Thursday, December 6, 2007

Food For Thought

This may seem a bit outside my usual topics of discussion, but I found this New York Times opinion piece on the possible disappearance of the entree to be--well, forgive me--food for thought.

My first thought, sadly, was that I obviously don't eat in trendy enough restaurants. My family and I generally grab a sandwich out on the weekends in the midst of errand-running if we eat out at all; bringing home a bucket of chicken or ordering a pizza pretty well rounds out our usual dining-out experiences. Once in a great while, for a birthday or other celebration, we might go eat at the kind of place where they bring you the food and clean up after you (which, let's be honest, is worth more to a mom than the actual food) but even at those places you're going to be brought a single plate on which reposes either an entree and vegetable, or a sandwich and fries. Unless, of course, we're at our favorite (very, very affordable!) non-chain Italian place, where the piping hot plate placed in front of you will be piled with pasta or exuding exuberant tendrils of Eggplant Parmesan, with clouds of oregano-scented steam rising like incense toward the picture of the late Pope John Paul II which adorns one of the walls of this homey, family-friendly place.

But even there, we don't have any of this small plate snack-style eating as described in the Times. I'm sure there are restaurants in this general geographic region which do fit the description; I'm equally sure than most of them are far beyond my budget, and would be frustratingly difficult to navigate if you're not used to having to order several small plates full of pricey nibbles.

I started wondering whether from the criteria of a person who leans just a bit "crunchy" this sort of dining development is a generally good or a generally bad thing. I'm not entirely sure, actually, because it all depends in how you look at it.

On the one hand, restaurants are notorious for wasteful approaches to food. Portions are too big, which isn't good for our health; sustainable farming efforts don't always go hand-in-hand with restaurants' demand for large amounts of protein foods; the proliferation of restaurants has made it more difficult for consumers to purchase some foods because the restaurant chains buy such huge quantities. You could make a case that this trend toward smaller, snack-sized portions is a good thing.

On the other hand, I had to wonder about this quote from a restaurant owner/chef who still cooks and serves full meals: "We still have six courses in the middle because I still have the attention span for a meal..."

Is that the real reason the entree is disappearing? Do crowds of young trendy diners go out for multiple plates of tiny bites because they don't really know what a meal is, and don't have the attention span to enjoy one?

That may seem like a silly question, but when you consider how few families ever dine together anymore, or even gather for a holiday meal such as Thanksgiving dinner, you have to wonder if the slow demise of entree-style dining isn't a reflection of our culture and its grab-and-go approach to food.

Granted, it's not necessary (or even desirable) to gather the family each evening for a giant slab of animal protein flanked by a starch and two vegetables; but it is a good thing to gather the family. Our awareness of some of the unhealthy tendencies of the past in regard to food doesn't absolve us from the duty to get together at some point of the day for some sort of meal; it doesn't have to be huge or fancy, but it should be the backdrop of some conversation, some connection, some small attempt to touch base with each other and enjoy each other's company.

I know that this may not be possible every night of the week for every family, and there are times when the demands of young children or the late working hours of the family breadwinner may make it extremely difficult to do this at all. This is no less true in the Cardigan house than it is in yours. But there's something pretty wonderful about those days when we can all eat at least one meal together, and I can't even imagine how many of the children of today are growing up in homes where the entire family gathering for a meal is something that almost never happens.

If the entree is disappearing from restaurant menus because it's an old-fashioned way of eating that involves too many calories, too much protein, and too much waste, that's probably a good thing. But if the disappearance of the entree is a side effect of the disappearance of the family meal, if people really don't have the "attention span" for a meal anymore, then it's an altogether different reality.

1 comment:

Divine Mercy said...

i don't know about entrees, as iam pretty much a disaster at making those, and pies. i can cook almost anything except pies, and can make almost anything except entrees. sure, i can slap some meat and cukes and cheese and stuff on a platter, but hey, actually cooking an entree? totally stumps me! sigh...