When the Elite Meet to Eat

"You ain't gonna get any nouveau, amandine, thin crust, bottled water, sauteed city food. Food's brown, hot, and plenty of it." -Cookie, the Chuck Wagon cook in "City Slickers"

When the Elite Meet to Eat

I dread ordering a beer these days. When the beer list on the chalkboard at the local brewpub looks like an Excel spreadsheet full of IPAs, porters, pale ales, stouts, pilsners... and for each selection I can see the ABV (alcohol by volume,) IBU (International Bitterness Units) (!!!,) color, and sometimes a personal beer origin story. The appropriately tatted and lumberjack-bearded beertender bro asks what I'd like to try, often offering a "flight" of brews to compare.

"Um, yeah. You got any Miller Lite™?"

The world stops. It's as if E.F. Hutton has spoken (if you remember that dated reference.) I might as well have asked for the dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse.

"Uh, sure, dude. Whatever."

The thing is, I don't care anymore. I'm not about to be shamed into buying a glass of some "Stout" sludge when I'm perfectly happy knocking back some Lite "piss beer" as the brew bros would refer to it.

I came of beer age when Schlitz, Pearl, and Lone Star were the Texas standard. Lone Star specifically was the "ImahTexan" calling card. It was the house beer at the Armadillo World Headquarters, and John Travolta was swigging it down in the film, "Urban Cowboy." More importantly, my formative beer years were spent at college keg parties. Good and unpretentious friends would toss $5 into the hat and someone would go get a keg of whatever was cheap. Coors? Old Mil? PBR? (back when drinking PBR was just cheap, not a hipster throwback.) Yes, please, any of these. Put 4 or 5 big bags of ice in that keg trash can, and enjoy the night! Sure, someone would order a pony keg of Heinekin if they were feeling extra bougie, but such a rarity.

There are at least a dozen microbreweries or huge "taprooms" (that feature a wall of local or upscale brews) within a two-mile radius of my house. Don't get me wrong. These places make for a great hang. Except for the whole "beer experience." It seems an unwritten rule that the brews must be dissected, discussed, and debated for half an hour or so before the conversation can move on. Where did the hops originate? What is the lineage of this beer? Can you detect the notes of chocolate? Coffee? How about the roast on this one?

What about a suggestion for pairings? Which ale goes best with this basket of buffalo-sauced wings? Or did you want an IPA to go with the Thai curry wings? A pale ale with lemon pepper wings?

I'm on my third longneck (and ordering tequila) as a result of these conversations. I suppose we have winos to blame for this - the wine "connoisseurs" who for years have nearly cornered the market on dining snobbery. Wine has been around since grapes have. European wines were considered a finer quality until the last few decades. There are now wines of respectable quality bottled all over the world. California and the Napa Valley region probably led the way in the US, but Texas has well-respected bottles coming out of the Trans Pecos, the hill country, and even down in the valley. Johnson City of all places has two dozen or more vineyards, with bus tours to tote you around to the various tastings in the area. (Note: These vineyards are often smallish, with only a couple hundred or fewer vines on the property. Ask around, and you'll find that most of them buy the bulk of their wine base from the larger growers out west, and blend in their own grapes, allowing them to declare the wine as their own and brand them as "My-brand, Texas Wine.")

Growers work constantly to get an edge, and they desperately hope (and earnestly work) to produce a high-quality product. From the grapes, to the processing, to the aging process, to the bottling (and most definitely the marketing,) they need (like any other commodity) to set themselves apart. Tasting contests are conducted worldwide, managed by various "experts" on such things. Most seem legit, but even the experts will agree that due to the subjective nature of "does this taste good?" wine tasting requires an educated palate. In other words, just because you think a wine tastes good, you might be wrong. (!) Wines, probably more than any other comestible, have become part of our economic/cultural divide.

You are either sophisticated and have the means (and taste) to drink fine wine, or you're drinking Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill or something out of a cardboard box. (Note: in my younger days, I bartended/waited a tables in several restaurants and clubs. Most were mid to slightly upscale in menu and price. They almost all served their "house wine" specials from a box.) Like so many products, price signals quality. But like so many products, price doesn't necessarily precict quality.

