I love my daughter Mabel more than I’d thought I could ever love another person. For her, I’ve incurred cavities of the teeth and mind by way of multiple sugar shock episodes of “My Little Pony.” I glory in the light in her eyes when we play “school”, despite being cast repeatedly as an illiterate little dullard named Denise Bernice. Mabel is the ambassador of my fondest hopes; she carries my heart in her little purple leopard-skin purse. She is everything to me. Yet I took her to the (shudder) Olive Garden. That’s right: the (shudder) Olive Garden. Like the monster parent of urban legend fame who forced his child to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes in one sitting, I did a horrible, valuable thing, and I did it out of love. It’s quite possible she will resent me for it for the rest of our lives, but I have no regrets.
According to a recent essay she wrote, Mabel’s favorite restaurant is in fact, the (shudder) Olive Garden. This stirring endorsement of the restaurant’s “free food” and atmosphere is as meticulously-structured and well-reasoned as anything coming from America’s first grade literati today. It’s fucking impressive–convincing, even! But the thing is: at the time she wrote it, Mabel had never even been to the (shudder) Olive Garden. I’ll never forget how it felt to read it the first time—the pride swelling in my heart, the horror churning in my stomach. The only emotional experience it even remotely resembled was the time my cat presented me with the severed head of a ground mole on my back steps. But it was also baffling: where the hell did she get the idea that the (s)OG was even an option? My partner Kate and I figured it must have come from her teacher or her classmates. Or from the monster in her closet that we’d heard so much about over the years. Potato, potahto…
It’s hard to articulate my reasons for taking Mabel to her so-called “favorite” restaurant. It wasn’t to teach her a “lesson” about “lying” as if she were some pint-sized James Frey and I, the displeased Oprah On High. I took her to the (s)OG in the same spirit I’ve taken her to the zoo and the museum. In essence, I took Mabel’s essay as her request to go on a fact-finding mission to the darkest heart of Suburbia.
ROME (if you want to)
The children’s menu at the (shudder) Olive Garden features a maze shaped like the word “Rome.” The maze is huge by children’s menu standards, spanning three pages, the letters at least two inches high, in ALL CAPS FOR CHRISSAKE. It’s hard not to take it seriously. What was it trying to tell us, this puzzle called ROME? Seated next to Mabel in a booth against the wall (which was already marked up with crayon, making it plain we’ve been segregated in the kiddie slums) on the very far side of dining room, I contemplated ROME and took in the view.
Amid the oddly peach-toned faux stucco walls and the proliferance of wine bottles turf-battling dusty, overgrown houseplants, diners enjoyed “Hospitaliano” in its many forms: chiefly, the bottomless buckets of salad and the endless launching of torpedo-looking breadsticks. It was the typical bland pastiche known as the chain restaurant experience. To continue describing it would be a murder/suicide.
The peachiness of walls got to me somehow. Was it supposed to pay tribute to Italy’s rustic villas, bathed in the pink and gold glory of a Mediterrean sunset? Or savagely lampoon them? Also: the seat was broken in our booth. None of these observations should shock anyone who’s done so much as drive past the (s)OG.
But what’s ROME got to do with it? It would seem unfair to implicate the entire cradle of Western civilization in this sea of marinara mediocrity, except it turned out to be 100% bang-on. So where did I find ROME at the (s)OG? I found it seated at a table for two, decked out in Dockers and a Bluetooth, grinning as a grandmotherly Hispanic waitress frantically cranked a cheese grater over a clear plastic bucket of salad.
Centuries of imperialistic subjugation played out in pantomime in this (s)OG ritual as ROME cutely withheld his “when” for what felt like every second of each of those centuries. The waitress obligingly put on a delightful show for this perverse suburban Caligula: she was all smiles as she tore up her right rotator cuff like it was a smoking retread rolling down the Appian Way. She’d probably still be at it today, if ROME’s horsey blond date hadn’t broken spell with a shrill, uncomfortable cackle.
