It started with cheese and ended with a chicken suit. In between, I decided to start a revolution, found myself in three different chain restaurants and almost took a swing at Jesus. It was a weird week, and here's how it shook out
Friday --hearts and minds: By my second visit to Chedd's (see review), I was feeling brave -- brave enough to try the limburger. Anyone who serves limburger in any incarnation has got some major sack. It's a cheese with a hand grenade's area of effect, and working with it is like handling uranium. But the Bruleys, who own Chedd's, put plenty of limburger and onions between two slices of rye and serve up The Stinkey without batting an eye,
It was this potent sandwich that fueled my first thoughts of revolution. "This is where we will start to take back what is rightfully ours: the grilled cheese sandwich," I said to myself. And why not Chedd's? The last American culinary revolution started in a modest, wood-framed house in Berkeley, so there's no reason this one can't begin in a modest, gourmet-grilled-cheese restaurant in Denver. At Chez Panisse, the fight was for the minds of American foodies -- an attempt to convince them that fresh was better than frozen, local better than national and that all the pomp and fluffery of haute cuisine didn't do one thing to make the food on the plate taste any different. Me? I would suggest a revolution for the hearts of American diners, and I would focus it right here, with food that speaks to the kid in everyone.
Saturday -- love, actually: Every revolution needs an enemy, and I soon settled on the French. My choice was easy. First, Frog-bashing has long been a sport among American chefs who know deep down in their bitter little hearts that no matter what they do in their own kitchens, the ghost of an old French master is standing over their shoulders cursing them, commanding them and dropping cigarette ashes in the bouillabaisse. Second, the French have this penchant for gastronomic flag-planting that's always bugged me, a habit of spiking their colors into every edible thing on the planet and making it French by association. Third, French cars may suck and French cigarettes are nasty, but to love food and to love cooking -- as I do -- means to love the French, because (Pan-Asian cuisines aside) the French have been doing it better, longer and with more crazy passion than anyone. So there's a tension here, a love/hate relationship, a brother-against-brother kind of battle.
Not too long ago, after the French had dared express an opinion disputing the actions of the trigger-happy man-child currently warming the big chair at 1600 Penny, a slew of knee-jerk, right-wing plutocrats out there in TV Land decided to teach them a lesson by boycotting all French products sold in the U.S. of A. They implored people to stay away from French wine, cheese, frogs' legs, snails -- the whole megillah -- and our lawmakers even went so far as to convene a special session to discuss the official renaming of certain food products with a Franco-American slant.
Thankfully, this insipid plan failed spectacularly. And after a weekend lunch at Le Central, one of my favorite restaurants, I talked with owner Robert Tournier, who told me that his business had increased (7 to 14 percent a month, on average) during the boycott. "People were coming in to support us, I think," Tournier said. Le Central held a concurrent contest, asking customers for essays describing their best and worst memories of France and the French people, and the bistro gathered more than 200 entries. "A few were nasty," Tournier told me. "But some? They were very touching."
Since the aborted boycott, several big-time French joints have opened in and around Denver. Bistro Vendome, Brasserie Rouge and Brasserie Ten-Ten all showcase fine French and country-French cuisine, and all are doing pretty well, despite the fact that Rush Limbaugh stopped spending his millions on Château Lafite and profiteroles and bought more Vicodin instead.
So the point is, I don't want any of you good people going all freedom toast on me, thinking that my call for the reclaiming of American-armchair, rumpus-room, nuclear-family cookery is politically, racially or culturally motivated. It has nothing to do with international diplomacy, the U.N., world economics or any of that crap. It has only to do with the defense of food. You know, something important.
Sunday -- Chili's today, hot tomorrow: In a revolutionary kind of temper, I caught the new Matrix movie. I gotta say that it was just one giant black hole of suck -- and this from a self-professed sci-fi geek who went into the theater looking for nothing more than a couple hours of mindless diversion and came out wanting to jump in a car, drive to California, find the Wachowski brothers, pick 'em up and shake them by the ankles till my eight bucks fell out. Seriously, somebody tell producer Joel Silver that the next time he wants to throw away $200 million, he should send a little my way. For half that, I could've made him six movies that blew almost as much as this one did.
There was a Chili's across the street from the theater, and because I wanted to grab a smoke somewhere out of the cold, and because I needed a couple of beers to wash out my brain, I thought, "What the hell?"
