Day 36: The Biggest Meatball

There’s a Weird Al song called “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” and it’s one of my favorite Yankovic creations. I don’t love the vocals or music all that much but the lyrics are hilariously apt as a description of the late twentieth century American middle-class ideal.

Now, before you start flaming me, yes, I realize there is a bigger ball of twine in America, perhaps even in the world, and that’s in Cawker City, Kansas. Duh, everybody knows that, which is why I wasn’t going to bother mentioning it!

However, Weird Al’s version is a little bit more a mashup of various twine balls. It’s about the most banal vacation imaginable, but one that fits so perfectly into the bizarre fabric of America. Because what’s more American than getting two weeks off “after working all year at ‘Big Roy’s Heating And Plumbing'” and deciding to blow that precious vacation on a road trip to see the biggest pile of garbage spun into a circle? It’s got a perfect vision of the suburban American kitsch: they stuff the car full of “potato skins and pickled wieners” and “mama’s home made rhubarb pie,” waving goodbye to the neighbors and hitting the interstate. In many ways, America was built on transit, and the interstate highway system is an engineering marvel no matter how you look at it. To be able to hop your jalopy onto the nearest freeway entrance and ride day and night without stopping (in theory) for tolls or borders, or anything else, you can go from sea to shining sea, while peeing into empty Gatorade bottles kicking around by the gas pedal. And all the while we live on packaged food made to last forever–another modern marvel–and the love and warmth of family makes it possible, like mama’s pie. In On the Road, another great story about Americans in cars, pie functions the same way, as this warm, apparently “healthy” product of America’s traveling soul.

In generosity, they pick up a hitchhiker along the way, despite that “He smelled real bad and he said his name was Bernie.” Bernie eventually runs away with their camera after joining their three-day journey to the Ball, but that was all right. America is a rich country, with enough for all. To grub about the details of ownership is unpatriotic.  These United States are filled with natural beauty, too, and the freeways wend their way through some of the most beautiful sights on earth, although the song’s narrator admits,

“The scenery was just so pretty, boy I wish the kids could’ve seen it / But you can’t see out of the side of the car / Because the windows are completely covered / With the decals from all the places where we’ve already been.”

There’s actually a touch of remorse here: there are too many good things in this nation, too many places to see, things to do. You could cover the car windows with souvenirs and still have millions more still to gather. Futilely, the narrator tries to name a few of these pilgrimage sites:

“Like Elvis-O-Rama, the Tupperware Museum / The Boll Weevil Monument and Cranberry World / The Shuffleboard Hall Of Fame, Poodle Dog Rock / And The Mecca of Albino Squirrels.”

All these markers of America to see, and the tragedy is you could never see them all. The curse of abundance.

As they approach their goal, they “pulled off the road at the last chance gas station / Got a few more pickled wieners and a diet chocolate soda,” and prepared for the last surge. The fact that they’re fortifying themselves with more pickled wieners really speaks to their stoic love of the innovation and problem-solving this country can produce. A nearly gag thinking about the diet chocolate soda, which did in fact live in my grandparents’ fridge occasionally, when I was growing up. Again, there’s a tangible copiousness to everything American: you want cherry flavor? Great, but we have spicy cherry, wild cherry, grape cherry, ice cherry, vanilla cherry, black cherry, berry cherry, chocolate cherry. And then there’s all the diet and no-caffeine versions. We are a people of choices: we live for options and add-ons and customization. So we make filthy products like diet chocolate soda, not because anybody wants to drink it, but because that’s what we’re called to do. Being an American is not just a vacation, but a vocation.

By the time the charioteers arrive in Minnesota and find the twine ball of dreams, they have a moment to speculate on what this whole project has been about. The narrator waxes philosophical upon gazing at the orb of string, opining:

“Oh, what on earth would make a man decide to do that kind of thing? / Oh, windin’ up twenty-one thousand, one hundred forty pounds of string / What was he trying to prove? Who was he trying to impress? / Why did he build it? How did he do it? It’s anybody’s guess / Where did he get the twine? What was goin’ through his mind? / Did it just seem like a good idea at the time?”

