Saturday, April 16, 2011

Spaghetti sauce

Los Angeles is proud to be the home of the only food critic to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, Jonathan Gold. Mr. Gold writes for the LA Weekly. Many of the food experiences I write about here I learned about from Mr. Gold.

This April 1st, Mr. Gold had an April Fool's joke backfire on him. He invited photographer Anne Fishbein, to lunch at the Olive Garden, all the while planning to whisk his appalled colleague away to another restaurant after meeting her at the door.

Only he got stuck in traffic, so by the time he arrived, she was already seated. So he joined her. And reviewed the restaurant.

This is a departure for Mr. Gold in several ways. One, he seldom reviews mainstream restaurants, especially chains. His interest lies in the discovery of unique places that serve authentic food from LA's mixed ethnic communities. And two, he seldom writes a negative review. His reviews are meant to celebrate a wonderful new find - and share it with his readers.

His review of the Olive Garden was mildly sarcastic and snarky, noting the mediocrity of the food and gently poking fun at the pretentiousness of the chain's "Tuscan-inspired" image.

I've been to an Olive Garden exactly twice in my life - both times it was the same restaurant, and in the company of the same people, minus one. My parents and my brother's family and I once ate at an Olive Garden in Duncanville, Texas, at the end of an off-ramp on I-20, back in the 1990s. I remember the gluey pasta, congealing in the giant cold porcelain bowl, and the hum of the freeway outside. And it was at that same Olive Garden that my family gathered after we interred my Dad's ashes in 2002.

Perhaps it's the circumstances, but those two experiences - the first bland, the second sorrowful - are the only ones I want to have of the Olive Garden. Give me a good old neighborhood red-sauce joint any day.

So I found Mr. Gold's April Fool's joke mildly amusing.

But what surprised me was the rancor his review aroused. Typically, a Weekly restaurant review gets a handful of comments. This one has 161 as I write this, many of them positively deranged in their denunciation of the column. There are personal insults about his physical appearance (how do they know what he looks like? I don't.)

One commenter claimed the review would destroy the careers of the poor people working at that branch of the Olive Garden.

There are accusations of elitism, claiming he looks down on what "normal people" can afford, comparing it unfairly to the "haute cuisine" he must be accustomed to. He's called a "food snob" and a hipster.

Others simply call him rude names - they can find no other words to express their strong feelings.

Some of these commenters don't seem to know Mr. Gold very well. His usual fare is cheap and delicious ethnic food that's far less expensive than a $16 plate of Olive Garden pasta. He's introduced me to the delights of $1.50 goat tacos at the Alameda Swap Meet and the $5 dandan mien noodles in San Gabriel Valley, and $6 Nem nuong meatballs in South El Monte.

But unless these angry commenters were all recruited by Olive Garden's corporate marketing desk, it's clear something in the review struck a nerve. Some of them seemed to even take it personally. One man indignantly claims that his departed father loved Olive Garden, and was "a better man than you'll ever be!"

Are the feelings so strong because it's a popular, mainstream place? One can't imagine the outcry would be this heartfelt if he had written something from a truly elitist viewpoint - a scathing review of the Chateaubriand served at Le Pavillon, for example.

Do the defenders of Olive Garden really like the food? Or do they feel compelled to defend it for other reasons?

What is it? Is it about class resentment? Is it about the cultural divide between Suburbia and the City? Is it a reaction against his usual championing of immigrant culture?

Is it unfair of food critics to review popular restaurants? Is it a provocation to do so? Is it an indictment of the people who enjoy those restaurants? Should critics publish only favorable reviews?

Was it, as one commenter said, simply unfair, because Mr. Gold went to the Olive Garden already biased against it?

Or was it just a joke that went wrong?

What do you think?


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Do the defenders of Olive Garden really like the food? Or do they feel compelled to defend it for other reasons?

Oh, I am sure it's the other reasons...evil and (presumably) liberal elitist hatin' against the hard-workin' Amurkins. Sean Hannity (a rich liar) territory all the way.

Mike Judge hit this point well in Idiocracy, with Brawndo:

After several failed attempts to explain to the cabinet members the importance of water in irrigation, Joe instead convinces them that he can talk to plants, and persuades the cabinet members to start irrigating the crops with water.

Unbeknownst to Joe, half the country works for Brawndo
(or, e.g., the Olive Garden) and his decision to use water in the fields causes the company's stock to plummet, leading to massive automatic layoffs and unemployment, apparently without improving the crop situation.


