I’ve been into food for a long time.
My French-Canadian grandmother had hundreds of books, and every single one of them was a cookbook. Grandma loved to cook.
My mom does, too. I have many fond memories of Saturday mornings with Mom, navigating the crowded aisles at Strachcona Market in Edmonton, my eyes level with tables spilling over with pastries and fruit and vegetables and handmade goods. I loved it. The sights, the smells, the light streaming in through the windows on the roof: it was all so visceral. In Canada, markets are very diverse. You could get fresh, handmade pierogies at one table, home-pickled kimchee at the next, and crisp British Columbian apples at the table after. I enjoyed it as much as Mom did.
Despite my heritage, it took me a while to come around. College did a number on me, spoiling me with unlimited Lucky Charms on the breakfast buffet. Married life didn’t do much better, with microwaved frozen waffles every morning, 29-cent burger specials at McDonald’s on Tuesday nights, Rally’s at least once a week, Taco Bell, etc. Cheap, shitty food.
Then two things happened, kind of at the same time: Top Chef, and our first daughter.
I’d argue that Top Chef single-handedly started foodie-ism as a movement. Not so much anymore; the show is pretty stale now. But back then, watching professionals make good food showed everyone what you could do with a lot of work and a little creativity. Top Chef gave me hope that I could do it, too.
The other formative component was time. Back then, I was a stay-at-home-dad. I quickly realized that grocery shopping was inherently a domestic activity, which means you can hit two birds with one stone: get shit done, and not be in the house with a cranky kid. So I learned to grocery shop with our first daughter.
And cook. It’s hard to believe now, what with Walmart stocking as many organic items as it can without actually committing to the concept, but it was exceptionally difficult to find good-quality produce in Indianapolis, Indiana. And the recipes I came across across just weren’t up to my expectations: they were either oversimplified, ignorant of season or quality, or just plain bad-tasting.
So I signed up for StarChefs, a recipe collection site for professionals, and scoured recipes. I picked up cookbooks with advanced recipes from the library. My wife and I stopped spending money on garbage food and started saving up for big, expensive meals when we ate out. We became very selective about our grocery shopping.
And thankfully, food access started to improve. We were ahead of the curve, but not by much. I was literally one of the first customers at a local gourmet grocery store that is now crowded with shoppers from open to close. I was there on opening day for one of the signature farmers’ markets in the city. I remember walking into the massive, empty warehouse of one of the first breweries in the city and talking to the brewer for 45 minutes because no one else was there. Now at that same brewery, I’m lucky if I don’t spend 45 minutes in line.
Cooking with the highest quality, local ingredients, spending hours obsessing over restaurants, following chefs’ lives and careers: these are the quintessential characteristics of a foodie. So is spending a shit-ton of money on food. Note the headline in New York Magazine’s recent profile on foodies: “When Did Young People Start Spending 25% of Their Paychecks on Pickled Lamb’s Tongues?”
That was me. The restaurants, the gourmet ingredients, the chef-watching, all of it. By any measure, I’ve been a foodie.
And today, I’m done.
A few weeks ago I received an invitation to a prototype dinner at an about-to-open restaurant here in the city. I’m proud of the people opening it. I love the work they do. I can’t wait to see the concept realized. It will be a great place to eat. Their Facebook page reported that reservations are gone, and they’re taking names for the waiting list.
I could have been one of the first to sign up for a coveted table at a not-even-opened restaurant. Loved the food before anyone else. Raved about it to anyone who’d listen and even those who wouldn’t. But the bill for this dinner was $110 — a person. I was going to sign up. But before I could fire off the email to the chef confirming a reservation for two, my brain made a decision without consulting me. Some brainocratic group of synapses in my gray matter collectively concluded that John Beeler was officially done being a foodie.
I didn’t agree. I objected. I refuted! I thought of the that sweetbread in ‘09, the pickled pigs’ ears in the summer of 2011. I tried to fight back.
But it was no good. Here was my brain’s argument as it mushed around the courtroom of my psyche and presented its case to the jury of myself:
The best food is not proportional to cost. There’s a sweet spot, actually; too low and you’ve stopped getting food. (Let it be noted that Stomach is still “paying” for those 29-cent cheeseburgers). Too high, and your expectations are unrealistic. The truth is that John is not rich enough to enjoy $100 meals. John can’t relax and enjoy the food because once the price breaks $50 a plate, he is now effectively paying the restaurant for the right to be critical, to be the Tom Colicchio of this episode of Top Chef. It doesn’t help when we’re at a place where a piece of sculptural art on the table is presenting five (count, five) fried kale leaves and we have a tablespoon of collard greens on our plates (cf. Blue Hill, 2010). Tangential, but it bears saying: collard greens should never, never be served by the tablespoon.
Second, for the court’s pleasure: the best food is a surprise. John will recall that time we were with friends in New York City. It was late. We’d eaten earlier at some pricey restaurant and were hungry again. We and our friends decided to try the first pizza place we found. We found one right around the corner, a joint called Lil’ Frankies. We asked the server to order for us what he’d be eating for dinner that night. Twenty minutes later he returned from the kitchen, if you’ll excuse my parlance, with the best fucking pizza we’ve ever had. And John will note he has spent years trying to recreate that same pizza in our kitchen. Speaking of which…
The best food is the kind we make ourselves. Sure, we are not a good enough chef to make food on the fly. Everything we do is by recipe. But it tastes better than what 80 percent of what the chefs make up in the restaurant world. It’s about love, and love is often measured in time. No one is going to spend an hour and a half on our family’s meal – except us. And the good thing about home cooking is mistakes aren’t always mistakes: remember the time that pig we were roasted caught fire? A 20-foot high fire? Or that skatewing that made our dinner guests scratch at their cheeks like crazed mice? Those are memories, good ones, and they turned out that way because we had our hands in it.
Finally: the best food is the kind with good friends, loved ones. Fine company is the best spice, after all.
Do you see what my brain did there? It pulled in heart, damn it. Because ultimately this decision wasn’t about frugality. It wasn’t that buying a $100 ticket doesn’t make the best financial sense. It’s that, historically, for me, I just never really enjoyed spending that much money on a single dinner, for a single person. It’s never really been fun. And it took a split second decision by my brain to figure that out.
I still love food. I am a food lover. You can even call me a food fan. And I will still hunt for good ingredients, and pay appropriate money to obtain them. But I’ve just had too many good – nay, great – meals that don’t cost $100 to keep thinking that I will ever eat food that matches my expectation level.
I’m turning my foodie badge in. Here it is.
Just who do I turn that into anyway?