The sophisticated James Mason knows what's good.

I love the story by Steve Levitt, one of the original "Freakonomics" authors, where he tells of being a young grad student at Harvard. He was invited to join a social club of older professors that met monthly for fine dining and wine tasting. Put off by the pretentiousness of it all and being a burger-and-fries kinda guy (and a student of economics,) he decided to run a little experiment. He asked to host the next wine tasting, (you can see where this is going, right?) He bought a couple $100 bottles of good wine recommended by a wine steward, and also bought the cheapest ($10) bottle he could find of the same varietal. He decanted the expensive wines into two different carafes, and then split the cheap wine between two other matching carafes. And then the gentlemen began their rigorous evaluations.

LEVITT: “The data could not have cooperated more completely with my hypothesis. So for starters the four wines received almost identical ratings on average. Although there were a wide spread among individuals, on average, tallied up, people did not prefer the expensive wines to the cheap wine. On top of that, and this was the thing I was hoping for and dreaming of but didn’t believe would actually come true.  It turned out among individuals if you compared how differently they rated any two of the wines that they had, it turned out that by a small margin, people actually rated the same wine from the same bottle but presented in a different decanter as being the most different of the two wines (so the two wines that were absolutely  identical, when you looked at the gap between the ratings that the individual gave to those wines, the gap was bigger than they did between the other wines, which actually were different.”

The party mood shifted quite drastically, broke up soon after, and Levitt didn't find a lot of return invitations in his inbox.

Beyond just a bunch of Harvard elites who fancied themselves fancy, Levitt looked at other similar taste tests. In one test with other "experts," he found that the preferred wine was almost always the one that was marked as the most expensive, (even though the identical wine was served as a comparison.) Worse, one researcher submitted a wine list for a restaurant award to Wine Spectator, a prominent magazine in the world of wine. His menu listed several wines that had received terrible reviews from the magazine itself. (One entry had elicited the opinion that it was “Unacceptable … sweet and cloying … [and] smells like bug spray.”) Along with his menu, he submitted a $250"entry fee." And... surprise! He received a message that he had received a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence! Oh, and btw, would he like to take out a paid ad in their magazine to publicize his award along with his restaurant? He did not, as his restaurant, wine list, and website were all fake.

circa 1970s: hydro station

Do you remember the first time you heard about Perrier water? How hard it made you laugh? "They expect someone to pay a premium for a designer club soda?!" Bwah-ha-ha! And now the water aisle runs the length of the grocery store. From common waters bottled by Coca-Cola and Nestles to premium, exotic waters imported from the Fiji Islands.

Let's do one of those Freakonomics taste tests on water, eh? "Mmmmm, great mouthfeel, good clarity, and no appreciable aftertaste. Or taste. Just excellence in hydration."

'In my day,' we crowded the school water fountain after we came inside after recess. Overheating little elementary school sweathogs. We would suck low-pressure water out of the fountain by wrapping our entire mouths over the spigot, spreading every childhood pathogen known and unknown to man, panting heavily as we drank. Teachers would set arbitrary time limits on each drink, trying to get 25-30 stinky brats back into an un-air-conditioned classroom where hydration was never a priority.

The cost of using water for status seems absurd. In addition to the retail price tag, consider that these companies are pumping water by the millions of gallons from aquifers that are in distress. After extraction, it is bottled in plastic bottles, shipped across about 5,000 miles of ocean, and then distributed via truck and rail across the country. Environmentally friendly, no? But at least it's really pure water. Well, most of the time. Except for back in May when Fiji recalled a couple million bottles after "manganese in addition to three bacterial genera" were found in the product. Or how about back in 2006 when Fiji wrote a snarky full-page ad, "The label says Fiji because it's not bottled in Cleveland." This was a poke at the city of Cleveland which had had some water system/quality problems. A city manager got a little peeved at that, so he lab-tested some bottles of Fiji as well as some city water samples. Fiji was found to have "6.31 micrograms of arsenic per liter in the Fiji bottle" while the city supply (and a couple of competitor bottles) had none. This was still under the EPA and FDA allowance. But still... arsenic. Maybe they should bottle some of that Cleveland H2O.

