Sunday, April 8, 2012

Burger Time - the Cynical Food Movement

For some time now I have planned a very special (?) Heavy Hiking rant: "I live in the Highlands, and all I can find to eat are hamburgers, pizza slices, bad pizza slices, burritos (always good) and overpriced macaroni and cheese." But of course life and it's many obligations and activities moves on, the weeks become months, and by now the explosion of burger-and-tap-house concept trend has taken over so many storefronts that oftentimes I can't remember what better or worse place used to be there before.

(Except for Linger.  I remember that Linger was a mortuary for many, many years.  When you eat a burger at Linger [and they do have burgers], you are eating in a mortuary.  If you are cool with that, then fine - maybe you find it liberating, like a sadhu attending his own funeral.)

At this point, after I cross the Highland Bridge (because they tore down half of the 15th Street bridge, and now it's scary), I pass no less than 10 places serving "gourmet hamburgers" in the 2-3 miles to my home in the West Highlands.

(You think I am making this up.  Okay, here it is: Breckenridge Tap House, Vita, Linger, Lohi Steak House, Highland Tap & Burger, Park Burger, Three Dog, Coral Room, Bang!, and Mead Street.  Of course, there are great no-burger places like Z Cuisine along the way, too).

I rarely eat any kind of ground meat or sausage.  I don't because I used to be a cook.  Yes, it's because ground meat is generally dubious (and I'm not just talking about pink slime - anytime you churn up meat in a machine, in a pathogen-rich environment, and then attempt to cook it into something hopefully safe for consumption, it's a leap of faith [although the same could be said for rice in a hot buffet table, quite possibly the single most dangerous food]).  Oh, and because I've actually made hamburger and sausage in mass quantities.  Have you heard of the phrase "like watching sausage getting made?"  There's a reason for that phrase - if you can't tell what part of the animal you're eating, well, it's a problem.  But I also don't eat much ground meat because of what it means to go out to eat.

Again, I used to be a cook.  I started in college, picked it up again in 1998, and then kept at for about five years.  It wasn't a particularly romantic thing - I started cooking to make money, picked it up again because I was broke, and then kept at it because it was enjoyable, an okay way to make money, and also allowed me to eat enough to feed my ultramarathon habit.

I worked in California at some fine-dining places (notably Postrio), at ski resort restaurants, a ranch or two, and on staff at the White Mountain Research Station (which has recently [and inevitably] fallen on hard times).  That path culminated in me opening The Ice Bar for Crested Butte Mountain (which has incredibly survived until now, although in a larger and better building). The end was final, definitive, and satisfying.  On the last day of the season, we blew out the bar serving a horde of drunken sunburned skiers - then I sent a few remaining things down the hill in a snowcat, locked the door, drove the snowmobile to its home, and got a ride to my truck by the sous-chef.

I left for a few reasons.  Certainly working twelve hour days, 6-7 days a week, and every holiday had something to do with it.  In terms of working conditions, have you read "Kitchen Confidential?"  But I also had a creeping sense that what I did didn't matter so much, or maybe it only mattered on the coasts.  And I didn't want to work so hard to do something that didn't matter much to the people eating my food.  Really, I didn't love it enough for it to be a labor of love - it was just labor.

The Cynical Food Movement drove me out.  Back then, the CFM was competing with Slow Food, locally sourced, organic, etc.  But it has grown, spread, and taken over.  It's worse than I imagined it would be.

What is the CFM?  It is the "gourmet hamburger."  I saw it coming.  There were places starting to sell actual gourmet hamburgers (I remember Jean-George serving a burger in the mid-90's I think) - meat ground in-house from quality cuts, real house-made buns, etc.  It was obvious that fancy burgers would be a slippery slope.  Imitators could sell a general approximations of the real thing, and due to the nature of ground meat (see above), few would notice.  It was a race to the bottom.  It was going to make the problem of unadventurous diners worse.  It was going to be bad.

(I remember when my boss told me to make another CFM classic: lobster macaroni and cheese.  I said, "But chef, that's a desecration of lobster - those two things don't even have complementary flavors."  He said sadly, "That's what they want - everyone wants lobster mac-and-cheese.  I don't know why [sigh]." [at least this is how I remember it]).

(In its wide-ranging quest to skewer everything, The Wire briefly touches on CFM.  It's in season three (I think)- McNulty and Theresa D'Agostino have dinner at a D.C. restaurant and they reminisce about how there just aren't many good fine-dining places anymore - it's all steakhouses now.  It was political commentary, but I prefer to see it as food commentary.)

That's not fair, right?  A good, hearty hamburger is a thing of beauty.  It's comfort food.  It's delicious.  It's an art.  It's American.  I agree, on every point.  A great hamburger is fantastic.  What separates a great hamburger the from CFM burger is selling a regular, whatever-sourced, greasy hamburger for $10-15.  Eating and paying for a $10-15 CFM burger is a waste of time and money.  It is an insult to the diner.  It is an insult to the long tradition of skillful food preparation.

What's in the CFM burger?  No one knows - the wholesale supplier doesn't know, the owner of the joint doesn't know, the cooks don't know, and the customer doesn't know.  Currently people are up in arms about pink slime/"lean finely textured beef," and of course that is just the tip of the iceberg of stuff in ground beef.  But a lot of people don't care, or are least comfortable being willfully-ignorant (myself included) about that other stuff.

More importantly (at least for this rant), how is the CFM burger prepared?  It's being prepared by a guy throwing hamburger patties on a grill or flattop, cooking them to a general approximation of temperature (maybe), and then sticking it together with toppings and fries (which cost extra).  The CFM burger takes a small fraction of the skill and attention as the kinds of dishes cooks love to dream up.  It never changes.  It's incredibly boring.  The only reason CFM burger places serve specials is to give the cooks something to do so they don't go crazy.  If they could, the owners would cut out the specials and just do burgers- that's where the margin/money are.

(Besides the obvious resulting environmental, labor, dietary, and soul-killing disasters), who cares?  So what if people are selling mystery meat as high-art (or is it ironic low-art?), with an accompanying price tag?  I don't pay $12 for a hamburger with no fries.  No one made me change the Ice Bar menu to include a burger, and I don't have to work in the CFM cooking world now.

(Besides those other minor things) what I do care about is (a) everything around me becoming a CFM burger place, and (b) CFM burger places putting the hurt on places I like to eat.  I wrote about Generous Servings closing awhile back.  Now it's becoming a burger-and-beer (and wing!) place "Fire on the Mountain" (with grass-fed beef!).  Surely, I need 11 possible CFM burger stops on my route from Highlands Bridge - what about 12?

Why not?  It's safe (at least financially) and it works - you cut food costs way down, save on labor, and are still looking at big tickets.  But our neighborhood just lost one of the more creative and enjoyable places to eat, and all it gained in return is more hamburger.  And the remaining creative and enjoyable - even thoughtful - places are getting squeezed by the ubiquitous CFM burger.

Does this mean anything for eating out?  That depends.  Is eating out a special occasion?  Are we celebrating something - even just the workday being over?  Certainly, we could just stay in and eat delicious Hot Pockets, but if we can afford it, we like to go out.  As far as I know, this is standard across cultures.

So when we go out to eat, what will we eat?  Do we want something that someone cared about making?  Do we want something interesting?  Maybe even unique?  Or do we want a concept?  A filling thing that looks sort of like something creative, but is really just a profitable copy of that something?

It's worth making that decision - or at least thinking about making that decision.  If not, all we'll have are CFM places.  End of rant.

(Possibly) up next: the official Heavy Hiking position statement on silly "low-profile" running shoes with toes.

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