Chickencaesarsalad
Does anyone know who first put cooked chicken breast on a Caesar salad and called it a Chicken Caesar?  I wish I did.  I’ve been upset about this at least for two years now because I remember railing to Todd English and Ming Tsai about it as we traveled together for an erstwhile cooking show.  “The Chicken Caesar is an emblem of the mediocrity of American cuisine!” I would cry.  Ming would chuckle and turn up the volume on his iPod, and Todd more or less ignored me as a run-of-the-mill crank screaming into the nor’easter of American food culture. Or so I thought.
    Last week I had lunch at a Cheesecake Factory in Cleveland, and of course, there it was, Caesar Salad, two prices, one plain, the other with chicken.  You can run but you can’t hide.  Worse, this week I had lunch at what positions itself as one of the most upscale restaurants in the city, Table 45, and here, at a restaurant offering cutting edge cuisine and has built a glassed in chef’s table looking into a swank kitchen, it was in the most egregious form.  The Chicken Caesar “Bangkok Style.”
    I never wanted actually to write about it, though, until I read a line from Barbara Kingsolver’s recent book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about her family’s efforts to eat locally for a year.  “No matter what else we do or believe, food remains at the center of every culture.  Ours now runs on empty calories.”
    The first part of that statement resounds with truth and hope—those of us who love food understand it as a fundamental part of our humanity: that the gathering, preparing and sharing of our daily nourishment is the core of our days and who we are.  It is at the very center of our culture.  And our legacy, the content of that culture, judging from the sheer volume of portions served, is surely the Chicken Caesar, bottled dressing, thickened with Xantham gum.
    Why is it so annoying to me?  It’s not that meat on a salad is bad.  I love meat with salads—tuna, chicken, and beef have rich salad histories throughout the world.
    Every single laminated menu serving any kind of American or American hybrid food seems to include the Chicken Caesar (if it’s Mexican, it will be a Chicken Caesar Taco).  Why?  Two reasons, neither of them hopeful.
The Chicken Caesar is the default meal for America eating out.  Don’t know what to have, have the Chicken Caesar.  Everything else looks like crap?  Have the Chicken Caesar.  Hard to screw it up.  The Chicken Caesar exists because everything else about American cuisine at the major chain restaurants is of relentlessly dubious quality.  Greens are greens, and chicken breast doesn’t taste like anything anyway, and I’ll lay odds that the dressing you get at Ruby Tuesdays, TGIF’s, Cheesecake Factory, Appleby’s—fill in the blank—comes out of the same jug.  But the point is, we don’t care really what it tastes like, only that it tastes like the last one we had, that it’s consistent. McDonald’s learned the effectiveness of that strategy early on.
    I cringe when I see the Chicken Caesar because it represents an embrace of the misinformed and unimaginative American diner, who for better or worse continues to shape our menus.  I’ll have a salad, the reasoning goes, because it’s healthy (let’s disregard what it’s slathered with), and I’m hungry so let’s pile on some chicken breast, the skim milk of the protein world.  I’m not saying it’s not healthy, that I don’t like salad or that I think it would only be laudable were it a deep-fried pork belly Caesar (though I’d definitely give it a go if I ever saw that on a Cheesecake Factory—we could batter it and call it the Chicken Fried Pork Belly Caesar!).
    All I’m asking is for the corporate bodies that determine the menus of our mass market sit-down restaurants to consider a few more options beyond the mediocre Chicken Caesar.  Put a little imagination into it!
    It’s an uphill battle, I know, and surely the corporate bodies know better than I do about the ordering patterns of the public they serve and the bottom line that feeds their salaries, but I didn’t quite know what I was up against until I traveled with Ming and Todd, two well-known, well-regarded chefs, railing against the goddam Chicken Caesar on the plane.  We were just embarking on a four-city shoot, heading to Vegas, which in many ways is a triumph in terms of offering an enormous swath of America all but unlimited high-end, imaginative food, the likes of which is only available in New York in such concentration.
Mming_todd
    English has one of those restaurants, his flagship Olives, at the Bellagio at which I’ve had some terrific meals.  On our final night in Vegas, he hosted a dinner for all the folks putting the show together.  He ordered for the table and began the meal with a few signature pizzas.  With glee, with guffawing laughter, he watched a server place one of those pies directly in front of me.  Olive’s Chicken Caesar pizza.  I’ll bet he can’t take it off the menu.
    Nor should he.  The pizza was delicious.

[Notes: 1) I wrote this for my August column for Restaurant Hospitality magazine.  2) I've become so inspired by the notion of a Chicken Fried Pork Belly Confit Caesar, that I am determined to make one tonight, and will post pix and the recipe tomorrow!  3) Pic at right is during Cooking Under Fire shooting, ages ago, with Ming and, far right, Todd--my daughter likes this shot because I am getting makeup, which she finds hilarious (as do I, actually).]

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135 Wonderful responses to “The Shame of the Chicken Caesar”

  • Michael Moss

    Why in the world were you you eating at a Cheesecake Factory? Pure shit food, why bother? Was it research?

    Mr. Ruhlman, on another topic can you talk to your buddy Bourdain and ask him the name of the sushi restaurant in the Roppongi district of Tokyo he mentions in Kitchen Confidential?

  • Tracy

    My first thought is: You are putting down chicken Caesar salad and the people who enjoy it yet YOU are eating at CHEESECAKE FACTORY! Isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black?? You need to get over yourself and realize that we are all well aware that you are simply riding the coattails of REAL chefs.

  • Jen on Oahu

    Assaggio in Mililani, Hawaii does it right. Tableside, perfect flavor. Now, why does my recipe end up so damn peppery tasting? I don’t even use pepper!

  • Doug

    Let’s dispense with the useless snobbery, and remember how the original Caesar came about – a cook (last name, Caesar) in a Tijuana restaurant frequented by Hollywood types in the 1920′s was asked to fix something different for the celebs. He grabbed a bunch of stuff left over in the kitchen and threw it together in a salad – stale bread, garlic, Romaine, Worcestshire, some grated cheese, and raw eggs (No Anchovies, mind you – that was added later).

    It was the antithesis of the overly planned, narrow minded foodie approach which insists there is only one way to prepare and eat food. If Caesar had some chicken handy that night, he would have thrown that in, too. Or clams, or moose or whatever.

    get over it.

  • 5%Celery

    Let’s talk about Tuna Tartare on EVERY menu in Los Angeles. First it must be said that tuna tartare is the upscale restaurants way of using the left over tuna. Sure it’s a natural use of the left overs–natural because so many diners have no imagination. That is the problem that lies with the caesar salad. You mention the consistency issue–seems to me that if a menu is not written well, it is hard for the diner to imagine the taste of a particular dish–so they go with what they know. I agree that chicken caesar salad is the unfortunate winner of the much needed title of American cusine–but let’s put them blame where the blame lie; with lazy chefs and unadventurous eaters.

    .:tt:.

  • Claudia

    Jay, on this board, you can adjectivize your nouns and split your infinitives all you want. Just be careful about dangling your participles. THAT might alarm some people.

  • Anthony

    The only fault I can find with American Cuisine, is that us patrons continue to eat it. We’re not the ones drafting up the menus or skimping on the ingrediants. There’s nothing I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant no matter how high and mighty the chef was that I can’t make better at home. Given what I’ve seen on TV and read about chefs, it amazes me that someone can question the general palates of America while holding up the pickled, chemically processed, and thoroughly smoked palates of our “celebrity” chefs as the standard for all of us to aspire to. Heat’s a cliche, bubbas. And the only reason you need that heat is so there’s something that tastes strong enough to get through all the shit you’ve done to yourselves over the years.

  • Suzette

    Although it’s been pointed out before, I do bemoan the death of the Real Caesar Salad. Caesar salad is one of my top three favorite dishes in the world, and I almost never order it in a restaurant anymore. More than 9 times out of 10, it’s romaine lettuce, croutons, bad Parmesan cheese, and ranch-type dressing. That, my friends, is not a Caesar salad.

    For a while, I tried to gauge whether or not I should order it by asking if the salad contained anchovies. I’ll never forget the time I asked this question (in a fairly nice restaurant) and the waitress replied, with a beaming smile, “Oh, NO!”

    A few restaurants know what a Real Caesar Salad is (like the chain Morton’s), but I, as others have posted here, usually just enjoy it at home.

  • FoodPuta

    I suppose next, you’re going to act like the Taco-Salad, isn’t traditional Spanish?

    Where does this all end Mr Ruhlman?

  • Jay Shoogins

    Pinter quotes? Adjective flares like anaemic & vulcanized? Adjectivizing a noun (fructoseness)to make the masses seek a food movement?

