I love being a chef and a food columnist in one of the great food cities of the world. But a conversation with a friend last week got me to thinking about something not usually mentioned in most such writing here in New Orleans and elsewhere. Namely, as great a food city as New Orleans is, most of us can’t afford to go out to eat very often and, when we do, we’re seeking convenience and looking at price as much or more as we are at the menu.
The simple solution to this is to make stuff at home. But when you cook for a living, the last thing you want to do when you walk in the front door is fire up the stove. If you do, you’re as likely to be shoving in a Jeno’s frozen pizza or something similar. That is assuming, of course, your oven works as it should. Ours does not and hasn’t for months because we can’t afford to get it fixed. It’s either off or it’s soon hot enough to melt igneous rock.
We have plenty of friends who make good livings and one of their hobbies is to go out to eat. They want to try the new places and they hit old favorites a couple times a week. They know the chefs and the servers and their Friday afternoons are spent dropping $50 on a few cocktails and an app or two before they decide where they want to actually dine. Good for them. I used to be in that economic class – until I got into the food business.
The fact of the matter is, for most of us, we’re looking at the $5 we have in our pocket and trying to pick a place where it will go the farthest for a weekday lunch. As much as we want to keep our dollars as local as possible, that five bucks is usually going to go a national chain that doesn’t care about non-GMO, locally sourced ingredients. We’re hungry, this is what we’ve got to spend and we’re gonna make it work.
I am seriously glad there’s now a Taco Bell up on Claiborne. I haven’t been yet, but it’s on the short list. I’m hoping for the day there’s a Waffle House closer than Gentilly or Boutte. And, God help me, I’d love to be able to occasionally avail myself of the soup/salad/breadsticks at Olive Garden.
Now, I can see some of my friends clutching their chests and whispering to each other about how I need to just move the hell out to Suburbanland, where all of this is readily available and everyplace looks like anyplace. Fergodsakes, man, why don’t I just drink Budweiser bought at the Wal-Mart on Tchoup and go all remora on the big corporations all the time?
I’m all about supporting the locals. I’ve been one, I am one and I know firsthand what it costs and what it takes to run a decent restaurant operation. I know the inventory pricing and what the margins are and the fact of the matter is I can very often get a lot more mileage out of my dollar by going to a chain. They’re usually buying the same ingredients from the same suppliers I would (and have). The only thing that stops me from going to chains more often than I do is they are so far away and it costs gasoline to get there.
These chains employ thousands in our region. I question many of their employment practices, their corporate politics, their support of certain causes I don’t support. But my tip at the end of the meal still goes to someone’s rent payment or power bill.
Just last week, I was talking to someone about how they “only” shop local. But as we were agreeing that’s the best way to go whenever possible, I noticed her Whole Foods canvas shopping bag. She’s a big fan. I didn’t tell her she’s supporting one of the most predatory corporations there is.
My friend Jeremy Labadie, known online as The Beer Buddha , is one of the most knowledgeable craft beer geeks I know (and I know many). But when he’s grilling at home, he’s as likely to have a PBR or a Miller Lite in his hand as he is the latest experimental effort from Name An Artisan Brewer.
It’s only beer and it’s only food. No shame in going with what fits the mood, the budget and the soul at the time.
Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.