Starbucks gave us the blueprint for making a common commodity into a premium and overpriced consumer staple. Tell me the first time you saw a cup of coffee for 5 bucks or so and how you laughed out loud and predicted the instant demise of such nonsense. And now? Drive-thru lanes stretch out into the street blocking traffic as a sleepy-eyed workforce waits for their early morning latte fix. You can hear moms inside Starbucks picking up brews with and for their entitled spawn. "Braxton, I told you. You had some espresso at the house, you do not need a Trenta White Chocolate Macadamia Cream Cold Brew with Toasted Cookie Crumble Topping. We discussed this, Braxton. You can have a Grande Cinnamon Dolce Latte with Whipped Cream and Sprinkles or we'll just get in the car right now and go to Summer Robot Camp without anything!"

a simple cuppa joe to get the morning started.

Which leads me to dining out in restaurants. If it's painful sometimes to order a simple beer, the modern restaurant "experience" is getting insufferable. That's not to say that there aren't plenty of solid, enjoyable places to dine out. But, according to modern wisdom, the current generation is not looking for just a delicious, lovely meal in a comfortable setting. No, "the kids today" need an experience. Foodies everywhere are like the beer bros... there needs to be something completely unique and unusual. They desire 'culinary adventures' that engage all senses. Aesthetic presentation is a must. The dining "space" must be of appropriate design... Modern? Traditional? Cozy? As long as it excites. The food should be locally sourced and sustainable. Servers should be prompt, knowledgeable, and unobtrusive. There should be gluten-free options available, as well as vegetarian, vegan, and lactose-free choices.

If a modern beer tavern is insane, the expectations brought to a restaurant bar are impossible. There are no bartenders, btw, just "mixologists." A separate bar menu is available, with "signature cocktails" featured prominently. I recently tried to order a "gin and tonic" and the server came out with some lavender-tinted creation that had 'notes' of Aqua Velva™ and Ben-Gay™ and tasted like lilac water over kerosene. It was garnished with an orchid the size of a prom corsage. All for only $25!

The important thing is to have a good back story for your concept. (There are no new restaurants, just new "concepts.") Something like... Daddy started the restaurant, but he died and Mama took it over only to find that the books were in the red - but by sheer gumption, she kept the place going and made it the showcase it is today. Other stories might include the immigrant who started with $200 and a dream, the food truck owner who persevered through the pandemic and saved enough to open a small brick-and-mortar store, or even the Cajun husband that married the Mexican wife and created a Mexijun (or Cajican?) fusion concept that serves award-winning crawfish tacos and chili gumbo... or something.

The problem with providing "unique" experiences in food service... is finding a way to be new every day, when you have to develop a consistent menu, train chefs and servers to cook and deliver it, and figure out all of the logistics to support it. What other businesses have the pressure of redesigning the product and the store every time you visit? Recently, a well-known chef in Houston acquired a space, announcing that he would transform the concept annually for the next five years. (It was to be called "One Fifth.") That's changing the entire menu, the physical design of the restaurant, employee uniforms, and bar offerings. Every. Year.

"...<the first year he will> take on classic steakhouse fare. The following year the concept will become One Fifth Romance Languages, featuring the cuisines of Spain, France, and Italy. On year three, the restaurant will transform into One Fifth Fish, a seafood restaurant that looks beyond the Gulf Coast for inspiration by serving, say, caper blades from South Carolina or clams from New England." 

I'm not a CPA, and barely passed Intro to Business Principles... but I'm thinking that the reason that this never happened (it didn't) was that a real lender took a look at this business plan and laughed so hard he choked on his South Carolinian caper blades.

Another recent venture here in town found a group opening a restaurant that specialized in Northeastern Thai cuisine. So authentic, in fact, that they refused to put Pad Thai on the menu. Pad Thai, they sniffed, was not a traditional Thai dish. The "farm-to-table" purists served papaya salad, a water-buffalo sausage, and mackerel wrapped with coconut sticky rice... but no Pad Thai. It became the darling of critics and super-foodies, even earned a spot on Bon Appetit's prestigious list of America's 50 best new restaurants. But they couldn't draw a crowd. In a last-ditch effort to save the place... they bent to customers' requests and added Pad Thai to the menu. Too little, too late. It closed with little fanfare.