I can’t add anything to that, he hit the nail right on. Why do we do any of this? Why did we build the railroads first and then the highways? Why did we pickle the wieners and churn the chocolate soda? Did it all just seem like a good idea? We did it to win something, but what? What competition were we fighting to win? We found a preemptive victory in the twine ball wars: America is no nation of flat feet.

America is a good experiment, if a baffling one. And thus we understand when, even after this moment of confusion and wonder intermixed, the narrator tells his beautiful family, “‘You know, I got a funny kind of feelin’ / We’ll be comin’ back again next year.'” Perhaps looking for causes and purposes in this land is besides the point. The moment of wonder and rapture is the point, not the schematics or the plans. The twine is there simply to be the twine. Our twine. This land is our land, and this twine, for better or worse, is our twine.

Which brings us, of course, back to The Olive Garden, perhaps the most American of eateries. You’ll find plenty of these by the highways of this land, and like the pickled wieners, we’ll go back again and again to find that same American experience we’re all desperate for.

The Olive Garden must also be big Weird Al fans as they’ve gotten in on the act and produced their own spherical landmark, the “Giant Meatball (with Spaghetti).” It looks like this on the menu, so one can only imagine how it appears when it arrives, no doubt, on a forklift or is wheeled to table by twenty kitchen urchins. Presumably having it for supper will mean cutting yourself off from your dinner-mates, at least visually:

My favorite thing about this is the warning that quantities are limited. They must be unless there’s some gigantic freezer out back dedicated to holding these elephants until they’re heated. And to cook them there must be some kind of volcano and a series of cranes to drop the ball in until it’s hot and crispy.

As much as The Olive Garden wants to be an Italian restaurant, it’s abstract chasing of nonexistent world records proves otherwise. They’re Americans, through and through. Because what’s more American than going to your local Italian place to eat the biggest meatball in Minnesota?

Item 1: linguine, grilled chicken, meat sauce on the side

Item 2: linguine, grilled chicken, meat sauce on the side

Breadsticks: 2

Weight: 168

Giant Meatballs: America

Day 35: The Sociological Schedule

There’s this phenomena that happens more often than I think necessary, where despite my best efforts I often end up stuck in the wave of other people’s schedules.

This isn’t that surprising, as many people have similar work and life schedules. If you go to Google or Yelp reviews of restaurants or other venues, for example, they can give you a graph on how busy places are throughout the hours of the day. So it’s not a surprise that us going to the Olive Garden at 5:30 or 6 is going to involve a wait.

While we waited we contemplated why they were going to all the trouble to redesign the place if the redesign was going to include painting the same images on the walls that were already there:

In fact we waited fifteen minutes and then were seated and it didn’t take long to get salad and bread. It took a little longer to get our entrees, but neither of us minded because we wanted more salad anyway and James was tired enough to be in his own universe and was uninteresting in judging the service.

Yet as soon as we did get our food, things seemed to calm down all around. Tables began to empty, servers ceased to be rushing so much. It was quieter. Our server kept coming back, apologetic about the wait, offering to bring more refills and giving James some grapes. She was sorry that the wave of crazy numbers had happened right when we came in.

But she didn’t need to be sorry, because without that wave of arrivals, we wouldn’t have been there, either. Whatever great wave of need for food or entertainment or family or breadsticks had brought all these other individuals in was also responsible for bringing us.

That one sociology class I took in college was useful because that’s where I learned that so much of our choices are determined by the groups we move in, and much of our herd behavior is an unconscious representation of social drives and needs. Everybody in town didn’t set out to get off work and head for the Olive Garden at the same time, but they all ended up there anyway. And it wasn’t some continual wave, it was one moment when everyone was all together at once, thinking and eating the same things, and then clearing out.

