My brother is working in Utah this winter. It is a desolate place for a medic, patrolling the endless wilderness, awaiting a misplaced foot, one of the workers tumbling down that sheer, merciless mountainside. The nature of his work is a bit like trench warfare with monotonous stretches of boredom pierced now and then by adrenaline fueled action. And so he has ample time to call the family.
When we talk, his favoured topic of conversation is the miserable state of food in Utah. Surrounded by nothing but Dominoes pizza and big Macs, he can’t even drown his sorrows with a proper pint of beer; owing to the Mormon influence it is illegal for bars to serve beer with more than 3.2% alcohol. And this religious fervor extends to coffee, a Satanic drink whose unpopularity with the inhabitants discourages even the zealous missionaries at Starbucks from setting up shop. So between the monopoly of fast food, dishwater beer, and shitty coffee, I deeply sympathize with my bother’s dismal gastronomic surroundings.
At certain times, a truly awful meal can make you feel more depressed and empty than any other of life’s little disappointments. The miserable food becomes the last straw, breaking you down, snapping your ability to endure. Reflecting on the worst meals I’ve had—and here I mean worst in the broadest sense in which the food becomes emblematic of everything else in your unhappy heart—one particular instance comes to mind.
* * *
I was about nineteen and driving from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Seattle with my parents and my aunt Joanna. My family invariably has an allergic reaction to being crammed together in a tight space, so by the time we reached the darkest, loneliest depths of rural Idaho our conversation had devolved into open warfare. My father was driving like a man possessed, my mother upbraiding him and panicking about the snow-clad roads, and my aunt Joanna clutching to her seat white-knuckled and wondering why she’d consented to spend Christmas with this mad branch of her family. As for myself, I was dividing the time between arguing vociferously with either Mum or Dad and sulking, regressing further into my childhood with every mile we covered.
The sky was heavy across this unhappy scene and hunger adding to our irritability. Eventually Dad pulled off the highway at one of the few scattered towns and we went in search of dinner. Perhaps in penance for our behavior we had chanced upon one of the more unloved of Idaho’s many orphan towns. The spread of buildings—housing developments, fast food joints, and strip malls—had, like all the worst American towns, no defined center, no heart. It was as if some great being in the sky had scattered them aimlessly across this patch of sea-like wilderness, so that they floated unmoored on the unfeeling soil. And looming over the buildings to the north was a great wall of rock, heaving out of the earth, stolid and forbidding, as if scrutinizing your every move.
I wondered accusingly who were the first people who happened upon this place and said to themselves, “let us settle here, it looks a fine place to make a home.” The terrain was rough and had no rivers or other vital links to recommend it. I can only surmise that those misguided homesteaders were of the more self-flagellatory type of puritan, or that they had succumbed to madness induced by the brutal nature of their journey. Or maybe they were simply too tired to continue and gave themselves up to the dark rock and the mean earth.
We drove around for a while and then opted for an establishment calling itself a ‘family restaurant.’ It was the only place that was not a fast food franchise. My spirits rose perceptibly. After a day and a half of grease-ridden food all I wanted was something fresh. I would have a big green salad and maybe a cup of soup I thought, following the others inside. The interior was wildly colourful as if to make up for the underlying air of desolation and we were ushered to a booth and issued menus by a smiling spotty young man.
I was hungry in a deep way, only half of which was physical. I needed to taste food, to reassure myself that this place and my dark spirits couldn’t alienate me from the ruddy pleasure of existence. Scanning the menu I chose the only salad on offer and a cup of tomato soup. There. I would be warmed by the soup and invigorated by the salad. Thinking about this I managed to smile across at my parents. They weren’t so irritating after all.
“What do you mean you don’t have popcorn? But I want popcorn? How hard can it be?” The man’s voice was both aggressive and whiny. He was sitting in a booth behind us, a large wobbly man with a pale waxy face that was rapidly flushing violent red. The spotty waiter took a step back, trying valiantly to maintain his smile. “I’m s-sorry sir, we just don’t have popcorn. I’ve already asked the kitchen. . . . Is there anything else I can get for you today?”
The fat man glowered and slapped a pudgy hand onto the table. “Give me a chance to check out the menu, okay?” His tone was simmering with fury and I felt sorry for the spotty lad who smiled weakly once more and hurried towards the kitchen.
He returned in a minute bearing our food. “Who has the soup and salad, he chirped? And placed it in front of me with a flourish. I gulped, waiting for him to leave and staring unbelievingly at my food. The plate held a layer of anemic iceberg lettuce, but this was as far as the resemblance to salad went. The lettuce was obscured by great chunks of ham, rubbery strands of cheese, a torrent of bacon bits and finally suffocated in a lava flow of pale, gelatinous dressing. The soup was a strange pink-red and the consistency of pudding. Tomato pudding.
“Pepper?” The youth reappeared, a large pepper mill in hand. I nodded silently, not trusting my voice. “There you are” he finished and continued to hover, desperately avoiding the angry popcorn man. “Anything else for you folks today?” Mum shook her head apologetically.
Numbly I took up my fork as behind us the fat man began interrogating the waiter again. Prodding the salad I lifted a forkful to my mouth and took a bite. Suddenly it was too much: the fat angry man and the poor spotty waiter, the dreadful diner and the hard grey cliff bearing down, the strip of frothy empty shops and billboards and that foul soulless food inside my mouth. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t stand it any longer. My fork clattered onto the table as I grabbed my napkin to cover the tears pouring down my face and got up, ran outside onto a little patch of grass between the restaurant and the parking lot. I was shaking with emptiness. To my right the wall of rock rising blacker and larger than before, to my left the street a rush with cars and beyond it the Walmarts and multiplex cinemas and McDonalds—the sprawling shadow of America’s myth.
I was no longer hungry, my appetite shrivelled and crushed. Now I felt exhausted and wanted only to leave, to run from this place that mocked humanity and turned spotty boys into angry men, flesh-padded against their swarming, ugly world and the wilderness in which it sat.