    I must start a blog to ingest all this grammatical and foodilogical indifferiantial anticipational way of life…ical.

    Fat guy – Little Coat

    Coming soon on blogspot if I have time to verb nouns and adjectivize prepositionals.

  • Jennie/Tikka

    The very first Caesar salad I ever had was prepared correctly – tableside – anchovies and raw eggs included, in a nice restaurant. I think I was 10.

    It was courtesy of my best friend’s parents, who had the courage to quit their jobs and start a business in their dining room (with 3 children dependent on them). They were able to turn that kitchen into a two story office building they had built to their specs, and a couple million dollars a year income 5 years later.

    They (and that salad) have always been an inspiration to me of how we are largely in control of our destinies. Prior to that, they were scraping by with Taco Bell and boxes of Mac ‘n’ Cheese while they started their business. But because they didn’t indulge defeatest attitudes, and knew their worth, and were smart, they succeeded.

  • Claudia

    Of course, my good bud Jennie just articulated what I was thinking about the good things in life – but I didn’t want to sound like an elitist swine saying it.

    OK, so I’M an elitist swine – I’ll ‘fess up. And now I crave a good Caesar – WITH the anchovies, not the wussy version. Bring it on. While I wish everyone had access to and appreciated truly great “foodie” food, prepared correctly, with care, pride and good ingredients (and handling), I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone their favorite dirty water dog . . . or mac n’ cheese . . . or whatever.

    And I think that’s the real point of the great CC debate – it’s not about Chicken Caesar as a food item, per se, but the bastardization of Caesar to the point it’s not really Caesar. The ubiquitious Caesar we see now usually lacks two of its major ingredients (the egg and the anchovies), and a MAJOR dumbing down of the garlic – compounded with a psychopatically insousciant recklessness towards the lettuce. While I totally sympathize with those whose food choices are predicated by what’s available in the neighboring food court (because you KNOW what real Caesar – or, fill in the food blank – should be), the truth is -

    we get crap because we accept crap.

    To quote Pinter (Chicken Soup with Barley): “They want the third rate? Then bloody hell – they get the third rate!”

    The problem is, it leaves the rest of us with the same oleogenous fructoseness of the Caesar dressing, anaemic iceberg lettuce, refrigerated croutons and, of course, vulcanized rubber chicken.

  • Jennie/Tikka

    Maura -

    Thanks for your post…that’s a great response. In response, allow me to clarify just a bit.

    Some of you know me and what I have been doing since I graduated culinary school. I’ve chosen to feed people who are either experiencing a disaster (i.e. the general public) or who are participating in getting a disaster under control (i.e. the fire department, etc.). I am responsible for cranking out large portions of mostly cafeteria-style food for people to eat while the fire is burning, the rain is coming down on their flattened houses, and the water is still 5 feet deep at their favorite market. Sometimes we can’t do that and the best we can give people is fast food, p b & j’s, or in worst case scenarios – military M.R.E. packaged food. In each case people are grateful for whatever they get. Likewise I too am grateful because I eat what I serve to people.

    But when I get the chance and we have the resources available – we make improvements to the menu. In some cases I’m able to put pretty decent/culinarily acceptable food on the table. Sometimes, I have a choice between really great ingredients and really crappy ingredients (so I take the really good ones instead). When given the chance, I’ll eat in a good restaurant….which in my case (living in L.A.) involves me driving all the way north of San Francisco to The French Laundry. I’ll also, when the mood hits me, have a Tommy’s burger with chili-cheese fries and a Coke – because it tastes good. But I know when I eat that, that it isn’t the best that’s out there. And I know that not every meal has to be a culinary work of art. But I do want to know how to appreciate good food when presented with it.

    The point I’m coming around to is that there is no crime in understanding, in studying, in learning what is and is not good technique. I’m certainly not going to turn down a Big Mac in the middle of a category 4 hurricane if that’s all that around. But given a choice and all the other resources – I’m eating something else somewhere else. And when I eat that Big Mac I’m aware of how it could be made better. That’s all I’m getting at.

    An example. I recently cooked dinner for a fire department. They were preparing to have a dinner of plain spaghetti and ground turkey, no sauce. I offered to make them prime rib instead. Should they have said, “No thanks – we don’t eat that!” and sent me away? Should they have lectured me on food snobbery and eaten their dry pasta instead? Nope. They were grateful to have something good they weren’t expecting. So it is in other situations. Something good (which is better than the daily normal fare) is put before someone – should they send it back because it isn’t what they usually eat??

    The better things in life will come to those who appreciate them. They will avoid those who disdain them.

  • Bob delGrosso

    Any dish that is as easy to reduce as a Caesar Salad and still have it look like what it is supposed to be is going to become tedious if it grabs the imagination of cooks and the public.

    When this happens it is not the dish that is offensive but it’s endless replication coupled with the reasonable expectation that most times you order it, it will suck. Many of us are as tired of seeing balsamic vinaigrette or mesclun on a menu as we are Caesar Salad or chicken Caesar Salad for that matter. Why? Because most of the time these dishes are lousy.

    And what about tomato sauce? I dare anyone here to say that they don’t quiver 3 out 5 time they see
    marinara sauce on a menu. Or Alfredo sauce for that matter -which really is not supposed to be a sauce at all but rather a way of treating pasta.

    Understanding why this is, does not take more than the recognition that very few foods can withstand the effects of endless repetition by often lousy or careless or cheapskate cooks, restaurateurs and food factory owners. It’s that simple, I think.

    Finally, I think that this post has got nothing to do with snobbery or anything other than boredom and angst over the prospect of having to see or eat another lousy version of something that should be very easy to make well, but almost never is.

  • the serrach

    i think the boneless skinless chicken breast itself is the proper emblem of american dining – whether it’s in a salad or not (setting aside junk food of course). the BSCB is devoid of character, or flavor or soul and is lopped into all manner of dishes in order to make americans feel better about eating vegetables (i guess).

    it is meat for meats sake and brings virtually nothing to any dish it touches while giving the devourer the silly notion that they are eating “healthy.”

    that said, why in the hell would you go to cheesecake factory? and what else would you expect?

  • ihop

    Well, I’m a bit late to chime in to the “food snob” debate, but if I may…

    I’ve always been an adventurous eater; I moved around a lot as a kid and had a foreign-born health nut for a mother, so my childhood diet was highly varied. Then we moved back to my dad’s hometown (Heights shoutout, Mr. Ruhlman!), and my new friends considered my eating habits very strange — they largely preferred grilled cheese sandwiches, chicken fingers, and various other blandly nonoffensive items. I cooked a lot in high school, and more often than not my friends would only pick at what I made, rejecting it with comments like “I don’t eat fruit and meat together” or “I don’t eat .” In short, they were unwilling to try.

    Then we went to college and beyond. People studied abroad, went to Peace Corps, went to professional programs and networking events where chicken fingers were not a menu option. And then they started asking me for recipes, for advice, what different things meant — in short, they were asking me for help. And they’ve even started to admit that, back in high school, it was their palates (or their staunch unwillingness to broaden them) rather than my food that was problematic…

    The moral of the story? What pisses ME off, as a foodie, is gastronomic narrow-mindedness. Yes, the lunch I had at French Laundry was probably the best meal of my life, but that doesn’t mean the In-N-Out burgers I love aren’t good too — they’re not as good, but then, they serve a different function, and I can afford to eat them much more often than once in a lifetime. Conversely, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying grilled cheese and chicken fingers if you’re also willing to have a go at pho or tartare or whatever vegetable you don’t like.

    It’s not about being exclusive or condescending; it’s about recognizing and seeking quality and excellence, in all its manifestations. There is zero shame in that, nor is there any shame in choosing particular areas to focus this purported snobbery; whether in food, design, consumer electronics, art, literature, music, whatever — why does the recognition of quality have to be held against an individual? So Mr. Ruhlman went to the Cheesecake Factory to meet friends and had a shitty lunch. Who wouldn’t rather have a meal with friends that involved good food? How is that wrong?

    As others have pointed out, it’s not an either/or situation; either you’re an elitist food snob or you eat anything. I’ll try anything, but I won’t like all of it. Caeser salads can be done well, burgers and hot dogs can be done well, and high-end concept cuisine can be a poorly executed mess. What matters most is that an individual is willing to try, to really try, to fully taste… and if it’s bad, it’s bad. Being able to distinguish one from the other isn’t a flaw, nor is the willingness to express one’s opinion on the matter.

