Once my dad was in a coma for about three months. He went into it weighing around 190 pounds, and when he awoke he weighed about 75.
My family spent an entire summer camped out at the hospital — too afraid of what we might miss if we ventured too far away. We lived off fast food, we huddled around puzzles and a portable DVD player, and we slept on the commercial-grade, low-pile carpeting of the ICU waiting room floor. For a time, the doctors had no idea what was wrong with him. His body shut down, system by system, each one replaced by equipment that would do the job temporarily.
I started writing about food around the same time. You’re going to think I’m sick in the head when I tell you this (you’re right), but one thing I got a kick out of was describing food to my dad in his visitors log. Alongside the get-well-soons, when-you-get-betters, and keep-fightings, were my daily food entries. Oh, and I should say that all these fourteen years later, my dad is doing well. A miraculous recovery—the doctor’s words. Because making Dad laugh is one of my lifelong goals, my letters usually went something like this:
I brought you a supreme crispy beef taco from Taco Bell because I thought you’d be hungry for the way that cool dollop of sour cream squeezes out of that crisp shell into the palm of your hand when you compress it to take that first bite. I also have a Baja Blast for you hear to wash it down with… But it doesn’t seem like you’re that hungry today, so I guess I’ll eat it.
Love You, JJ
The next day’s entry would describe Schlotzsky’s, then KFC, and on and on.
I think I always knew he’d wake up and read them all and get a real kick out of it. He did. While we may both agree in the humor of those food notes, we don’t necessarily agree about food. My dad is no different from most white middle-class dads born in the 50s in this, his standard for food is determined by the answer to three simple questions: does it require utensils other than a fork? Is it microwavable? Does Miracle Whip go with it? If you can answer yes to even one of those, it’s food. Also, spicy is always a ‘no’; Cheddar’s Chicken Tenders are always a ‘yes’, and Oscar Meyer Ham’n’Cheese loaf beats the iPhone easy if we’re talking high points of American innovation. On second thought, I bet my dad didn’t even like any of the food I wrote about in his visitors log.
A few weeks back at a cookout, my dad was turning down offers for food because he was heading out to meet a friend. When we asked where they were meeting, he said, “Stinkin’ Chili’s!” For a moment I was surprised because Chili’s seems to have it in their business plan to know exactly what will make dads glad. So why then was my dad sad? He said, “I can’t stand Chili’s, it’s a hipster place. A hipster restaurant!” Reason, “…because I never know what to get there; their menu is all weird.” This got me thinking… hard. Is Chili’s a hipster place? What do I get when I go to Chili’s? A burger, but I don’t know what kind. What’s a hipster? I might not know the answer to that.
In the days thereafter, those Chili’s “vintage” found-footage commercials played over and over in my mind. Could my dad be onto something when it comes to food commentary? Or am I just becoming more like him in my old age. Have I gone crude-food? Am I a meager-eater? I did recently get the warm and fuzzies on a road trip with my wife when I copped a pack of Hostess Raspberry Zingers and some Cheetos just like dad likes. Come to think of it I even threw my head back to pour Cheetos into my mouth straight from the bag, bypassing the amateur look of orange-powdered fingers. Genius. A move I picked up natural as a first language from seeing my dad do the same thing a hundred times before. Next thing you know I’ll be pouring handfuls of M&Ms into my warm palms and shaking them like dice so they don’t melt into the cracks of my hands as I toss a few into my mouth at a time. I hadn’t been to Chili’s in years, but something about the afros, flannel shirts, and Foghat beckoned me. Maybe Chili’s was a hipster place now, and I’ve just grown out of touch. I had missed the cool factor cred bestowed upon Waffle House by hip kids with dirty fingernails and tattoos. If Chili’s is becoming a thing, I don’t want to miss it, too. Not because I want to jump on the bandwagon, but because I’m always interested in seeing Gen Y’ers successfully transform some unremarkable circumstance into the most pretentious phenomenon of the day. They’ll normcore anything these days. So I headed to Chili’s.
A guy is still sitting at the bar alone, unashamedly answering his phone every five minutes, “Nuthin… At Chili’s just drinking beer.”
I went in searching for signs of hipsterdom. It was July so I looked for beanies; tall, heavy boots; waxed mustaches; NPR, tight man-shorts; Navajo; baggy woman-pants; wizard beards; fixies; Coachella; kombucha; ringer-tees; almost half-sleeve tattoos; top shirt buttons buttoned; pinky rings; turquoise; pipe tobacco; MacBooks; Infinite Jest; PBR; headbands; ankles; irony; What the Health, sarcasm; plaid; unwashed denim and finally, an unreasonable fear of America suddenly becoming Nazi Germany overnight because deep down they just don’t trust themselves to not get swept up in the next Beer Hall Putsch. I didn’t see any of that. Chili’s is virgin territory, ripe for takeover.
Chili’s is exactly as I left it, six years ago, after I spent up a gift card on a couple of new burgers they were calling “craft”. The reality is, steaming hot fajitas still get danced through the restaurant by 20-somethings with circles under their eyes. The water glasses are still made from that cloudy plastic, and the bartender still calls you ‘brother’. The Presidente margarita is actually pretty good, even though I’ve never seen someone shake it the appropriate 25x needed to achieve the intended effervescent frothiness. A guy is still sitting at the bar alone, unashamedly answering his phone every five minutes, “Nuthin… At Chili’s just drinking beer.” The crew is still unexpectedly excited about how their fried pickles are pickled and battered in-house, and a 21 year-old bartender still can’t pronounce all the liquors in the margarita–but intimately knows the story of the founder’s trip to Mexico, where he discovered the Presidente brandy that gives the signature marg its flavor. He’ll confuse bourbon for brandy when he’s telling you. Chili’s still isn’t great, but it has a few “reasonably clean” booths if you get there at the right time, according to a couple defining their search for a spot in the bar. I didn’t see any hipsters. Just some basketball shorts, flip-flops, cut-off sleeves, wranglers, frat-tees, tube socks, and Harley-Davidson caps.
Chili’s is no Cheddar’s that’s for sure, just ask Dad. It’s no “scratch kitchen”. And as far as knowing what to order, Cheddar’s calls their Chicken Tenders, chicken tenders. While Chili’s gets all wrapped up in hipster lingo, calling them Chicken Crispers. What’s a crisper? I can sorta see how they lost dad. I wouldn’t call it a hipster place, but I’ll be fine if I only get to visit once a decade. Chili’s isn’t good, but it’ll do in a pinch. Like when you’re laid over in an airport, or like when you’re a busy parent with hungry kids who need to eat cheap, or maybe you’re joining your crude-fooder friends for Five Dollar Margarita Night (Thursdays). Chili’s will do just fine when you’re in a pinch, and I guess that’s why they’re known to make a dad glad. Convenience. And the Eagles playing on the sound system.
But not my dad, I guess he’s never been in a bad enough pinch.