I don't know Mr. Gold but I'm with him (& you). I prefer something unique and local. Like you, I have been to an Olive Garden twice. Once, many years ago to try it. The second time was because it was the only convenient place at the time. I could be considered a food snob...or a snob in a bunch of junk. I simply know what I like. Olive Garden is not it.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

What is it? Is it about class resentment? Is it about the cultural divide between Suburbia and the City? Is it a reaction against his usual championing of immigrant culture?

Of course, Olive Garden commoditizes, and waters-and-dumbs down a cuisine which is rooted in a frugal peasant culture, and serves it at prices comparable to those charged by most local family-owned places.

Italian cuisine is also about hanging on to one's traditions in a foreign country (thereby transforming the culture of that country)- the ultimate expression of "immigrant culture".

Never eaten in an Olive Garden- my beloved grandfather would be turning over in his grave.

M. Bouffant said...

Traffic. It'll get you every time.

Two notes:

Once worked w/ someone who lived in the far suburbs of L.A., who told me that the one eatery in the mall in her gawd-forsaken 'burb that didn't do good business (This was during the Clinton admin., when biz was good.) was the only restaurant that wasn't a national chain restaurant, as if people were afraid to go there w/o the assurance of tee vee adverts.

I don't think she told me if she'd eaten there or whether or not it was any good. Still, the psychology is there, & then the advertising convinces zillions that consistency is as important as anything else.

B) My most recent ex went out w/ Mr. Gold in, I guess, the '80s. (Surely before he won the Pulitzer, anyway.)

No, three notes: J.G. is bearded, long-haired & not thin. (I've seen his picture in the Weekly.) So it's perfectly alright to play the looks card.

Mrs. G. said...

I don't know what the deal with OG is--maybe the unlimited salad and bread stick thin? The one in our area is sub-mediocre at best but there are many people standing outside, waiting for a table nearly every night I drive by it.

The Cheese Cake Factory vibe here is very similiar--meh, expensive and always packed.

yogurt said...

I think reviewers should write what their hearts, minds and palates tell them to write. Diplomacy at a premium but not at the expense of truth.

If OG lovers get all defensive, that is their problem. I can recall a favorite restaurant of mine getting unfavorable reviews and I thought, "his/her opinion, not mine." Or, "they didn't have what I usually eat." Whatever. No need to shoot the messenger.

As for OG, I share your opinion of the pasta. Pasty. Thick. Rubbery. Sauces (white) were overly gravy like with too much flour and not enough, ahem, olive oil.

Now the OG salad? I do remember really liking the flavor of the vinaigrette. Sharp and tangy instead of too-sweet the way many italian vinaigrettes taste.

It's been 15 plus years since I've been to one (despite one located about five blocks from my office) so not sure if any of my opinions are current.

Now I shall check out Mr. Gold's review with relish.

Lynn@ The Vintage Nest said...

Oh, this is too funny about the joke gone wrong I mean. As for the rest of it, ignorance and advertising. Hope I don't offend.

You always have the best blog post. I enjoy reading them very much g. P.s. Never been to an OG

Sheila said...

The food at Olive Garden in our area is delicious. Cut the portions by 3/4th's, and serve in a quant neighborhood place (which will also have phony Tuscan decor, by the way) with higher prices and you will love it. Skip the salad which is mostly iceberg and the inflated breadsticks. Entrees are really good. I've worked in restaurants, gone to restaurant and hotel management schools and dined in restaurants of all calibers over many years of my life and there is nothing wrong with the food at Olive Garden. It can be noisy and the atmosphere is not intimate. Go in the early afternoon for a late lunch when it's not busy.

Aunt Snow said...

I'm sure there are good dishes at Olive Garden. Sheila's suggestion to go for a late lunch is a good one - you would get good service and freshly prepared food.

If I were in a location where the only options were national chains, Olive Garden would be a good bet - probably the best choice. If I were in a location with more variety, I'd probably take a chance on something else.

Sheila, what's your take on the review and the reactions to it?

Ellen Bloom said...

I've never been to an Olive Garden, but my 93-year-old uncle LOVES the place. He considers himself a gourmet too! There's something to be said for goopy, sodium-laced pasta. We call it comfort food. I liked Jonathan's review. He's my food guru!!

Kathy Rogers said...

There's a backlash against "foodies" going on. Even some of the big food(ie) blogs have been talking about it.

Probably much of the rancor was misplaced or beside the point. Especially, as you say, given that Jonathan Gold is more likely to write about taco stands than places in the Michelin guide.

But to suggest that it's just a bunch of rubes defending their familiar corporate feedbag would be to miss a thing that's happening in food thinking and food writing.

Janet said...

My parents, who were in their 80s at the time, ate at OG once. My mother's soup was cold and when she mentioned it, they told her it was supposed to be that way. No, it was not gazpacho. Gah.