  • Maura

    Jennie/Tikka,
    You make some excellent points. Good enough isn’t enough. I want quality no matter where or what I’m eating. I haven’t stepped inside a Friday’s in years, but I’ve been know to go there. I don’t order the pasta, but they have some of the best potato skins around. The only place that has better potato skins is an Irish bar in Durham, NC. You have to be a fan of bar food to appreciate that, of course. I am a fan. Yes, they’re processed. I don’t eat processed food at home. My body isn’t a halfway house. But it’s not a temple either.

    But I’ve gotten past the point where I feel I can judge someone on what they eat. When they eat at my house, they’re going to get really good food (or so I’ve been told). I hope that opens their eyes to more possibilities. But it’s a really sensitive issue, because what people eat does have a lot to do with what and who they are. Attack what someone eats and you attack them. But having what I consider a bad palate doesn’t make someone a bad or a stupid person. People’s food preferences are based on what they ate as children, what they’ve been exposed to, how adventurous they are, how much time they have* and what they can afford to spend. Or maybe they just don’t like something. I can’t force someone to come over to my side, any more than I could force someone to change his/her religious beliefs.

    *Although, for real, I’ll be damned if I can understand how waiting in line for an hour or more to get into an Outback saves time. And I draw the line with that damned green bean casserole. At that point, the mocking will begin.

  • Jay Shnoogins

    Mikey -

    I tweaked it a bit and put the panko in a crummer with toated anise. Smoked coriander would be nice as well I guess. Just a bit though…

  • Jennie/Tikka

    I’m in complete agreement on this one – the chicken caesar is the poster-child for the majority opinion on food in this country.

    I still strongly believe that attitudes toward food reveal a great deal about the individual. I still strongly believe that a person averse to the idea that there is better (food) out there, is probably averse to improvement as a general concept across the board in the rest of their lives. When people begin defending the mediocre as “its good enough – why knock it” I usually find they believe that about everything else in their lives, too. Their lives may not be bad – but they aren’t particulary good, either. They remain right in the big fat center of the bell curve.

    Excellence requires effort. It requires getting out of one’s comfort zone. It requires admitting that there is something better out there, and it is not equal to what is mediocre.

    Try applying that “its good enough” concept to sports and see what you get. Is it okay if everybody crosses the finish line at the same time? Has the exact same score on both teams every game? Why is it then okay to have food that doesn’t excel?

    There is something deeply troubling to me when people begin pushing the notion that all things are equal – good, bad, and excellent are all the same. Its like saying there is no reason for standards for anything – no rewards for those who do better and work harder.

    Again, for some of you who believe that….try putting a football team (or any other team for that matter) together with that opinion. See if you can win a game with an entire team of dead-center mediocre players.

  • Annie

    Greetings from the Heartland. When I go shopping in Des Moines with friends (okay, so I am willing to drive two hours to wander through a Williams Sonoma), our lunch choices are: 1)the mall’s food court, 2)the mall’s Cheesecake Factory, or 3)other formulaic restaurants outside the mall. I pick the Cheesecake Factory every time. I don’t eat the cheesecake–it’s not as good as my mom’s New York style. I have one of the simpler salads, and the fried macaroni and cheese balls. I like them. I like them a lot. I have tried several times, using various recipes, to copy them and still haven’t gotten it right. Consider it a food quest. CF is also my first choice because they have excellent service and no drive-through window.

    I think it’s a matter of finding what food, fast or slow, that works for your taste buds, your budget, your lifestyle, and your health. For some that would include generic Chicken Caesar salad. For others that would exclude it.

    Now that I have a little more time and money, I chose to cook more for my family rather than just driving through. They still love fast food hamburgers, chicken strips, and fries (I gave up all fast food last March for various reasons), but I don’t provide it or deny it. My teenagers are going to have to chose their own ways in the food world soon, so I am giving them other taste experiences.

    I completely identify with the mother who wrote about how McD’s food for her autistic children gave her a few moments of peace. Now I am lucky to be at a point where I can give my children some food UNREST to think about other food choices. Recently during a family cookout, my 16-year old son tried the barbecued bacon-wrapped dates, but preferred his experimental grilled bacon-wrapped hotdogs. My 14 year-old daughter helped me make the ricotta-stuffed pumkin blossoms (fresh from our own vines), but wouldn’t taste them. Eat on!

  • mdg

    While I rarely order the chicken caesar salad stateside, it has been a saving grace at the TGIF in terminal 3 at heathrow airport whilst involved in yet another @$%^ flight delay. somehow always feel comfortable killing a few hours there with a the chicken caesar and a beer (tho they can keep the overly chipper wait staff).

  • Victor

    What kills me is that in the wiki listing the only picture of a Caesar salad given is of the “variation” with chicken. Ha!

  • McNormal

    Regarding the original question in this post, the actual origin of the Chicken Caesar Salad and the trajectory of its popularity as a menu item, does anyone really know the story? Is there a tale out there of extraordinary individual achievement in the restaurant-industrial complex, told Eric Schlosser-style? Was the Caesar Salad really invented in Tijuana by a guy named Caesar?

  • Tammi

    Actually, protien with your vegetables is a very healthy way to eat ::shrug:: It’s the fax that you add that’s unhealthy.

  • Tammi

    Pardon me…eating a fax would be unhealthy, fat…is what I meant..yessirreee.

  • Jay Shnoogins

    Cheezcake Factory?

    Yo you da WHACK food critic Mikey!

    Lunchbox wouldn’t eat that shit…so we went to 7 eleven and got some chicken caesar taquitos.

    They da shit, yo…

    BONNNGGGGG

  • Ms.Anthrope

    Wow! Great debate!
    I confess, I have never had a Chicken Cesar Salad (I did stumble into a Cheesecake Factory once) but this does bring up something some friends and I were discussing the other day.
    I had just been to some awards dinner at a fairly “upscale” hotel. Aside from the predictable Steak/Chicken/Shrimp menu, they had rack of lamb for which I nearly climbed into the waiter’s lap. As I was the only one at the table to “dare”, all eyes were on me as I popped the first morsel in my mouth. “How is it?” they asked admirably. “Not very Lamb-y” I repsonded. Somehow, they had managed to remove ALL the flavor and replace it with something that was somewhat like filet mignon. My guess is they marinated the hell out of it to remove the “offensive gamey flavor” that I sooooo craved. The point of this little story is that, more and more, mainstream restaurants seem to take the middle road lest they offend the masses. It’s “O.K.” food but completely without challenge. I have all but given up trying anything new on a menu because I just expect to be disappointed.
    I’ll stick with my trusty taquerias that serve up great food that challenges me to try new things and, when all else fails, a mean ceviche.

  • Tags

    People were lined up over an hour waiting to eat at a Cheesecake Factory. Who knew they would be in the vanguard for the Slow Food Movement?

  • Guy Anderson

    OK OK I know I have always wondered about that Chicken thing too. So we do the chicken, steak and Shrimp and have been adding our fish of the week too! Americans are eating healthy “HA” a salad with a nice slab of chicken or salmon. Bad ideas placed into the simple heads of may fellow Americans. M.R. Realize it is not their fault – - bad people have put them up to these crazy desires of things placed on top of a nice crisp, nicely coated romaine with great cheese and fresh crunchy croutons – hey wait didn’t you just bastardize this dish a little further! Man – I might have to take you down off my wall. Drat – Whats next huh – jelly on peanut butter sandiches! I may have been watching the food network when posting this so all comments can be forgiven. Sorry.

  • nosnob

    I’m glad this discussion gained momentum and progressed beyond the shallow and snarky comments that pass for discourse on many blogs. Despite taking issue with aspects of Mr. Ruhlman’s original post, credit must be given for his openness to dissent and dialogue. At the end of the day, we don’t need to agree with each other, but simply to understand our individual perspectives and priorities.

    Thanks to Nicholas Robinson for the compliment. I do not write for Food & Wine. I do write for a living, but not about food, despite my passion for all things chow.

    obfuskater@gmail.com

  • theFrog

    Ruhlman,

    Normally I’m on board with you on just about everything, but I just can’t get behind you on this. There’s a lotta talk about elitism and Foodie-ism, and maybe it’s not too far off the mark.

    Your gripe isn’t with the food itself, it’s in how it’s prepared. Even your own Chicken Fried Pork Belly Caesar, in the hands of a chain restaurant, could slide into mediocrity. Given a few years on the menu, a few “cost-cutting” ingredients, and a bit of “streamlining,” and it could become the next Chicken Caesar Salad rant. Even worse this time, because you’ll be able to rally about battered and fried fat in addition to the Xantham gum bottled monstrosity.