You see this when shopping, too. No matter when you arrive at Winco or Walmart or Target (less so if you’re going somewhere more expensive), you’re going to enter alongside a huge wave of other shoppers. You would think that there would be a greater staggering: like some people would shop at 10, 10:15, 10:30, 10:35, 10:38, 10:39, and so forth. But actually you get there at 10:05 and so does everybody else. Not only that, but all of you move through the store in the same general pattern, thus the shopping battles waged in the produce aisles and the cheese wars in the deli. And, naturally, you all wrap up your shopping list at the same moment and all flood the registers, and wonder how there can be so few cashiers for so many customers.

Well, the reason is, it was fine there five minutes ago. And once you’ve all gotten through the check-out, it will be quiet there again in five more.

Without the wave we wouldn’t have even gone, despite our hatred of the slowdowns.

Whatever calls us to follow the same patterns as our neighbors–whether it’s the rotation of the earth or the tyranny of the time clock or the call of God Almighty to come forth, Lazarus, out of the tomb, but we follow the course laid out for us, like it or not. Complain about the traffic all you want, but without it, you wouldn’t even drive.

Ask not for whom the crowd calls: it calls for thee.

Item 1: linguine, meat sauce, grilled chicken

Breadsticks: 3

Weight: 169

Crowd: 1

Day 34: This is Starting to Become a Habit

I used to be so good at keeping up with these blogs but things change in the world.

Here’s a few other things that have changed since our last Olive Garden visit. For one thing, they’ve been working on updating the restaurant–

I think if there’s nothing else to learn from this blog it’s that “new” is a relative term.

Anyway, we went in to see what was “new” and found a couple of items.

One was the kids menu which is finally different than the first 33 we offered James:

Like it’s gotten to the point where I don’t even care how crappy this picture is or that I didn’t bother to photograph the entire menu or whatever. Because I know there’s always going to be another visit, another chance to explore the same wilderness we’ve been wobbling through for the last seven months. Another chance to exhaust every detail in this place.

They’re changing out some lamps, too:

Nothing says “spaghetti at your Italian grandma’s place” like this Art Deco-aspiring mess.

But you know, it’s the people in your life that make things new even when everything else gets very, very old.

In this case the people in our lives were the old people sitting behind us. I could hear bits of their conversation, and it added a note of novelty to the experience. I’ll share their wisdom instead of my own banality.

Old people on drinks: “Well, you know, I don’t know much about all this stuff. I’ve only had a mixed drink a couple of times!”

(Sure, sure)

Old people on education: “Well, I guess the ‘three Rs’ don’t apply anymore!”

(It’s so easy to pick on the education system)

Old people on given names, after our server introduces himself to them: “Well, Josiah! That’s a nice biblical name!”

(These folks didn’t even bother to ask about MY nice biblical name)

So I guess it’s true what they (?) say: what’s old is new again.

Item 1: linguine, meatballs, mushroom Alfredo

Item 2: see above

Breadsticks: 3 (oof)

Weight: 168 (oof)

New things: 0-♾

Day 33: Mario’s Story

I actually wrote “Dave 33” first for the title. Crazy!

In the little town of Rome, Italy, a child came into the world who was Italian and his parents made sure he knew that from day one. Usually it was in conjunction with some sort of backhanded compliment or backhanded insult. “Mario! Do you know any famous Italians who knock over the trash can? No, of course not. We must have been mistaken.”

Mario went along with this because he didn’t have any choice. His parents weren’t all bad, they simply had no sense of imagination. He could surely imagine an Italian sneaking the unbaked cookie dough, or neglecting to put away his shoes, or bringing home stray dogs to his mother. But Mr. and Mrs. Marinetti had no such creativity or vision. In their world, an Italian had quick feet for kicking the soccer ball, keen eyesight for avoiding tourist-driven Vespas, and long, strong arms for pulling the pizzas out of the dedicated pizza oven.

It was this final failure that nagged at Mario the most, and it was the insult that pushed his parents past their good humored jests into outright anger and derision. For even as the rest of him grew longer and leaner and tauter and taller, Mario P. Marinetti’s arms stayed the same length. As the rest of him grew and grew through childhood and adolescence, into young adulthood, his arms remained the same, perhaps they shrunk, if anything. The doctors weren’t concerned. “He’ll grow into them,” they always said, which made no sense to Mario or his parents but they understood it really meant, “Goodbye.”

