An Olive Garden is opening near my neighborhood. In Chicago. And not the Chicago that people from Aurora claim as their home when travelling. Actual Chicago. When I moved into the neighborhood seven years ago, a real estate agent asked me if all my neighbors were Mexican (needless to say, I ditched the agent). There’s still a late 70s primer-gray Ford parked down the street, and I’m pretty sure my house still falls securely in the Familia Stone territory (suck it, Latin Kings!). And yet, here comes the bricks-and-mortar symbol of bland middle class whiteness, closing in on me like a speed freak waiter in ill-fitting black pants asking me “have you been here before?” as if (a) the experience I’m about to have is so mind-blowing that I need to prepare for it or (b)my knowledge of Italian is severely limited and I’m going to need a translation of the menu – “what the hell is bruschetta? Do I look like goddamned Benito Mussolini?” Needless to say, this is causing me a lot of anxiety.
I could probably make a cultural argument against the place. Olive Garden is hardly doing a good job representing Italy. But if you follow the news, Italians are doing a crappy job of that themselves. Maybe Italy deserves to be lightly breaded, fried, topped with marinara, mozzarella, and parmesan and served with spaghetti, just like the $12.75 eggplant parmigiana. “Parmigiana,” interestingly, has nothing to do with “parmesan,” but is part of the traditional Tuscan blessing, “Parmigiana la prossima settimana,” which means “may your bowels move in the next week.”
What about the food itself? Let’s say you can no longer get your hams into an airline seat to visit the land of the Renaissance masters. Why not indulge in the Garden’s “Tour of Italy?” This delicious dish features lasagna, chicken parmigiana, and fettucine alfredo. All at once. I hope that a tour of Italy was on the list of things to do before you die, because you won’t be living for much longer. This “tour” has 3830 mg of sodium. Screw the recommended allowance and the nutrition scourges who would tell you that’s a bad thing! Instead, try to envision eating a bit more than a teaspoon and a half of table salt. Oh, and you can add the equivalent of and six tablespoons of lard. I guess sodium and fat is better actually in something, but still. I personally enjoy the “lighter” menu, which includes options with 24, 20, and 19 grams of fat. Lighter, in this context, presumably means something less dense than having your colon stuffed with modeling clay so you can star in the next BodyWorlds exhibit.
This is America, so you absolutely have the right to have your limbs to look like blue ribbon entries in a Bavarian state fair knockwurst competition. I do wonder if you should reconsider wearing all the brightly colored workout wear, though. With the exception of Kermit the Frog, no one should look like a parade balloon of themselves. Eat what you want – but do you want to grow your third and fourth butt cheeks at a place that is taking part in the destruction of America?
Put simply, the Olive Garden is the greasy, salty, fake parmesan covered manifestation of the hypocrisy of America. Ok, one of the many hypocrisies of America. Olive Garden doesn’t really have anything to do with fetishizing the Constitution and killing people with flying death robots. Or celebrating amateur athletes while letting the NCAA exploit their uncompensated labor for billions. Or saying we love music and listening to Bon Iver and Maroon 5. That last one is just the hypocrisy of one of my co-workers, but it’s out there.
Within a mile or two of the new Olive Garden are at least four family owned Italianish places. Probably more, but I can only eat so much red sauce. They’re all different, with their own recipes, very different ambiance and presentation. The one closest to me is owned by a second generation restaurateur – his parents owned a place down the street that was torn down and replaced with a bank. It’s a good place, staffed by about three people. These are local businesses, not owned by a giant corporation that serves 400 million meals a year. Not all of those are via the Olive Garden, to be fair. They also own a couple of seafood and steakhouse “concepts.” Concepts as in conceive of an actual restaurant and then completey fabricate the actual experience of it. The Olive Garden, in the corporate parents’ own words is “an idealized Italian family meal” – in much the same way that Mario and Luigi represent an idealized Italian family plumbing/princess rescuing business.
This is what actually drives me crazy about Olive Garden and all the other national family casual “concepts.” They’re effectively tricked out McDonald’s, with millions and millions served the exact same meal. Where’s the America of the family business, the America proud of the regional differences in cuisine – where’s the America of the individual? How much of an individual can you be if you just stuffed your gut with a pasta bomb identical to the one some guy in Sheboygan and another in Poughkeepsie just ate? These restaurants even look all the same. As near as I can tell, every metal sign made before 1983 is screwed to a wall somewhere. Have a friend blindfold you and drop you off at an Applebee’s, Chili’s, or Friday’s booth. Amongst the kitschy signs, onions blooming and jalapenos popping, see if you can figure out where you are. Then ditch that friend, because he’s a jerk. Who would do that to someone?
One of the reasons for living in the city is to avoid the stultifying sameness of the cookie cutter kingdom that exists outside the limits. No one ever talks about the local dishes and successful family owned joints in Schaumburg or whatever the God-forsaken equivalent burbs are in New York, Philadelphia, or Baltimore (ok, maybe someone talks about them, but I stopped listening after they said they moved to Fish Belly Acres to ‘get more for their money’). The city shouldn’t be a place for the Olive Garden, and yet I know that big restaurant companies make their decisions about new locations very carefully. I hope they’ve got it wrong – I hope that my neighbors will stick with the local options. LIke Italian beef. Sliced meat served on a bun with cheese and soaked in its own fat served at place with the owner’s nickname in the title and an actual Little League trophy (or four) behind the counter.
God Bless America.