    If you want to rant about food mediocrity, rant about the places that have turned it into a profitable business. Don’t blame the food, though. A well made Caesar Salad with a perfectly cooked and seasoned bit of chicken could be just as delicious as any cutting-edge cuisine you’d find in New York or Las Vegas. I think if you could have done that, rather than concoct the Chicken Fried Pork Belly Caesar, it would have been a far more impressive feat.

  • Tags

    From ‘Alice Waters and Chez Panisse’ by Thomas McNamee (Chapter 6 – ‘Jeremiah’)

    “When I traveled” – which was rarely – “I had to bring food with me,” Alice recalls. “My life support kit. A bottle of olive oil, a bottle of vinegar, a loaf of bread, a little bag of salad, and some cheese.” She would not darken the door of a McDonald’s, either for irony’s sake or as opposition research.

  • AZ

    I wanted to add a couple more of my thoughts.

    To me, the beauty of food is that it’s about serving others, and that it’s a social event. As a result, when complaints such as this arise, I think people need to examine whether the cure is worse than the disease.

    If cooking isn’t about appealing to a broad set of diners, it loses some of those elemental qualities of service and socializing that make it appealing to me. Asking the dining market to cut people out for their tastes isn’t just bad business sense, but is also as offensive to the practice of cooking as the much-criticized restaurants referenced here.

  • Sorcha

    Tags, I remember reading an excerpt from that in the paper years ago! At the time, of course, I had no idea who Alice Waters was.

    Nicholas: I’m actually contemplating taking on a paper route – it’s good money for few hours. Of course, those hours are in the middle of the night, but hey, that’s what pepper spray is for.

  • Tammi

    The beauty of food…that’s a great thread in and of itself. To me it is alot about making others happy, I so much prefer cooking for others than just myself. I want to share my love for what I’m eating and I want them to enjoy it as much as I do. Cooking for me is a mood, if I don’t want to cook I don’t, I eat something quick because my body wants sustenance. What I get out of cooking is sensual, cutting the ingredients, marrying them together to make something taste outrageous, watching them cook , the smells that emenate from the pan always make me horny. I’m not creative about cooking, for me it’s more about the execution..you tell me these things go together and taste great, I’ll believe you though I’ll probably not follow your recipe exactly. When you serve your labor of love to someone who appreciates it as much as you do, that’s the ultimate! Appreciation is the best love in the world, next to Lobster Bernaise sauce poured over crab topping a perfectly cooked steak.

  • Somebody's Mother

    I live in the fly-over zone of the US. I love that food has come so far that medicore chicken caesar salad is even a conversation. For those of you old enough to remember, caesar salad was only an option in the fanciest of restaurants. Even in nice restauants salad consisted of a wedge of iceberg lettuce. No romaine, no mixed baby greens. When this ‘salad’ was brought to the table along with it came the salad dressing ‘boat’. This was a metal contraption with three bowls that contained the following salad dressings: italian, 1000 island and french or russian (remember russian dressing?). That was it. No caesar, no ranch, no sesame. And if you wanted meat on a salad? There was one choice: the Chef’s Salad. This had sliced american cheese, sliced ‘ham’ hard boiled eggs, and tomatoes. The dressing still came in the same boat or carousel. What this all comes down to is 3 things. 1)No matter how good a given dish can be there will always be a bunch of places you can find it done very badly. 2)Even here in the fly over zone I have tons of options and will continue try all kinds of food from all over the world whether it is fast food, casual chain, or the wonderful variety of locally owned restaurants we have to try to find the best of each dish. 3)On days like today, when the heat index is 110 degrees and I’m swamped at work, a short drive to get a McSalad sounds like an ok lunch to me.

  • Nicholas Robinson

    Obviously this whole subject has hit a nerve with the (presumably) mostly-American posters. There have been comments about what Americans eat as opposed to other cultures, and I’m not proselytizing when I recommend each and everyone to read “Hungry Planet: What the World Eats” by Peter Menzel (don’t want to take business away from Charcuterie, Michael, but . . .) which is an extremely enlightening guide to what different cultures consume within a week. Who knew that Mexico is the world’s biggest consumer of Coca Cola?

    I don’t know. I’m not a foodie but sometimes I like foodie things, like lemon butter or marzipan salmon, but usually I’m just in the mood for something to “hit the spot”, wherever that might be at that particular moment in time.

    Chicken Caesar is just a variation on Caesar, and some schmoe made that up in a desperate moment just like some military chef made up Chicken Marengo when Napoleon demanded something new.

    It’s just food. Look at Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and 150 people will give you 150 different opinions of it, but in the end it’s just oil on canvas.

  • Sorcha

    Hahaha Nicholas, I’m writing right now on my couch, watching my kid play Burnout 3:Takedown. I *wish* I was a food editor – I need me a job. Hell, at this point I wish I had my old dishwashing job back. Two hours a day, kitchen to myself most of the time…*sigh*

  • Fiat Lux

    @nosnob: “I mean ‘pure’ in the most literal sense — simply about the food. The hunk of goop on the plate and its reaction in one’s mouth.”

    I think this is where you and I disagree, then, because IMO nothing in life, and most definitely not food, exists in a pure state, unconnected to anything else.

  • t-scape

    “I’m not saying I agree with anyone all the time, here or anywhere else. But your upset over his characterization seems like you’re someone who is just not on the same side of the fence as he is on food issues, so I question why you would be reading here? ”

    rockandroller – I am actually not among the camp you are referring to. If you see my first post, I’m actually somewhere in the middle when it comes to this particular issue. My point in my response to you was just that sometimes people are not going to agree with the writer of the blog, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be reading it.

  • Nicholas Robinson

    nosnob,

    Just do the right thing, like sorcha should, and just admit that you’re the copy editor at Food & Wine.

    It’s the RIGHT thing to do.:)

    PS Great writing. Ever considered a job at montrealfood.com?

  • Sorcha

    Wow, this topic really exploded.

    The problem I’m having with the “elitist” tag being hurled in this direction is that I don’t think it fits. In this blog I’ve met people who love food and are passionate about it, and the vast majority of them have been anything but snobbish. When I posted my first comment on here I was very, very new to the whole “foodie” thing and not once did anyone look down on me for it. I, too, have once or twice felt some snobbery going on, but not from the blog regulars, who are anything but elitist.

    That said, on further reflection I can understand where the defensiveness and anger are coming from. How we eat, what we like to eat – these things are a large part of who we are. I guess if we feel like someone’s attacking that, it’s only natural to hit back. I’m glad to see that it’s calmed down into reasonable disagreement among adults. I think the trick is not to take things personally – unfortunately, that’s kind of hard sometimes.

    I still don’t think it’s elitist to look for quality in what you eat. Food isn’t just fuel – it’s family, it’s laughter, it’s nostalgia and comfort and love. It’s important, dammit. Whether it’s the mac and cheese that makes you happy when you’ve had a shitty day because it reminds you of childhood, or moulard duck breast that makes you want to cry with the first bite because it’s just that fucking good, it feeds not just your body, but your mind and your soul. It should matter. It does matter.

    And if you’re hanging around this place, you probably at least agree with that, right?

  • AZ

    Although I’ve previously lamented when food is viewed as functional, a means to an end, as opposed to an end in and of itself, people are missing the point here. It is not mediocrity that is as issue, but priorities. In your enjoyment of the dish, you take the myopic view of the food as the only element of the dining-out experience, and it is this restriction in viewpoint that makes the commentary somewhat meaningless, largely worthless (the real way to affect change is to vote with your dollars), and what is off-putting and snobbish about it. It is snobbish not because it challenges the quality of the food, but because it derides others based on an incomplete view of the situation guided by the commenters’ own biases.

    The food is average at best? As Ruhlman’s presence at the Cheesecake Factory proved, location, convenience, and the people you can bring to dinner all matter. Food is a great sensory experience and source of pleasure, but dining out is also a social experience and part of a lifestyle, with constraints of time and budget.

    Perhaps it is not their poor taste or love of mediocrity that drives the Chicken Caesar business model, but simply differing priorities, that people want something close, or focus on atmosphere or accessibility or group dynamics in their decisionmaking. I know I’ve choked down some mediocre meals at these places with minimal complaint because I enjoyed my dinner companions.

    I have no problem calling out bad food, and my own priorities give the food primary importance. However, I know there’s a lot more to a meal out than what’s on the plate, and can respect those whose priorities differ.