Just a few days ago, another upscale restaurant group closed a place that they fashioned as a "Mexico City-inspired taqueria" that was managed by "award-winning" chefs. "The space was bigger than what we hoped for our concept" they explained in their closing announcement. Located in a redeveloped (and gentrifying) farmer's market, it was another darling of the critics who appreciated their use of heirloom corn for its tortillas and the al pastor served from a trompo. It lasted seven months. In its space, Alamo Tamales plans to open a store. The wildly popular Alamo makes traditional tamales and an assortment of old-school Tex-Mex dishes. During the holiday season, customers will line up out the door to get the familiar favorite.

About now you are thinking, "Chris, once again, you are the angry, red-faced troll at the end of the (old, dive) bar. Ranting and raving and howling at the moon."

Yes. Yes, that's me. But here's the thing. I love a cold beer. I love a good glass of wine. Man, I love a great meal, I love it when the food is as authentic and presented in a "narrative woven from flavors, techniques, and cultural influences." Kidding. What I love is good food with friends in a comfortable and stylish setting.

A couple of months ago, I was traveling with an associate with whom I do a bit of work with. He's a real foodie. It's nice because he's not overly pretentious about his food habit. We travel periodically to meet his clients (he's a consultant, I assist him with his technical programs.) Since we're on the road on a client's dime, he has the chance to explore area restaurants, ('concepts,') and I have the chance to mooch off of his expense account. I think we were in Denver when he was gushing about a bistro that he'd read about. He had tried desperately to get a reservation, and on the third or fourth day of our stay, a maître d' promised him that we could at least sit at the bar if he couldn't find us a table that evening.

After our work was completed, we rushed over and to his word, the host found us a table in the corner. The menu looked Greek to me, or French, or just f'reign. I was actually having to discreetly look up some of the entrees on my phone... one concoction turned out to be some kind of rabbit dish. I don't think so. Other offerings seemed equally unappetizing to my proletarian palate. I spotted some kind of chop, and figured I could get a salad to round things out when the waiter rolled up to announce the evening's specials. He rattled off more foodie talk, and then during one description, he mentioned something about a steak which grabbed my attention. My associate smiled and said, "Hey, you love steak... you should get that!" Over our many dining excursions, he knew I enjoyed a good steak while on the road. My wife is a vegetarian, and though she does not deny me some animal flesh every now and then, I rarely cook a lot of heavy meat dishes at home. "Sure, I'll take that steak-one, whatever it is." The waiter positively beamed. "That's what I would order! You're going to love it!"

Able to relax and enjoy my lavender-tinted gin and tonic with the wedding bouquet flower garnish, I awaited my little beefy treat. But when it came to the table, it appeared that I'd ordered an entire cow. It was a "tomahawk" style steak, (a bone-in ribeye) that was cut as thick as a tractor tire. It was massive, sliced perpendicular to the bone. As a child in a sometimes struggling family, this would have been a holiday meal for 20. As a side note to my fellow carnivore friends, it was absurdly delicious. I can't remember what my employer ordered, but he got several slices of meat to dress up his unpronounceable dinner. Between giggles at this comical medium-rare steer being walked over to our table, we tried to imagine how we could preserve this feast, or take the baseball-bat sized bone on the plane to get it home to the dog. We were having a grand old time with it all, and then the bill came.


$350 for one steak.

Without even thinking, I blurted out, "you TOLD me to order it!"

After a moment or two, he figured out he could "bury it in the expense report, somehow." As a roundtrip airfare, I guess.

One of our boys manages a little mom-and-pop cafe in Cuero, south of San Antonio. (Cuero's motto - "Cuero: The Way Life Ought to Be.") It's a chicken-fried, chicken strips, breakfast tacos, meatloaf-on-Thursdays kinda place. They got through the pandemic by packaging family meals of those homestyle dishes. Nothing fancy here. As "Cookie," the chuck wagon cook said in the classic "City Slickers," "You ain't gonna get any nouveau, amandine, thin crust, bottled water, sauteed city food. Food's brown, hot, and plenty of it." And the town loves 'em.