Though he couldn’t reach far enough up the pizza paddle to pull pies, Mario grew up fascinated by fire and food. “I’m going to be a great chef when I grow up,” he’d tell his parents. Holding back both laughter and tears, they would only say, “of course, dear, but perhaps Italian cuisine might not be your thing. Because of, you know, your little arms and all that.”

Mario smiled and worked hard anyway. He lucked into a job at an American place in Rome. He couldn’t wash dishes with his short arms, so they had him working the deep fryer, the one place in the kitchen where short arms protected rather than endangered you. He couldn’t have reached into the hot oil if he’d wanted to. And with how everyone at the restaurant treated him, sometimes he did.

You should know that there are very strict rules about pizza-making in Italy. you need arms long enough to support a massive pie as it slips in and out of a gigantic, thousand-year-old stone oven. Pizza-serving restaurants are regulated by a government commission. They bring out measuring tape and everybody from the general manager to the busboy is measured at least once a year. Any short-armed cooks will get you fined, and if they aren’t fired, you could be shut down. Nobody would take the risk.

Nobody but this American place that wasn’t even supposed to be serving pizza. One day, the head chef, Mickey, threatened to quit if he didn’t get control over the menu. The manager threw up his hands, not knowing what else to do, and let him go. “Make anything you want!” he bellowed, before slamming the door on his tiny office in the back. The chef grinned and told his staff they were going to start serving the most American thing he could think of–Canadian bacon and pineapple pizza.

The rest of the chefs were horrified, but Mario just stood there, staring, fascinated.

“You in, kid?” Mickey asked.

Mario nodded.

“Then roll up your sleeves–oh, I see, they already are rolled up.”

Mario nodded, sadly.

“Never mind, they’ll shut us down anyway. But not before we make something worth getting fired.”

Mario ran to the market, buying entire hams and pineapples, and rushing back to the restaurant before anybody could ask to see his pizza license.

That night, Mickey and Mario made forty American pizzas. They didn’t advertise–they couldn’t have, legally. But people came. So many people. The restaurant had the best night it had ever had. They had to chase people away with pineapple rinds after the food ran out.

The next day the GM quit and Mickey made Mario his sous chef. They paid off the Arm Measuring Commission and the restaurant was a roaring success until one day Mario’s tiny arms slipped and he fell into the oven. Rest in Peace, Mario.

Item 1: linguine, meat sauce, vegetables

Breadsticks: 5!

Weight: for it.

Mario: short-armed, but never short-handed.


Day 32: A Portrait of the Artist as a Well-Fed Man

Usually I’m behind the camera but today I got confused and reversed the polarity.

Almost there…

Stay on target…

Let’s eat this thing so we can go home!

Oddly enough they forgot the onions on the salad. Chrissi asked them to remove dressing and croutons as per her obscure and convoluted religious diet convictions, and I guess they got a little zealous and cast out the onions as well.

Which is fine because onions at best are too spicy and at worst are vegetarian worms.

Yet even as I ate my sanitized salad, I couldn’t help but miss the onions. They do add color–both to my plate and my palate. Without them you lose a bit of fire.

There’s probably some lesson in that but I’m really not in the mood to tease it out tonight.

Instead here’s a picture of a lamp. The most important piece is the chain swinging it, which serves to represent our unbreakable link to this restaurant.

Just like in the photo, it seems that the world beyond the Olive Garden is so close, so easy to enter and slip away. But, perpetually, the chains of endless pasta bring us back.

Is there freedom in these free noodles?

Turns out there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Although you can get one free of onions.

1: linguine, shrimp (they added extra garlic for some reason and that was great!), mushroom Alfredo

2: linguine, mushroom Alfredo (supposed to be the same thing again but they must have realized they gave me too much roasted garlic and took it out of my shrimp this time around)

Breadstick: 1

Weight: 167

Height: 67