  • Skawt

    ruhlman:

    Back in 2002-2003, the CCA regularly served fresh Caesar salad in the Careme room. One of the tasks of the Garde Manger class was to have a student at the station making salads to order for customers. The dressing was the proper method – raw egg yolks, emulsified with oil, fresh minced anchovies, garlic croutons seasoned and toasted only an hour earlier, freshly grated parmagiano reggiano. The romaine lettuce was properly triple-washed and cut to a uniform size.

    So, there are some places still using raw eggs in spite of the ban – but these are pasteurized eggs, so the possibility of contamination is very low.

    By the way, this time the re-heated casserole came out almost as good as the first time it was cooked. So hooray for another regular menu item. Wish me luck on the penne alla vodka. :)

  • rockandroller

    Never mind. I think my point was made sufficiently earlier and I’m not going to continue to articulate it and further the disagreement on the thread.

  • nosnob

    Frances: I understand. My aim is not to pick on you personally or single you out. Your original comment simply touched a nerve because it echoed a sentiment that seems common in foodie circles. I quite like mac and cheese as well as baked beans, although not necessarily mixed together. Viva la difference.

    Fiat Lux: No, this isn’t a “with us or against us” politics of division. I mean “pure” in the most literal sense — simply about the food. The hunk of goop on the plate and its reaction in one’s mouth.

    There are many different kinds of foodies. We come to food with different priorities and assumptions. There are health foodies, political foodies, snobbish foodies, and so on. Because our interests overlap we might find ourselves reading the same blog — like this one — and coming into conflict.

    I have nothing against swilling lattes or chunks of meat. NASCAR, on the other hand…(ba dum dum)

  • Fiat Lux

    @nosnob — your lengthy definition of the “pure” foodie is starting to sound like certain American politicians who love to define what is a “true American” and then castigate anyone or anything that doesn’t fit their mold (eg, ‘effete, latte-swilling East Coasters’ versus ‘manly, meat-eating NASCAR lovers’).

  • Frances

    nosnob. I will pay you money to please stop quoting “fraidy-cat Americans”! Please. I take it back. I mean it. You make very many good points, but you are wrong about me being elitist or rascist. I probably don’t have any business posting here because I don’t know anything about food except what tastes good to me and I have some hair-brained notions about why some Americans eat what they do.

    I know exactly why I polished off the leftover store-brand mac ‘n cheese mixed with canned baked beans that was in the fridge. I was hungry and just a little bit desperate and I enjoyed every bite. I’m not making this up. It was pbj toast and hot Lipton tea for dessert.

    Everyone is different and sometimes people make me laugh. That’s all. And I won’t eat anything slimy unless I’m someone’s guest for a meal and it’s the polite thing to do. And my food preferences? Home made. In my home or the home of someone who was nice enough to invite me over.

  • Kansas City rube

    So would you say that somebody who happily munches on dog shit and tells you not to judge him for eating it is a “pure foodie” or would you look at his brown-speckled smile and tell him he’s an idiot?

  • bob del Grosso

    Wow 74 plus comments on a post about chicken caesar salad! You must be a genius, so why can’t you see that the corporate world’s response to your plea that it find something other than Chicken Caesar to placate the bland expectations of the dining public is in fact a creation of my own: the Cheeseburger Caesar Salad?
    This brilliant dish synthesizes culinary elements from five distinct cultures (Mexican, German, English and American) employs sophisticated and modern notions that a dish should provoke deep thinking through juxtapostion of hot and cold ingredients, oppositional textures and odd or amusing nomenclatural devices. Yet at the sme time it will seem familiar enough to even the most doltish gavone that he would not be afraid to eat it. Plus it can be produced at low food cost by underskilled workers making less than minimum wage. It’s a winner MR. Get on it!

  • David McAdory

    rockandroller, if you are talking about me, I come here to see what new stuff ruhlman can tip me to, like the bar in his last post or things like the new Iron Chef program coming on. Sometimes I will take his opinion into account, but I’m mostly here for information or new locales.

    I post because I think people shouldn’t get into a sheep mentality and should be challenged in their opinions on certain things, and this is one topic that I think needed to be challenged.

    I think a lot of foodies lose in the game of converting people to better food because they are so elitist and snobbish, so I pointed that out. I am glad nosnob also pointed out the anti-Americanism that seems to go on in this blog as well.

  • rockandroller

    tscape says: “I don’t know, rockandroller…it’s impossible to agree with someone’s POV 100% of the time. And if you only read stuff that you agree with 100% of the time, you’re really limiting yourself.”

    I’m not saying I agree with anyone all the time, here or anywhere else. But your upset over his characterization seems like you’re someone who is just not on the same side of the fence as he is on food issues, so I question why you would be reading here? There’s nothing wrong to being on 2 different sides of a fence, but, to me, it’s akin to a die-hard republican going onto a democratic blog and complaining that the blog is one-sided and slanted to the left.

  • rockandroller

    tscape says: “I don’t know, rockandroller…it’s impossible to agree with someone’s POV 100% of the time. And if you only read stuff that you agree with 100% of the time, you’re really limiting yourself.”

    I’m not saying I agree with anyone all the time, here or anywhere else. But your upset over his characterization seems like you’re someone who is just not on the same side of the fence as he is on food issues, so I question why you would be reading here? There’s nothing wrong to being on 2 different sides of a fence, but, to me, it’s akin to a die-hard republican going onto a democratic blog and complaining that the blog is one-sided and slanted to the left.

  • nosnob

    Emily: Absolutely agree.

    It is interesting to note that anatomically, humans actually vary quite significantly in number of taste buds. Some people literally taste more or less acutely than others. You really don’t know how that Applebee’s chicken caesar salad tastes to an individual person, nor how the “foodie approved” version does either.

    I say this because Emily hits on a noteworthy point. Are you a foodie because you enjoy food as a physical, sensational experience, or are your likes and dislikes informed by intellectual beliefs, political agendas, and the like?

    Emily loves Kraft dinner and the food at Boulevard because they taste good to her. In a sense, she is the purest kind of foodie. I admire that.

    The pure foodie, I would argue, doesn’t care where their food came from. They don’t care if it rolled off a factory assembly line or was slaved over for 18 hours by a 112 year old Mexican woman with 27 grandchildren. They care that it tastes good. And more importantly: that it tastes good to them.

    The pure foodie is unencumbered by layers of intellectualized baggage, by angst about food chain production or by how many miles this buttery head of lettuce traveled to their plate.

    Do you love food or do you love to eat? One is a noun, the other is a verb.

    A love of eating doesn’t mean being indiscriminate or having preferences. But it does mean enjoying eating as an act of hedonism, a pleasure we are granted several times a day every day by our natural needs.

    To anyone who truly loves to eat, Kraft dinner might be just as much fun as beef cheeks at Babbo. (Or whatever your taste buds tell you.)

    The pure foodie listens to their taste buds.

  • jmw

    Funny to see the mention of Zuni’s ceasar. I crave it always.

    Which brings me to a general point about ceasar salad — it’s really a fantastic creation. I mean, the original, proper one — fresh mayonnaise, anchovies and garlic ground into a paste and whisked together, substantiated by hearty romaine and croutons. What’s not to love?

    Well … let’s see if we can go down the list of everything that was great in its original incarnation and ruined by mass production / etc.

    * Lemonade — supposed to be lemons and sugar, now usually corn syrup, grapefruit juice, etc. etc. in its supermarket shelf incarnations.
    * Basically all chocolate — that runs the spectrum from the Applebee’s Sysco truck cake up to many “upscale” torts, molten cakes, etc. Mostly chocolate desserts are either gratuitously sweetened (with corn syrup) or hopelessly trendy (without care for the acutal, uh, chocolate-making)
    * Fish — nearly always frozen, nearly always overcooked.
    * Butter
    * Nearly all salad dressing, including Ceasar.
    * Oatmeal (I never cease to be amazed that people pay $5 for 12 packs of dried dog food)
    * Alfredo sauce (especially in the “light” incarnation). Especially at chain restaurants that charge $10.95 or more for the basic “chicken alfredo with pasta”
    * All Things Braised have been buried in the rubble of cultural ruin.
    * Mushrooms. It is Holy Law in America that one may only consume either white button mushrooms or Portabellos.

    OK, this is exhausting. The middle-end of American food culture suffers from awful malaise. And I really think it’s just the middle; our upscale cuisine is quite good, and the low-end “fast food” is, frankly, addictive and pretty revolutionary.

  • t-scape

    “If you don’t share Ruhlman’s POV, you probably shouldn’t be reading his blog as he is who he is and that’s inevitably (and thankfully) going to come through again and again in his posts.”

    I don’t know, rockandroller…it’s impossible to agree with someone’s POV 100% of the time. And if you only read stuff that you agree with 100% of the time, you’re really limiting yourself.