I was telling a friend of mine who lives in the neighboring town of Halletsville that they had often considered opening a second location, maybe in his town. "Oh, please! Yes! We need a cafe so badly! Tell him it doesn't even have to be very good, we just need a place to get a meal and gather with friends!" (He was serious.) My buddy is not an unsophisticated man. He's a retired attorney who had a very successful practice in Houston. He wanted to retire as a gentleman rancher on some old family property, but he didn't count on the dearth of dining options in Halletsville. He didn't need nouveau, amandine, thin crust, city food... just a place with a good chicken fried steak, and maybe some working air conditioning.

"Is there a point to all of this, Chris? Besides your whining about your delicious $350 steak?"

OK. Here's the thing. It's a trope, but true, that we've politicized everything. Entertainment, sports, education, religion... hell, even politics (!) But as you know, a huge part of that is the ever-widening wealth gap. Rural America not only feels short-changed economically, but they're a little resentful to be treated like rubes when the fish doesn't appear fresh. "My dinner was like something frozen off of the Sysco truck. Here's your one-star Yelp review." Not a lot of fresh seafood right off the pier in Lubbock, Lufkin, or Levelland.

The millions and millions living in small-town Texas (and America) resent being characterized as culturally and socially inferior. When their kids come back from visiting their city cousins and complain that they can't get a poke bowl, a Churro Frappé, or a decent Chai Tea in Hometown and that they're tired of the same old Sonic drive-in... well, tempers flare. As I've noted before, even Red Lobster - a national seafood chain often seen (for better or worse) as a real upscale dining experience that rural folks would drive a couple of towns over for a special occasion - is closing. In their (correct) view, it's just another victim of big-city venture capital predation.

Headline seen in the NY Times, but not the Amarillo Globe-News

To a lot of us, Smalltown, Texas seems like ground zero for the MAGA nation. The Trump 2024 signs that cover ranch gates or "Stop the Steal" flags that adorn shopkeepers' windows. The fundamentalist church pastors scream about abortion and burn books and stomp on Pride flags. And in their view, we elites aren't just content enough to drone on about our craft beer, wax poetic about the subtle floral notes coming of this Chardonnay, or Instagram a plate of arugula and kale sprinkled with goat cheese crumbles and a balsamic drizzle... they're angry because they perceive we're taking away the things they DO love. That Red Lobster. The Dollar Store (that's closing.) And we're giving BudLite to the LGBT community.

Yeah, all that rage about BudLite being promoted by a trans "influencer?" We're not content to eat our snob food and drink a snooty brew, but we're after THEIR beer, too! Make no mistake, their boycott of BudLite WAS effective, InBev stock plummeted more than 20% and lost about 26 BILLION in capital valuation! Their competitors' sales shot up. The issue was so polarizing that you could find Democrats vengefully drinking Bud Lite!

If not for my sake, then for the sake of progressive politics:
• Limit the discussion of your stout's smokey barley flavor profile and how your IPA is simply too bitter to five minutes or less.
• Grab a bottle of Two-Buck-Chuck wine at Trader Joe's when you're headed out to the family reunion - and pour yourself a glass... over ice.
• And for God's sake, have a chicken fried steak with taters smothered in white gravy at a local diner. I believe it was in one of Willie Nelson's movies that someone asked about the secret to happiness. "Good boots and cream gravy," was the reply. Ask what kind of pie they have for dessert. Remember: "All pie is good pie."

The Trump threat is real. Let's do our part to quit shoving the MAGAts further into the cult.

Heck, if you'd buy me one of them $350 Tomahawks, I bet I could feed the whole diner. Sing a little Kumbayah as we passed around the pitcher of BudLite. It'll be an Instagrammable moment.

  • Note to my beer bro, wino, and foodie friends. I love ya. And next time we meet, order me a few rounds to help develop my palate. And seriously, buy me that Tomahawk.
Chris Newlin worked around Tee-Vee stations before he went out on his own and continued to work in the world of video and multi-media production. Then came iPhones and YouTube accounts, so now he sits around full of self-pity and too many Keystone Lights. He still enjoys sunsets, long walks on the beach, and a good bowel movement, at least every now and then.