leave that statement as it is.
  • After a complicated and semi-traumatic birth, to me, the most beautiful and relief-triggering sound on Earth was the sound of our son crying.
  • Being thoroughly uneducated on the details of cesarian birthing, I placed myself in the position to be completely shocked by its realities. Thus, as I sat behind a curtain, which separated me from the gory surgery, the statement, “Okay, now let’s put the uterus back in,” caught me a bit off guard. [Two statements that could have been worse: 1. “Wait! Where’s my sandwich? It was sitting right by the scalpel a minute ago…” 2. “Why do we have extra pieces here? This never happened in the video game.”]

    "Jeez... picking bit of lettuce and onion out of here is going to be a pain in the ass."

  • Apparently epidurals are no joke. My partner had  one, which definitely helped with the contractions. During her C-section, they numbed her from the neck down. During recovery, she could move, but couldn’t feel anything, which lead her to punching herself in the face in an effort to move hair away from her eyes. This traumatized her so much that she refused to hold the baby for a few hours afterwards.
  • It is scary holding an infant’s neck while it is so weak and floppy. I thought its head was going  to roll off.
  • I was grateful for the chair that turns into a bed at Kaiser Redwood City, but it gave me the worst back spasms.
  • Speaking of Kaiser Redwood City, their staff–from the nurses, to the, anesthesiologist, to the doctors–were all awesome. I had my concerns with Kaiser, and still have some regarding the organization as a whole,  but their Ob Gyn and pediatric care professionals were amazing.
  • Our son came looking like a miniature version of my partner. He also came out with peach fuzz that extends over his entire forehead–eyebrows to the “hairline” as well as on his back and arms,  and a cone-head, thus making him look like a harry alien wingless bat. A friend pointed out that when I pair these two observations together, I seem to be suggesting that my partner looks like a large harry alien wingless bat. Just to set the record straight, this is not the case.
  • I try to avoid cafeteria food at all costs, so when my partner’s sister asked what she could bring for me as I was being contained within the walls of Kaiser, I would answer, “a burrito!” every single time. Over the course of forty-eight hours, I ate five burritos. I have decided that they are the perfect self-contained meal, and there is little that anyone can say to convince me otherwise right now.
  • Six pounds, three ounce–we knew our baby was small. With the exception of his freakishly long fingers and toes, everything about him was miniature… including his tiny little cry. Nothing solidified these observations in our mind more than when a second mother moved into my partner’s recovery room. Her baby seemed to be a giant next to ours, and his deep throaty cry was like a tuba in comparison to our infant’s kazoo-like yelping.
  • Being super excited about all the free stuff we were being given by the hospital, I haphazardly packed anything up that was still in its wrapping. My partner almost split her C-section stitches with laughter when she discovered, not only did I pack the hideous pink floral hospital gown that leaves one’s entire back side exposed, but I also packed three bed pads meant to absorb anything that leaks out due to one’s water breaking.
  • Our newborn’s nails were sharp little razors. I think they could have cut through class.
  • Wow! Not all bottle nipples are alike! Some can actually cause an infant to get really painful cry-inducing gas. Good to know.
  • I have found that a bottle de-sterilizer can actually act as a semi-functional crucible. I can now see all of the brown murky impurities that come from tap water despite the usage of a Brita filter.
  • On day two I was changing the baby’s diapers, and I turned away to get a fresh diaper ready. When I looked back at the little one, I found a wet splotch on the couch seat. “Wow!” I exclaimed, “You managed to spray all the way over there. Amazing!” As I continued to adjust his clothing for changing I noticed the legs of his outfit were soaked. The following stream of consciousness observation ensued: “Incredible! The legs of this outfit are soaked through… and… how did you pee on your own chest? Wait a minute… your cap is soaked… did you pee on your own head? How did you pee on your own face?” Needless to say, he required a washing that day.
  • Friends and family know me well. We were gifted four separate copies of Goodnight Moon (which I love). I was going to to take it off of our registry, but I wanted to see how many copies we might receive if we didn’t say anything. Furthermore, my brother explained to me that you can never have too many copies of a book. Children tend to slobber, chew, rip and do any number of destructive things to books.
  • The little one pretty much just sleeps, eats, poops, and cries. Trying to facilitate or clean up after such functions can be exhausting… but it is amazing, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I Can’t Get No Satisfaction…

I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try.
I can’t get no, I can’t get no.
-The Rolling Stones

There is the cliché saying, Money can’t buy you happiness.

Then there is the counter to that saying, Those who claim money can’t buy you happiness clearly have never been without money.