    In terms of blogs, since that is the medium we are dealing with here, I suppose it depends on how you view blogs. Are they monologues, or are they topic/conversation starters? If it’s a monologue, then a blog writer shouldn’t be agreed with/disagreed with/supported/challenged,as it’s a one way kinda thing. If it’s a conversation starter, then you have to expect that you will get different kinds of answers.

  • Emily

    chefwannab, thank you for the opportunity to discuss this further. I want to be clear that I by no means think we should stick our heads in the sand when something occurs that is truly egregious or harmful (say dog fighting or confined animal feeding operations).
    On the topic of *mainstream culture* as I said in my first post, I do maintain ’tis better to ignore than to rail.

    I’m all for allowing people the opportunity to explore a variety of foods and experiences – IF THEY WANT TO. If they have no interest, then who are we to malign them? I have a coworker whom I adore. She’s 36 and won’t eat anything. Won’t try anything. So what? She’s still a great person, we just won’t be having sushi together. Or even a burger with tomatoes on it! It’s her perogative what she choose to eat. Do I think she might find more joy in mealtime if she widened her horizons? Sure, but it’s not my business.

    In fact, I work with many people who are sweet as pie but when asked where we should have lunch, reply “Olive Garden!” All I can do is sigh, order the pomodoro, and enjoy the delicious breadsticks. If I want to keep my friends and maintain my sanity, I can’t try to drag them to Ethiopian restaurants all the time.

    Food is one of my greatest joys, and that encompasses all manner of food. I love Boulevard and I love Kraft dinner. It’s not my place to tell people what they can and can’t like. Nor anyone’s.

  • rockandroller

    It’s his blog, and he can characterize it however he wants.

    I happen to completely agree with him. I think people are stupid who stand in line waiting to eat the crap food at the Cheesecake Factory. I think they should work harder to know better and make at least more INTERESTING choices, if not better tasting; be it better for you health-wise, better for the environment, whether locally or not, etc. I think it’s ridiculous that people are waiting in line to eat there, and, generally speaking, I think people who choose to visit places like that when other, better choices are available, and who then think CF’s food is “wonderful” have really poor taste buds, not to mention just poor taste. That’s my opinion, and I’m entitled to it, whether you agree or not.

    I’m sure there are plenty of people who know about X, be it audio equipment, cars, movies, whatever, and think that people who don’t know what they know are at the very least really missing out, and at the most, occasionally are the subject of some contempt, at least privately. For example, I help a lot of people buy new cars as it’s something I know more about than most people ever will unless they are car salespeople themselves. I really hate the “ostrich” consumer as I call them, those who stick their heads in the sand when it comes to how much they’re paying or what they’re buying because they don’t want to do any work to know any better, they just want the “pretty red one.” It doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for both types of car consumers, just as there is for different types of restaurant consumers, but, just as those who love CF probably think some of the food “foodies” eat is “yucky” and that we’re stupid to pay what we do, for example, for Niman Ranch pork instead of grocery store pork, it seems perfectly normal to me to disdain them as well. They don’t understand why we hate it and we don’t get why they love it. If you don’t share Ruhlman’s POV, you probably shouldn’t be reading his blog as he is who he is and that’s inevitably (and thankfully) going to come through again and again in his posts. Just my 2 cents.

  • Fiat Lux

    When I was in b-school, I was lucky enough to be able to visit the offices of Clif Bar, which as you mar or may not know, is a company that produces energy bars and related food products. One of the interesting facts that I took away from that tour was that grocery stores require a shelf life of 12 months in order for them to stock a Clif bar product. That had implications for Clif Bar, both in how they made their bars and how they packaged them.

    Think about that for a minute — a product has to be shelf-stable for a YEAR for a supermarket to be willing to sell it. That says something about the state of food in America.

    And yes, this relates to Chicken Caesar salads, if you think about it for a minute. When an industry is gearing itself around things like freaking SHELF LIFE instead of taste or nutrition, then of course you’re going to end up with crappy food products (unless you work damn hard to find alternatives). It’s not necessarily about who is or is not a foodie, it’s about the caliber of the food in the pipeline.

    Which, by the way, is why street food tastes better in Bangkok than it does in Des Moines. The entire food production chain is built a different way, with different priorities.

  • Tags

    I went to my folks house for lunch and what did they have? You guessed it, Applebee’s Chicken Caesar salad. As if that wasn’t ominous enough, just as we were sitting down to eat I saw that Paula Deen’s Smithfield shills have metastasized to Fox news channel.

  • t-scape

    In addressing the priginal topic (we wandered, huh?), that I agree with the posters who said the biggest travesty about chicken caesar salads is that they really aren’t true or even adequate caesars in the first place. I admit, I have no beef with chicken in caesar salads in theory. But I don’t order them because the foundation of the salad – the dressing – usually tastes like crap to me. So, is it the addition of chicken that makes it a McSalad, or is it the quality of the salad as a whole?

  • Hillary

    The funny thing is, while you’re right that Chicken Caesar shows up consistently on menus, I find it to be the most inconsistent food ever! I’m often afraid to order it (even if I don’t like anything else on the menu…which is rare) simply because I’m not sure if I’ll like the way that restaurant makes a Caesar salad.

    Does regular Caesar salad annoy you as much as the Chicken Caesar?

  • David McAdory

    Again another excellent post nosnob. I also want to make it clear, I never said that mass produced food or chains are above critique, I just don’t like the tone that a great deal, but not all, of the posters have towards people who like Applebees or KFC. Its one thing to say there are better alternatives its another to put down those who do not appreciate food to the level of some of you foodies. I’m sure in electronics, especially audio and visual components, I could talk down to the choices you have made in buying certain tvs and receivers, but I don’t and will not because while their may be better alternatives it all comes down to a person’s personal enjoyment of an item, and that will always be subjective.

  • nosnob

    t-scape: Very well put and I agree completely.

    For me, the issue that started this discussion isn’t that chicken caesar salad is a popular and typically mediocre dish. It was how this perfectly legitimate personal opinion of the author was presented, in a way that passes judgment on the population as a whole and on those who order said dish. In fact, the author remains stuck in this mindset, where he more recently writes sarcastically, “I think we should all embrace mediocrity, we should all try to be more like everyone else.”

    Being “like everyone else” is not the point, and Mr. Ruhlman is smart enough to know that. To take issue with the condescension inherent in the original post is not to endorse conformity.

    t-scape is right that just because the majority “likes it” — whatever “it” may be — doesn’t mean we can’t offer dissenting opinions. This does not require passing judgment on the taste of the majority. It simply requires stating one’s own taste.

    But even more irksome than the tone of the original post is the notion that has emerged in some later posts in this forum, and elsewhere within the foodiesphere, that “Americans” can be described as a group with mediocre and limited appreciation for “good” food.

    As t-scape touches on, who are Americans? It seems to me that the “fraidy-cat Americans” dismissive is purposely selective about which Americans the writer has in mind.

    In my small city of 30,000, we have local independent “American” burgers/fries/caesar salad restaurants, we have Chinese, Thai, Cambodian, barbecue, Mexican, Italian, and Japanese, to name a few. We also have Chili’s, Applebees, McDonalds, KFC, and so on. All of these restaurants stay in business. Who is eating at them? Americans, mostly. There are Americans in KFC taking home a 12 piece bucket of grease and there are Americans at the sushi bar down the street eating unagi. There are Americans lined up outside the Chili’s on a Saturday night, and there are Americans picking up orders at the fantastic take-out Thai joint run by a refugee who began selling his food at the farmer’s market and was successful enough to open his own storefront. There are Americans picking up their 2-for-$5 pizzas at Dominos, and there are Americans making reservations at the bistro run by CIA graduates.

    This small city may be more diverse than some rural towns in America, but it’s far less so than many other places in the country. The point is, Americans — and a few visiting foreigners perhaps mixed-in — are patronizing the full range of places.

    So it seems to me that Americans are eating a whole lot of different foods, the presence of chicken caesar salads on menus be notwithstanding.

  • Natalie Sztern

    Don’t knock Applebee’s, Cheesecake Factory or TGIF because small-town America rely on these restaurants and given that, when you enter one to eat they are pride themselves on fresh goods, fast service and always with a college student’s smile

  • Kansas City rube

    “In which the general bulk of the population is reduced to such a low level of intelligence that they can’t even keep their bodily fluids contained”

    I was thinking more along the lines of “lulled into a culinary coma by the bland, mass-produced food they consume on a daily basis at these corporate feed lots.”