I'd never been to a Chili's before; now I know why. On Sunday afternoon, the place was packed. To the rafters. There were about 300 servers on the floor catering to giant families and what looked like a field trip from the Moose Lodge, avoiding sticky tangles of screeching little hellions with french fries (excuse me, freedom fries) in their hair and shlepping trays of brightly colored food to tables full of gray men in brown suits. I ordered a beer, and I knew then what Hunter Thompson saw in the lobby of the Mint Hotel in Vegas during press check-in. Only I didn't have to spend hours in the desert getting bent on acid and ether to see the dinosaurs humping my leg. All I had to do was order a five-dollar beer and an Awesome Blossom, then sit back and enjoy the show.
My visit to Chili's made me realize that there's a second enemy in the struggle for a new-American-food revolution: the American consumer. It sometimes seems that all foods (and I use that term rather loosely here) produced today for the collective American gut -- especially pre-packaged foods, double-especially theme-restaurant foods -- are targeted for consumption by one sugar-mad Midwestern fat kid who'll eat anything so long as it's vividly colorful, cheap, sweet, salty and comes in a portion large enough to choke a water buffalo. Extreme fajitas, blue ketchup, Awesome Blossoms, 99-cent triple cheeseburgers covered with frosting and sparklers, mile-long buffets crammed with a thousand varieties of congealed grease in salt sauce -- they're all designed for this one archetype of the American consumer. In the minds of the food scientists and demographers who daily come up with new ways to amp up the sugar content of, or inject cheez sauce into, everything from omelettes to chicken breasts, the whole purpose of living as an American -- the one surefire way to absolute bliss -- must be to jam as much torturously overwrought, sensuously overloaded pleasure down our throats as possible. And then do it every single day, until the sight of chicken soup without Skittles floating in it is abhorrent, and a slice of cheesecake looks naked until someone comes by, dips it in chocolate, covers it in gummy worms and serves it with a side of flaming strawberries.
Faced with this enculturated gustatory extremism, what chance does a simple grilled-cheese sandwich have? Once you've tasted the Awesome Blossom, what thrill is there in a delicate shaving of baby Swiss melted between two slices of marbled rye? For that matter, why in the hell was this place jumping like they were giving away free beer and hand jobs when most independent restaurants have to shut their doors on Sunday just so the employees don't die from boredom? I know owners who would kill for a third of these numbers on a Sunday -- but no. You want to find the American gustatory conscience? It'll be down the road at Chili's, eating the Awesome Blossom and dying slowly of morbid obesity.
Me? I had two beers and fled.
Monday -- no news is good news: I hit Chipotle for a big fat burrito and a bit of research. Could it be true that McDonald's Corp. CEO Jim Cantalupo wants to unload its so-called partner brands, including Golden-based Boston Market and our own hometown burrito joint?
Back in the day, Mickey D's (and the man behind the clown, Ray Kroc) started a revolution in its own right -- pretty much inventing the idea of fast food and getting the American consumer hooked on the quick, cheap and nasty model of drive-thru eating. But that was a long time ago, and it's no longer enough to do business like ol' Roy did when he'd charter a crop duster, fly over towns with no McDonald's franchises and measure out 200 yards from every elementary and high school to pick where he'd plant his next set of Golden Arches. Today Chipotle is the rebellious newcomer, bringing fresh, organic, high-quality ingredients to a fast-casual market glutted with frozen, chemically treated pap.
"The thing that sparked all this current speculation is the year's-end-earnings report," spokesman Chris Arnold said when I asked if Chipotle was for sale. "It says that McDonald's would decide by year's end what to do with these brands. Most people just assumed that this meant sell, but at this point, it is purely speculation driven by this report."
Chipotle has come out consistently ahead of McDonald's projections, showing a 24 percent bump in same-store sales since this time last year, and it's going ahead with opening a hundred new stores across the country in the next year. "As long as we're successful," Arnold added, "what McDonald's decides to do with us doesn't matter."
Fight the power, Chris.
Tuesday -- the French are toast: I laid down my grilled-cheese manifesto, then went to bed.
