Day 37: Hospitality

Saturday for a late lunch we thought we’d drop in to The Olive Garden, just for a change of pace.

It was busy as expected, and it’s the kind of time when you feel a little guilty coming at all when there’s so many paying customers around. But a pasta pass is a pasta pass, so we obeyed the call of nature.

Most of the time we go and do the normal dining-out dance of “let’s look at the menu while we wait so they think we’ll order off it,” and “we’ll see how much the server’s face falls when she realizes that we could literally be sitting at this table eating for the next eight hours.”

This time, though, the game was curtailed. I typically have my pass out on the table right away and get ready to give my spiel about how we’re sorry, it’s a pain but we’ve got these passes (shrugging). I don’t like assaulting people with them, especially because they’re probably realizing they might not get a tip from us, as only the stingiest people pursue passes like this (we do always tip, for the record). But this time, James–not the little one, but the big one, our server–noticed the pass right off and immediately took our orders from it. The speed with which he recognized them and understood their meaning took me off guard, as the nationwide training program about the pasta passes seems to never have existed for most servers.

I assumed he was pissed about it because he sped off to get our waters (I am cheap). But in about ten minutes this was our spread:

Not too shabby for paying no dollars.

I asked for the salad with no dressing and no croutons, as per Chrissi’s orders. Usually that means no dressing, but this guy thought maybe some of us still wanted it, so he brought three little dishes of it! Which makes sense, sort of, if we each had some preferred amount, but it was great for me at least because I still do like dressing.

Likewise, despite us only ordering waters, he came back with a plate of lemon wedges. Okay, nice gesture, but not insane, yet you don’t expect the little extras when they’re clearly very busy and he’s literally running back to us with stuff. It was good he was coming back to our table every other minute though, because we had to keep asking for things–the host had forgotten the silverware, and we needed the wine glasses taken and all that since the three of us were already filling up this tiny table. James insisted on water when asked if he wanted juice (he does this, we find it funny), but other James didn’t take that for an answer and brought him some apple juice, too, so that was kind. Little James also didn’t really want anything much, but Big James brought him a cup of grapes, anyway, also on the house. When I ordered shrimp on my pasta, he offered me a giant bowl on the side, Shrimp Mountain.

Extra plates, sides, dishes, soup bowls. The kind of thing you might get once in a while from a server, but never all this stuff in one go. For once, I was starting to feel like a real VIP with this card. For once, I was starting to believe that when I was there, I was sort of special.

Then Old James runs back, out of the blue, to ask how we’re doing. I enthused that things were really coming together. He nods and apologizes, saying  he’s sorry he’s so pressed today, but it’s because he’s got nine old people parked at some faraway table taking eons to work through. Now, I like this, because Old James is no winging cherub himself: it helps confirm what I feel, that anybody older than us is ancient, and anyone younger is an infant.

“They got me sweating,” he says, grinning, “like a Hebrew slave!”

At that, I had to laugh, because I didn’t expect him to say anything like that. I laughed out of whiteness. But he smiled, so I guess that made it okay.

We refused refills and to take anything home, because all this felt like enough to foist on him for one meal. We left a good tip. Sir James brought us a to-go box full of Andes mints as a going-away present for Squire James.


Honestly, this was about the first time this place did feel like family.

Item 1: linguine, mushroom alfredo, battered shrimp

Breadsticks: 2

Weight: 170 (oof)

Family: 1

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