  • chefwannab

    It’s funny you were talking about the Chicken Caesar Salad on a plane, because I just GOT a Chicken Caesar Salad on a plane (probably one of the last remaining airlines that serves any kind of snack or meal in coach!) I was starving, and grateful when the plastic tray was placed in front of me. Ahhh, something safe. I know what this is, I can eat it. I’m not saying it was great, and I don’t often order CC Salads in restaurants, but it was familiar, filling and appreciated.

    I agree with others who bemoan the disappearance of the real Caesar salad; I think that is the real tragedy. It’s true, you can’t make anything that is relatively simple taste good if all the ingredients are not the best quality, and it’s gotten so mass-produced that the quality suffers and no one is doing it “with love” anymore (to quote Bill Buford’s “Heat” which I’m reading right now!)

    And what is so wrong with wishing that certain things did not become so mainstream, commonplace and eventually mediocre in their execution? That’s not snobbery, it’s a longing for attention to quality, uniqueness and the creative parts of life that keep things interesting. Emily says “Just avoid it if it offends”, but isn’t this a dangerous philosophy? Indeed, where would our world be if everyone just “avoided” everything that offended them instead of speaking out about it?

    Yes, those who loathe the mainstream can go elsewhere, but why not encourage debate and let others know that there is something else? A big night out for my parents stuck in their suburban existence used to be Cheesecake Factory or Outback. My husband and I have shown them that in only a 20-minute drive into the city, for about the same price they spend at the chains, they can get a 4-course meal at a beautiful, family owned restaurant, or a gorgeous steak at a hole-in-the-wall steakhouse. Believe me, their eyes have been opened to trying new things and they are much happier because of it.

    A few have taken the wrong tone here against Ruhlman and so-called “foodies.” I don’t think Ruhlman or anyone here is attacking, putting down or looking down on with “snobbery” anyone who likes or eats the CC Salad (which I will still gladly eat when served on a plane). In his own words, all he’s asking for is a little imagination. Whether you frequent TGIF’s or not, isn’t that a good thing?

  • ruhlman

    I ate at CF because it was near a friend’s office and I was really curious what all the fuss was about. people were lined up out the door when it arrived here. which, alas, says a lot about where I live.

    not to be elitist of course…I think we should all embrace mediocrity, we should all try to be more like everyone else…”heaven is a place where nothing ever happens…”

  • mirinblue

    WOW! The common caesar salad evidently holds all types of “powers”! Aside from filling the belly, it appears to magically work on the brain!! Case in point-the comments of this blog!!!

  • t-scape

    I think there is a middle ground in this argument, if we care to search for it. It lies somewhere between statements like:

    “Sorry if that bothers all you apologists for the drooling masses.”

    In which the general bulk of the population is reduced to such a low level of intelligence that they can’t even keep their bodily fluids contained, and:

    “I wish some of the foodies would realize that people like what you all may view as “mediocre” food, and that is all that matters.”

    In which the implication is that if the majority likes it, then we all need to be quiet and not offer a dissenting opinion.

    Mass appeal does not automatically make something good, or even okay. Mass appeal also does not automatically make the individual members of the masses idiots. In between all the black-and-white arguments being thrown around, some (IMO) good points have been made on both sides.

    It was mentioned that diners in other countries are not by default culinarily (did I make that up?) adventurous simply by virtue of eating their local cuisine. Indeed – but perhaps what makes someone’s palate more adventurous is not in the diversity of cuisines that they consume, but in the variety of ingredients that comprises their cuisine. I know I am way more concerned in my daily eating/cooking with trying new ingredients than with whole cuisines (and I stress “daily” – as in my run-of-the mill day). So, Americans do have a large array of cuisines that they enjoy, but at the same time in our daily cooking it’s hard to break out of the same ol’ ingredients into ones that may be more challenging. I think doing so should be encouraged.

    By the same token, I agree with finding the whole “Americans are so (insert derogatory term here”) argument distasteful. For one, it’s just as biased and prejudiced as applying such a blanket judgment to any other nationality. And for two, it ignores that there are a lot of different kinds of Americans. However, when we look at the foods being put out by very successful chain restaurants that appeal to the mass public, it’s easy to see how this reputation of having bland palates is being forged. Just because a lot of people like it, doesn’t mean that someone can’t say “Man, chain food could be better if these companies would only try harder, and not underestimate the eating public”.

    So while I’m not at all into calling people names for their food choices, I think a call to improving on mediocrity is never out of line either. As usual, it’s all in how the approach is made.

  • wayne

    Why would anyone eat at The Cheesecake factory? Ecchhhh. When I am traveling, if that type of restaurant is all there is, I will go to a grocery store and by stuff to make a panini in my hotel room. Cheesecake Factory (to me) is like a Friday’s with airs. All that aside, this was a good read as always.

  • Chris Walker Versus

    You know, you can get a pretty decent table-side Ceasar at Emeril’s Delmonico in Las Vegas. Or at least you could a couple years ago.

    Not to mention, they have excellent Steak Tartare.

  • nosnob

    Big Red: I fully agree.

    Kansas City Rube: First, in case this point hasn’t been driven home clearly enough yet, people do not all share the same priorities. Your priority seems to be to avoid becoming obese and developing diabetes. That’s super. Quite frankly, other people might not care. Some people figure they are going to die one way or another, and they eat whatever they feel like. Apparently they are drooling masses because their priorities are different from yours.

    As for “strange chemicals and preservatives”, is this the part where every substance created by nature is good and everything created in a lab is bad? I don’t care where you are getting your food from, you do not know exactly what’s going into your body. It is simply impossible. And if you think every chemical compound that occurs in nature is by definition “good” for you, I have a unicorn for sale you might be interested in.

    Look, of course there are food additives and different types of fats and such that promote poor health. I’m not going to argue that chain food is health food. But this notion that science is a bogeyman and anything in your food that is not “found in nature” must be bad is just another kind of scientific ignorance.

    You can eat all the local and organic food you want, and your survival is not guaranteed. In fact, the only thing that is guaranteed is that you won’t survive, because nobody will. Say what you will about our toxic world, but human beings have never lived longer than they do today.

  • Frances

    Yes, you’re right David. I guess I was trying to say that food does not have to be had at an upscale restaurant in order to be distinctive or good. And it doesn’t have to come from a chain restaurant in order for average people to eat it.

    I think it often goes deeper than just what the people can expect the food to be like. Some people will only eat in a chain restaurant because they feel it is more hygenic. Or maybe it’s the only place in town with enough seating for their group. Who knows?

    Whenever my husband and I travel (not so much), we always manage to find the best food at the places where the people are the nicest. And a sign in the window that says, “Homemade Pies” is a big clue.

    The individually-owned places where we had a not-so-nice experience are usually gone by the next time we come around. We always remember the good places and can count on them to be there the next time too.

    I’m hungry.

  • Big Red

    Hey there Kansas City, I am the first to say that I think Natural is better, but because the Mom across the street uses Prego and frozen meatballs and make mine from scratch that I am better than she is? Is she a “drooling” slob? No, but if we want to take on the use of preservatives maybe we should stop critizing the people the use the restaurants because, unlike us, they do not have time to argue over the subject beause they have demanding lives and are just trying to make ends meet, and maybe start talking to the chains and asking them to publish the ingredients they put into their food so that we can make our own choices. And, if she ends up with diabetes, or her kids are obese, I think she alone will pay the price in guilt, and medical bills.

  • Kansas City rube

    “Every one of us has “common” and “unsophisticated” taste in at least one area or another. You might care a whole lot about what’s on your plate, but not very much about what kind of wood your floors are made of or what kind of engine is in your car. No doubt there are interior designers and gearheads out there posting on a message board bemoaning the mediocre tastes of people like you.”

    I guess this is true but the wood in your floors doesn’t go into my body for me to survive. If the engine in my car is somehow flawed, I’m not going to become obese or develop type II diabetes. Chain restaurants not only create mediocre food, they give us food that is chock full of strange chemicals and preservatives, often with high concentrations of unhealthy types of fat.

    The local and organic food movement goes beyond mere snobbery. It has a lot to do with wanting to know exactly what’s going into our bodies. Sorry if that bothers all you apologists for the drooling masses.