Philosophically, I find that I fall somewhere in the middle. I have never really been without money, so I cannot speak to the level of happiness I could achieve with a complete void of funds. And, I have had some great times in my life that required no entrance fees, nor purchase of any type of merchandise. Yet, I would be lying if I were to say that I have not experienced a great deal of happiness where money was involved.

Maybe I feel this is so due to my less than solid connection with the earth. It is possible that I could improve my relationships with other human beings to facilitate greater happiness. It could be, that in a society where everything has become commodified, money is required to purchase things that had always been priceless facilitators of happiness.

Admission must be paid to enjoy certain aspects of nature. Many relationships are facilitated or maintained through costly digital means and services connected to such technology. Furthermore, if we are to get technical, money is required to purchase fundamental needs–water, food, shelter, clothing–all of which could be perceived as prerequisites for many potentially happy experiences. But I digress (I am working on my brevity, and such a topic could go on for paragraphs, if not posts).

It was actually an evening spent with my family on the day of Christmas that got me thinking about the correlation between money and happiness. In retrospect, the entire night could have been a case study exploring the dynamics between money and happiness.

This year, my parents, my partner, and I went to go visit my brother in New York for the holiday break this year. He has been living in Brooklyn going on three years now, he wasn’t planning to come home for the break, and I had yet to go visit him. Thus, a visit back east was long overdue.

On the day of Christmas, we found ourselves trying to pick out a restaurant at the last minute for a “nice dinner.” Well, we definitely over-shot the mark and ended up with reservations at Morimoto’s restaurant (of Iron Chef fame).

After going with my dad, the landscape architect, to visit some reclaimed elevated train tracks that have been turned into a park, and wandering through the over-priced, yet culinarily extravagant, Chelsea Market, our family ended up at Morimoto.

The restaurant was beautiful. Long clean lines of brushed steel, polished concrete, and lightly (if not completely) unstained wood make up much of the interior of this multi-tiered space. Soft, yet dramatic lighting, sand-colored upholstery, a wall of clear, blue, and teal-colored glass bottles sections off part of the space, and the rippled curve of the ceiling whimsically references the lips of scallop shell–all elements that that contribute to a feeling of being inside of some sort of fantastic sea cave. (Special note to anyone thinking of visiting Morimoto in New York: check out the bathroom stalls. Best bathroom stalls ever.)

The meal, of course, was amazing. The food Masaharu Morimoto creates is brilliant. Simple reinterpretations of soul food such as bi bim bop, or beef curry and bread highlight the ways in which a little bit of outside the box thinking, and high quality ingredients can enhance dishes that have been around for a long time. (I actually went home to try to create his “Buri Bop” with some hamachi I purchased from the Japanese market the day we got back. The dish was decent, but the hamachi Morimoto used was on a whole other level, and that made all the difference.)

Some dishes required a certain level of playfulness to consume. The nigiri sushi was without flaws. My mom had the most perfectly prepared sea bass I have ever tasted. Once the food arrived, almost all of our conversation focused on the food and the wonder it facilitated. The meal was just… fun.

I think everyone had a good time. My mom said it was one of the best dining experiences of her life. My brother enjoyed it nearly as much as an individual who lives off of microwavable green chili burritos and Cheerios could possibly enjoy a plate of steak and raw fish. My dad said it was one of the better meals he has had outside of Japan. My partner and I definitely enjoyed our meals.

The ambiance was  memorable, the food was spectacular, and the service was seamless. What could make this experience better? How about meeting the legend himself! We met Masaharu Morimoto! This was actually a huge deal for me, as it was the Iron Chef television show that shifted my interest in food from passing curiosity to legitimate obsession. Moreover, my visit to Morimoto in Philadelphia marked my greatest food epiphany–I came to understand what food could be. Up until that point, I understood that creativity and plating could make a dish seem interesting on television, and I could imagine the flavors. However, on that day I learned that an interpretation of a dish could be revolutionary, and with precise execution, the consumption of such a creation could actually be sublime.

Now that I think about it, Masaharu Morimoto actually had a huge influence on my life, and up until this evening, I had never met the man in my life! The ponytailed man came to our table gave us all warm fleshy hand shakes, posed for some pictures, and had a brief conversation in Japanese with my dad. I was too awestruck to say anything more than, “nice to meet you.” Nevertheless, I will be hard pressed to forget that moment.

At the end of the evening, while I was taking a look at the bathroom (it is a weird habit, but I do this at every interesting restaurant or hotel I visit), my mom walked up to Chef Morimoto as he was observing the restaurant from the entry way.

“All of this must make you really happy.” She stated with a smile.

