Updated: Oct 25, 2021
Warning: This tale is one of apologetic First-World privilege and is intended to be humorous.
I’m in a box. It’s a $105-a-night box, which is better than the $125 box last night and the $200 box the night before.
We are on vacation, a drive through rural Ontario, our destination, is, was, Grand Bend and Lake Huron, more the lake than the Bend, which is grand only in the amount of fried food one consumes despite their best intentions. “The fish in the taco couldn’t be breaded and fried, could it?”
Traveling through beautiful southwestern Ontario, around Lake Huron, is a trip through lustrous farm country, empty stretches of perfect pavement between windfarms and autumn-coloured trees, dozing cows and grazing lamb and horses.
To sleep, one rents a room for the night. The rooms are all of a type – a box with a window, fridge, desk and one or two little chairs, decent bed and bathrooms of various sizes – small to medium small with stand-up showers.
It is not a hardship, only a curiosity. We’ve left a beautiful home to travel from box to box and eat bad to mediocre food or, when digestion or extravagance suggests, spring for a $100 meal which may not be deep-fried. And may be memorable for success. Or its failure. “A hundred bucks for that?”
When I see words like pub or grill house lit up in neon, I know the menu before I park. There will be ersatz chicken caesar salads drowned in mayo and cheese, overcooked ribs smothered in brown glop, burgers cooked to shoe heels, cold, limp frozen fries, bad steak, decent steak sandwiches, overcooked white pasta, bony, salty fried wings – the pieces bulked up with breading and coated with a variety of sweet, salty and spicy glop. And, of course, pizza, pizza everywhere covered in cheese-like substance and invisible tomato sauce.
I will be served by friendly young women who include themselves in the meal-time festivities, as in, “What will we be eating tonight?” or “Are we through with that?” I usually respond with I’m not sure about you but I’m having …” Often they introduce themselves. A friendly if indigestible transaction.
And there are TVs and speakers festooning the walls and music of dead people mixed with the voices of sportscasters talking drivel. “What you want from your bullpen is a pitcher who throws strikes and gets guys out.”
I understand the economics of sleeping in boxes. They’re affordable and practical, if claustrophobic. During Covid, there are no room services, which is a blessing. I was never a fan of leaving a stranger in my room sniffing my sheets but the rates have not noticeably declined with the service.
Hotels need to make up for Covid losses. And people everywhere are sleeping in streets, so what am I complaining about?
A deep fryer is a restaurant’s budget’s best friend. Dump whatever it is in oil for a specified time – maybe an extra minute or two to make sure it’s overcooked – and a six-year-old can run your kitchen, as long as he doesn’t cut off his fingers slicing the iceberg. Salt flavours and helps push drinks. And, I understand, you can pay a chef $80,000 or more a year or pay a kid or two in the kitchen $15 an hour plus unguents for burns. Normally, kids are easy to find and easily replaceable. Chefs, not so much.
We eat it ‘cause we’re hungry and choices are limited. We stay in boxes because we need to stay somewhere and they are ubiquitous and affordable. And because we accept it.
To skip the fried food the other day I ordered a bargain $14 7-oz. sirloin. It came with cold fries, everything coated generously with salt. The server asked, “Are we enjoying everything?” “I don’t know about you but …” I nodded. The fries are cold, the steak is overcooked and tough and the vegetables are overcooked, cold and watery, but I held my tongue. Honesty is not always necessary.
As always, we paid without complaint and steeled ourselves for our next meal. Breakfast was fish tacos, a break from tasteless eggs and bad bread – why is real bread impossible to find? – overcooked, rubbery bacon and the ubiquitous mound of fried potatoes. They wouldn’t deep fry the fish in a taco would they? Turns out they would and the breading was thicker than the fish it hid.
You can take it as it comes or ask the beleaguered server – trying to serve a busy restaurant with little help – a dozen questions which may cause her to spit in your acidy drip coffee. Might improve the flavour.
My decrepit body is rebelling, my gall bladder is saying, “Enough.” My digestive tract is screaming, “Help!”
Small-town Ontario is fighting homelessness and a spike in drug addiction. Having to choke down “white” fish and chips is not high on the national tragedy scale.
The fault is ours. We’ve embraced these menus, we’ve frequented the overly familiar plastic-furnished fast-food burger, fried chicken and pizza joints, often to make our kids happy years ago and now are used to it. Eating takeout or delivered food during Covid lockdowns – burger and fries smothered in gravy delivered in a sealed plastic box after being driven around for 30 minutes? – has lowered the bar below even McDonald’s junk. What’s wrong with cold, steamed everything?
We squeeze into booths in the friendly-named chains like Kelsey’s or Charley’s or Chuck’s, though the name on the door has nothing to do with their holding corporations that figure profit margins down to the last frozen fry and breaded chicken wing.
Once, in a rash moment, I wrote to a holding company complaining about everything I paid $50 to leave on my plate. The restaurant’s manager replied: “I know you’ll probably never come back but if you do, it’s on the house.” Crap is crap, even if it’s free, and he knew that.
We’ve succumbed to the unhealthy and unappetizing, in part, because it sounds appealing and they advertise, they’re everywhere – no hunting required. We’ve accepted food we’d be ashamed to serve guests at home. We’ve been trained to think this is what food is.
Just as we stay in boxes to sleep because that’s what’s on offer for those without Platinum AmEx cards. And because airlines, even pre-Covid, made themselves so inhospitable, climbing on an airplane is about as much fun as checking into a hospital. What hell awaits on this flight?
And, because it’s acceptable that holding companies make their shareholders happier than their customers.
Perhaps the quick service restaurants of our child-rearing years have led the race to the bottom – cheaper, faster food everywhere, salt and fat firing up our taste buds, lighting up our brains, clogging our arteries.
We’re complicit many times over by accepting crap and telling the server, after choking down an execrable meal, “Everything was great.”
Pass the Lipitor.