Grossed the hell out, I turned my attention back to Mabel’s maze. Working backwards from the “E”, she pushed her crayon through the O, which was adorably drawn to look like the Coliseum. The crayon was a cheap, standard child-menu-issue, no-brand crayon (probably toxic for all I know) and it left tiny wax crumbs in the nosebleed seats. Cheap or no, that crayon got points for historical accuracy as it shot ROME through with a streak of fiery orange justice.
I smiled as I imagined ROME burning behind his parmesan-engulfed salad and taking the whole damn (s)OG down with him.
I’m not a connoisseur of Italian cuisine. I’m not above popping open the occasional can of ravioli or rattling a rock of parmesan around in a big green tube over some warmed-over ratchety Ragu. By extension, I don’t have a problem with fake. I spent the first decade of my life, convinced that the canned sauce/bag of flour boxed Boyardee concoction was, in fact, pizza. But guess what? I still eat it! I love it! If anything, I’m a connoisseur of fake. I can confidently say the fake that is Chef Boyardee is so committed to the concept of fake, it generates its own eff you authenticity. It’s authentically fake, and authentic in its fakery. I took it quite hard when I found out Chef Boyardee was an actual person, but that’s another story for another time.
The (shudder) Olive Garden, though, isn’t just fake. It isn’t just inauthentic. It’s full of shit. I have a problem with that. And when I say “shit”, I cast my proverbial side eye not only at the aforementioned “décor”, and the gluttonous class warfare wretchedness it somehow instills in its clientele, but also at the very meatballs nestled in my spaghetti bowl. Resembling what is known as (in the delicate vernacular of my rural Appalachian upbringing) “road apples”,
these meatballs ought to have a disclaimer on the menu that says “for ornamental use only.” To eat them is to know the deathly misery of a malnourished Shetland hobbling feebly to his final resting place. Think I’m kidding? I am four-bone-chips-in-three-meatballs serious. If you don’t instantly feel the cold shadow of death pass over you when you bite into a bone chip, well, then, you’ve got some bigger existential balls than I do.
The (shudder) Olive Garden debases all that is good; it is a loser dungeon of no return. It has denigrated me to the point that I feel compelled to make jokes about defecation, testicles, and death just to come to terms with it all. If it hasn’t ruined my life, then it’s definitely put a big damp, mildewy mood blanket over my summer.
All You Can Stomach
I’m pretty sure what must have impressed Mabel most about the (s)OG was the hype of all you can eat “free food.” Before I’d made up my mind to take her there, I informed her this “food” wasn’t an actual meal, but rather salad and bread sticks. I also explained that “free” wasn’t actually free at all: access to this endless bounty comes with the purchase of an actual meal. And just for the hell of it, I reminded her how much she hates salad. In lieu of verbal response, she cast a steely, gladiator-like gaze to the middle distance reminiscent of those cast by her other mother. She then changed the subject like the true mother’s daughter that she is.
When I decided to go through with this (shudder) Olive Garden experiment, I knew I’d be taking my “eat your damn salad” show on the road (albeit at a low growl between clenched teeth), and I was not disappointed. But what did surprise me was how little Mabel liked the “free food” I expected her to like.
This is a child who will beg for bread the moment it is placed on the table: a child who, if left to her own devices, would
eat nothing BUT bread until toad-bloated and comatose. When seated at the rickety booth in the children’s slum of the (s)OG, Mabel became a child who furiously washes down a single reluctantly-consumed breadstick with an entire cup of raspberry lemonade. When given another, she then became a child who furtively rubs the rock salt off her second breadstick onto the floor under the table.
I could not in good conscience give Mabel a hard time about this breech in etiquette. She seemed so sheepish when I looked up at her from the glistening salt lick on the carpet. Her wide eyes and small, tight smile told me she didn’t have the heart to tell me how underwhelmed she was by the place, and how sad she was for me that my taking her there was my apparent idea of a treat. At that particular moment, seeing the pity in Mabel’s eyes was simultaneously my lowest point and one of my greatest successes as a parent thus far. When I absolved her of having to eat that second breadstick, she seemed visibly relieved.
I love my sweet daughter so, so much. I hope someday she’ll find it in her heart to forgive me for taking her to the (shudder) Olive Garden.