To her surprise, his response was, “Not really.” He went on to explain, only my mother couldn’t really understand what he was saying. A bit embarrassed, she thanked him for the meal and we all left the restaurant.

My mom felt bad because she thought he didn’t understand that which she was trying to say. However, I think he understood exactly what my mom said. As hard as it is to imagine, he probably just wasn’t happy with the scene before him.

From our prospective, we see a beautiful restaurant, and dozens of people following Morimoto’s lead as they create a enjoyable experience for hundreds of people each night. We see the Iron Chef, a television personality, with multiple restaurants around the world. He must be incredibly wealthy! How could he not be happy?

Maybe he was responding to the display in front of him. He could have been been upset that his beautiful restaurant was not completely full. The tremendous cost of his ultra-fancy restaurant, bearing his name, attached to Chelsea Market (not a cheap piece of real estate), probably weighs heavily upon him, as it is unlikely that the profit margin anywhere close to comfortable.

Morimoto may have been saying something even more profound to my mother. With sweeping gestures of his hand, he could have been saying, “None of this makes me happy. It is rare that I do that which I love most, and actually cook anymore these days. I am caught in an endless cycle of risking my empire to expand my empire. All of my money is tied up in these business ventures, and it stresses me out. Alas, now that I have many of the things I always wanted, I have no time to enjoy them with the people I love.”

In my mind, money and happiness seem to have a precarious relationship with one another. I imagine that that in the United States (if not all over the world)  if one has too little money, life becomes difficult to enjoy. So much effort must be put into its pursuit, as its absence, in many cases, can be life-threatening. If one is focused, one may find one’s self successful in the game of money chasing. Yet, the spoils of victory may be seductive, and enough may never seem like enough. The pursuit of money risks becoming the only game in town, rather the means to a well-meant end.

I don’t necessarily know how to work through the money/happiness conundrum. It is far more complex than I can articulate, and far more insidious than my rambling mind  can fathom.

I do however appreciate the experience that led to my wonderings.

On a freezing evening in New York, I was able to have an incredible dinner with the people I love most in this world. Money set the stage for our memorable evening (thanks, Mom and Dad), but it was sharing the experience with my family that made me really happy.

Maybe I should have pulled up along side of both of my parents as we were finishing dessert and said, “All this must really make you happy.”

You Think I’d Crumble…

… you think I’d lay down and die
oh no, not I
I will survive
-Gloria Gaynor

The other day, I unintentionally participated in a values clarification exercise. You know, those  would you rather-scenarios that can help one prioritize their values. They are usually hypothetical and fairly mundane; something along the lines of, “Would you rather work outdoors or indoors?” Maybe, “Would you rather work on a project on your own, or in a group?”

I have seen these exercises turned into a party game with extreme would your rather-scenarios: “Would you rather your upper lip smelled like crap all the time, but nobody else could smell it, or would your rather have terrible halitosis that you never notice?” I saw one online that asked, “Would you rather immerse your naked body in a bathtub of cockroaches, or dive head-first into a pool of tobacco spit?”

I imagine the mundane ones can be useful in sets so as to prioritize one’s preferences, needs, or values. Some of the creative ones, when answered, can actually provide some incite into an individual. And more still can be just gross.

In this particular situation, I was put in a position where I had to choose between avoiding something I loath, and potentially experiencing something I love.

I had to ask myself, “Would I rather avoid the company’s Christmas party, where I will be subjected to large crowds of people I barely know, forcing me into situations that require nauseatingly plastic small talk, or would I rather go to the Christmas party, which is catered, might have some good free food, and there might be a chocolate fountain?”

The aforementioned “would you rather” is a bit long. The essential question is, “What level of discomfort am I willing to go through for the possibility of food that may lead to some fleeting joy?”

Both elements in this equation require further exploration, so allow me to provide some perspective.

How deep is my obsession for good food? Please review Exhibit A–select food-related behavior:

  • I would rather eat a great meal than see a great show. For my partner’s birthday, we went to see the musical, Wicked, and to a nice restaurant, Jardiniere. While Wicked was an amazing production, the dinner afterwards was the highlight of the evening for me.
  • One of my top ten goals in life is to eat at all of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Restaurants despite the fact that this is an ever-changing list, and I could possibly go broke trying.
  • I almost always plan trips and vacations around visiting a great restaurant if one is in the area. When we went to Las Vegas, my partner looked into seeing a show, finding a fun dance club, getting a massage. I, on the other hand, was trying to figure out if we could eat at both Mario Batali and Bobby Flay’s restaurants during a trip spanning roughly thirty-six hours. On a trip to Napa, during which my

    Three down, two to go!

    partner was looking to relax, do some shopping and go to a spa, I schemed and planned our way into dining at two restaurants on the top 100 list.