Wednesday -- Jesus ate my TastyKakes: In retrospect, I had my first inkling of the coming revolt this past summer, while stuffing my face with fat hoagies (which will be the second American mother sandwich in the new pantheon) at Famous Philly ("A Tale of Two Phillies," August 7). I liked Famous for its unswerving loyalty to the Philly sam'mich ideal (even though the cheesesteaks were heavy on the onions), for the snaps of the Rocky Balboa statue and Pat's King of Steaks on the wall, but I was distressed that it didn't carry TastyKakes -- which some ex-pat East Coast types need like the rest of us need black coffee and oxygen just to get through the day.
But then I heard that Famous Philly had taken my lament to heart and started stocking the Krimpets, Kandy Kakes and fruit pies that make up the TastyKakes line. So Wednesday afternoon, I zipped through crosstown traffic to Monaco Boulevard, and from a distance, I could see the brand-new "NOW SERVING TASTYKAKES" signs hanging in the window. I could taste that lemon pie before I'd even parked the car. But rather than blow my cover, I walked in calmly, ordered a ham-and-provolone hoagie, lots of oil, easy on the veggies, and tried to act surprised when I saw the small TastyKakes display (and the twelve different signs advertising it) on the counter beside the register.
I also tried not to act surprised when I saw Jesus standing on line in front of me. But there he was, tall and thin, with long hair, a ratty goatee and that look of emaciated suffering he always seems to have. He wasn't wearing a robe (a rather nice leather jacket, actually) or sporting the straight-up Jerusalem kicks (just an old pair of Nikes), but I'm telling you, this was the guy.
And he'd taken the last lemon pie.
What Would Jesus Eat? TastyKakes, apparently. My TastyKakes. I wanted to jump him right there, take a couple pokes, grab the pie and run, but I figured, hey, if this guy really is the big J.C., then he should be able to make more lemon pies just appear, right?
Wrong. But he sure made the one he had disappear awful quick.
So I bought Jelly Krimpets instead, because I thought that was the breed of TastyKake that Laura liked. Wrong again.
Thursday -- have pity for the Chickenman: On November 13, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had scheduled a protest in front of the KFC at 2046 South Colorado Boulevard. Their point? KFC and its parent company, Yum! Brands, does nasty things to chickens. Employing their usual dignified tactics, the PETA folks had decided to have a guy in a giant chicken suit crawl across the road in front of KFC and hand out leaflets to the crowds.
Now, I thought all this nonsense was over a few months back, when KFC caved to PETA's protests by agreeing to remove some allegedly "significant misrepresentations" of its chicken-handling procedures from the KFC Web site, and by no longer allowing customer-service representatives to call the people from PETA big-ass hippie liars. But apparently I was wrong. This kind of stuff will never be over until PETA either wins its own revolution against the food chain, or its members all get bored and go home.
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Either way, I wasn't about to miss the fun. My plan was to go to the KFC in question and buy chicken for the protesters. It was supposed to be a cold day, and they'd be working so hard, standing there and holding up signs, that maybe they'd get hungry and I could tempt them with a big bucket of Extra Crispy and a vat of gravy. And then, when they recoiled in horror from my Big Bucket of Death, I would insist that cruelty makes the chicken taste better. That's why KFC fried chicken is so darn addictive. Well, that and the heroin.
When I got to KFC, though, I saw just seven sorry protesters. Yes, one of them was wearing a chicken suit, but it was just some cheap, costume-shop rental, and he wasn't really doing anything except bobbing back and forth every time a gust of wind caught his big, giant head. The rest of the protesters were standing there politely with their signs, not bothering anyone, and I just couldn't bring myself to taunt them with hot, crispy chicken, because you know what? They were only trying to do the same thing I'm trying to do: reform the way Americans eat. They have their own revolution going, and although I may violently disagree with nearly every tenet of their beliefs, we do agree on one thing: KFC chicken is gross.
So I hefted my bucket of Extra Crispy and took off, delivering hot fried chicken to every homeless person I could find. For thirty minutes or so, I was the chicken fairy, and while everyone I bestowed with a piece said "God bless you," not a one had an opinion on KFC's poultry-farming practices.
Sure, I could've been passing out lobes of foie gras or -- better yet -- grilled-cheese sandwiches. But KFC chicken was what I had, so KFC chicken is what I gave. And that got me thinking that we should all be thankful that we even have the luxury of debating the meaning of American cuisine. Will it be grilled cheese or pain et fromage? Vegetarian or non? Fast food or fast casual? Krimpets or lemon pies? There is room in my rebellion for many voices, and if push comes to shove, we've even got space for a guy in a chicken suit.