  • I will decrease my quality of life for a period of time if it means I will have one delicious meal. In graduate school my partner and I attended a professional conference in Philadelphia. At the time, I was obsessed with the Iron Chef (who am I kidding, I am still obsessed with the Iron Chef). I actually convinced my partner that we should go all out at Morimoto’s restaurant despite the fact that we barely scrounged up enough money to attend the conference, let alone splurge. We ordered Morimoto’s Omakase menu–a seven-course meal, and the most expensive option on the menu. The two of us ended up eating cereal, macaroni and cheese, and anything still lingering in the freezer for the next month. In my defense however, it was, and still holds up as the best meal I have ever had in my life.
  • I will inconvenience others for the possibility of having a good meal. The aforementioned example proves my point. A more egregious example of my blatant lack of consideration would be from this past sumer. I dragged my pregnant partner, with swollen blistered feet, around three quarters of Rome, on foot, in search of hand-made pasta that ended up being literally five blocks from our starting point. Again, in my defense, we later agreed that it was one of the best meals of our summer.
  • Moreover, I have trouble making rational decisions when food is involved. Earlier today, I seriously debated whether or not to interrupt my supervisor’s one-on-one meeting with her supervisor to find out if she wanted me to order her take-out for lunch. This was a serious dilemma for me, as the folks going to pick up the food were leaving at noon, right when her meeting was supposed to end. In my mind, I was thinking: If it were me, I would definitely like to have sushi rather than being subjected to whatever the cafeteria has to offer. I would want to be interrupted, and I would be really upset if I missed the opportunity. It turned out that, yes, she wanted sushi, and no, she would prefer not to be interrupted should a similar situation arise.

Yes, I know this is a bit of a problem. I know there are more important things in the world than the food I deem to be delectable. Maybe food is my vice. I would certainly be a financially more stable and considerably slimmer individual if I had little regard for the work of talented chefs. To put a more positive spin on it, I’ll just say, I love delicious food.

Conversely, I am a socially awkward creature that tends to avoid uncomfortable situations. On the spectrum of discomfort–on the low end, mild annoyance, and the high end, actual physical pain, both small talk with people I don’t know very well, and large crowds actually rank  fairly high as you can see on my personal discomfort scale below:

"Come on! Come on!

itchy tags on tee-shirts
sticky condiment bottles
Mark Wahlburg acting (with the exception of Departed)
face talkers
playing defense against sweaty hairy shirtless guys who like to initiate contact
VH1 reality television
men resting scrotums on communal locker room benches without towel as buffer
throat swabbing
large crowds
getting vaccinated
phony small-talk
(tie) a minor kitchen accident involving some sort of blade & public speaking
trip to the dentist involving drilling
OUCH CHARLIE, THAT REALLY HURT! (click to understand reference)

I think the fact that I would rather get vaccinated than engage in fairly painful small-talk speaks volumes. Compound that with large crowds, which I dislike far more than when men rest their manhood sacks on communal seating without a buffer, and you have yourself a situation I would really like to avoid.

So what happened when my most powerful vice engaged in an epic battle with my personal titan of discomfort? The vice won! Intellectually, I cannot believe that the possibility of a decent morsel of food was strong enough motivation to brave an almost unbearable social situation.

I ended up going to the Christmas party. How was  the food, you ask? Eh, it was so-so. There was some succulent roast turkey with cranberry sauce and horseradish aoli, but other than that, not much to write home about, and alas, the chocolate fountain did not make an appearance.  I gambled and lost.

I was able mitigate the impact of the crowds and small-talk, sort of. I dragged a friend of mine to the event, for she had not yet to experience its fabulousness. After braving the food lines, I set myself up against the wall between two trash cans and subtly maneuvered four friends into position to act as a buffer between myself and the crowd.

The experience was till slightly agonizing. Vaguely familiar people would pass stop and talk about the weather. Individuals, who’s faces I remembered, but names escaped me, would smile and talk about how they can’t wait for Christmas break. I found myself daydreaming about what rehab for my food addiction might be like.

I did experience an entertaining moment during which I accidently paid the awkwardness forward. The president, complete with festive Christmas hat, walked by. I have only met the man once, and he has probably met thousands upon thousands of people. But in that moment I decided to smile and wave.

About eight feet away, he stopped, smiled, and waved back. Then the president paused just for a split-second, and through his made-for-shmoozing smile, and glazed eyes, I am pretty sure I could read his thoughts: “Wait… I don’t have the slightest clue as to who this guy is. Just keep smiling and waving. The awkwardness will be over soon.”