  • Big Red

    NoSnob, You are correct, sometimes we choose our food based not on quality, nor on taste. Sometimes it is conveinence. I agree totally! I have 2 children with autism, and they have sensory issues with anything that isn’t very much carbohydrate based and mild in flavor. They also crave a level of predictability. We go to McDonalds and my kids eat the chicken nugget, and for a moment, things are queit. Therefore, I have a great respect for this type of food.
    As an adult however, and especially with the given state of the economy, if I am going to pay money for something I want it to taste good and I think that the average American, rather than going for quanitity, should strive for quality, so that we learn to appreciate the flavors and care it took to prepare. This appreciation may to some extent solve the obesity issue too, when we learn appreciation for good food, rather than eating until we cannot move, and self medicating our depression. I am called Big Red for a reason, I am a very tall and broad woman, and I ccan out eat just about any man. (I come from a long line of highlanders and black forest germans, and if it can be stuffed in a pig casing we will eat it) so being svelt isn’t the issue either. I just think, simply that the average chain could stand to spend a little more for quality. But everything has a niche, and I agree with you nosnob as it would not be there if people didn’t like it. Does it reflect on just how rgid our society has become…yeah a little…I think all have a touch of OCD and the need for predictability is a need for security. And I think we can all agree we do not feel enough of that with the war and the constant fear of attack looming over our heads, either form terrorists or food recalls or lead paint in kids toys or mad cow disease and bird flu. Each point here has validity, and we will each eat what we want. And I would be willing to bet that the next time all are exhausted and do not feel like cooking we will all go for something that we know is going to be good, not something we have never tried. There is room for both in this country. But isn’t that the orginal intention of our founding fathers? Choice?

  • David McAdory

    Frances, I see your point, but I don’t know if it is a true comparison. You are comparing a fast food franchise to individual Chinese owned restaurants. I think a fare comparison would be KFC to Panda Express, and in that case you’ll probably find that both restaurants produce the same product everywhere in my opinion, and that isn’t necessarily terrible.

    I guess my main point is the amount of snobbery going on this blog, with regards to how the masses eat. It is one thing to say “I wish people would try ___, it is great” , but another to say “If people don’t like this dish they are unrefined and lowly” and while those my not be the exact words you all post, it is the attitude I get from a great deal of foodies, but in no way all of you.

  • nosnob

    Frances — so much elitism. There is an inherent paradox in this comment about “fraidy-cat Americans” that I fail to grasp. On the one hand, Americans are supposedly so fearful about trying foods outside a limited and “safe” range. On the other hand, how many countries on Earth have as diverse an array of food choices and restaurants as there are throughout the U.S. How can both of these things be true at the same time?

    The answer is partly veiled racial bias: by “Americans” you mean, white people. Because there are Americans of every color and they eat many different things.

    I do not doubt that you will find specific preparations and ingredients within specific cultures which may not find mass appeal in the U.S. market. But do you think citizens of other countries exhibit such culinary adventuresomeness outside their own traditional cuisines?

    Are people in other countries “fraidy cats” because they might be reluctant to embrace traditional “American” foods, or foods from other cultures besides their own?

    This whole bias seems to be rooted in a perception of a 1950′s white middle class America which, if it ever existed, has long since matured significantly.

  • rockandroller

    I agree completely with the previous poster who said that the chicken caesar salad has become the kids’ chicken fingers for the adult world.

    The only time I’ve gotten one (without the grody dressing, which is mostly corn syrup and salt) was when there’s absolutely nothing else remotely healthy on the menu, and all I want is some protein and a veg.

  • Frances

    David, you have a good point to a certain extent. I just don’t think that Ruhlman or Bourdain consider chain restaurants to be representative of any culture. I don’t and I don’t know anything.

    If you have fried chicken at 12 different KFC’s and then have it at Michie Tavern, you will have eaten 12 of the same and 1 extremely good. On the other hand, if you have Chicken w/Broccoli at 12 different strip-mall Chinese carry-outs, they will all be different. Now, I realize that Chinese food has been dumbed-down for us, but it still carries an element of individuality that is tolerable to even us fraidy-cat Americans.

    There is a huge segment of our population that feels completely bewildered when they leave their home town. What they cook in their kitchens is probably vastly superior and regionally unique compared to what they will take a gamble on in a safe place like a recognizable chain restaurant.

  • nosnob

    Big Red — of course you are right that pride and effort and care in preparation will result in better tasting food than the common chain will serve. I would not argue that, and would patronize the kind of restaurant you describe over a chain any time I had the chance.

    But that’s not really the issue. The issue is that, for many people eating at the chain, they don’t care. The taste difference you describe is not that important to them. Maybe convenience is more important to them. Maybe price. Maybe predictability.

    I don’t share their tastes, but also don’t judge them as lesser beings. There are all kinds of things I don’t care about which might make me look like a rube in others’ eyes. People care about different things. That’s all.

  • nosnob

    David – you make a good point about “common food”. It is also interesting to note that the American “common food” which domestic foodies so lament for its mediocrity is quite successful in many nations, not only within U.S. borders. It isn’t exactly a secret that quite a few American chains do very well in far flung markets including, yes, Europe, the Middle East, and even China.

    What this tells me is not that mediocre American food is superlative, but that most people everywhere have “average” taste. That’s pretty much the definition of average. American business has always been very successful at appealing to and leveraging broad taste, in many realms, from food to music to movies. People are people, the world over.

    You can relish in your foodie credentials without putting down the tastes of the majority.

  • Big Red

    And David McAdory…you make and excellent point although Bourdain even respects the common hot dog. But when it is done with real care and consideration. The common chain restaurant ceasar is done as cheaply as possible and all made that morning, and put in a freezer. I worked in a greasy spoon for years and even though we used paper napkins and stock silverware, we still put pride an effort into everything we made. And that is the difference.

  • Big Red

    I feel that the crap the local TGIF or Applebees sells are chicken ceasar is just that…crap. They do not even use good dressing from the bottle. (Newmans Own is the best I have found, great flavor) But I have a recipe for a chicken ceasar which I have to say even the snootiest will have to admit is good. Cook your chicken in a little peanut oil, add your dressing, and please if you are not going to use a from scratch, at least use Newman’s, add 1:1 ratio cumin and thyme. Heat thru, remove from heat, add some fresh motz, toss with greens, add homemade croutons baked with garlic butter, and shave on some Asiago or Romano cheese. Good Shit I tell ya. I used to make this stuff at the restaurant. Couldn’t make it fast enough.
    Ruhlman, pork belly Cesear sounds fantastic and I plan to make it as soon as you put it up.

  • David McAdory

    Nosnob, you hit my point on the head. I wish some of the foodies would realize that people like what you all may view as “mediocre” food, and that is all that matters. If you don’t like it fine, show people a new style or a original style, but don’t put people down for liking what you all seem to see as unsophisticated.

    I marvel at how people like Bourdain and some of the other celebrity chefs love to praise common food of other nations, but when it comes to the common food of their own nation, they turn their nose up at it and act like the common food of their nation is less than that of other societies, very hypocritical to me.

  • Michelle

    What were you doing at Cheesecake Factory? And now my curiosity is piqued, where do all the chefs and foodies eat in a pinch, when their bellies just need filling, on a regular, run of the mill, out amongst the masses day?

  • Kathy

    What I wanna know is how you got finagled into eating at Cheesecake Factory to begin with, and what on earth did you order?

    I find that Caesar dressing ladled from a vat in just about any restaurant to be too salty and too thick with high-fructose corn syrup, so I avoid that type of salad in general, chicken or no.

  • ruhlman

    that’s where I had my last true caesar, the cia, escoffier room.

    and zuni does a fantastic caesar–their anchovies are so damn good.

    and i DID do the pork belly caesar, will put it up when donna gets me the pix.

  • nosnob

    Is this the discussion where we also bemoan that most pop songs on Top 40 radio are bland? And where we settle into a comfortable self-righteousness about our own elite taste?

    Foodies exhibit a peculiar obsession with “chain food mediocrity.” Who cares? Don’t like it, don’t go, don’t eat it. When frances asks what kind of legacy are we leaving to children who are exposed only to a mile-long strip of fast food chains, the answer is that you’re not trying very hard. The constant lament about chain food is tedious, tiresome, and willfully selective. There are a plethora of good eats to be found in every city in the U.S. and even in many small towns. If someone can’t be bothered to drive off the highway to find them, whose fault is that?

    Chicken caesar is presumably a common menu staple because it requires only basic, cheap ingredients already stocked in the kitchen and is a safe “go to” choice for those who — for whatever reason — aren’t interested in straying deeper into the menu.

    I’m not here to defend the chicken caesar. I don’t go around visiting local Applebee’s and TGI Fridays to chow down on chicken caesars. I can’t recall the last time I’ve even had one. But these restaurants and many like them are in business to make money. Not to appeal to food bloggers or ignite culinary revolutions. They offer menu items calculated to appeal to the broadest range of people and earn the most profits in doing so. They happen to be very successful at it, perhaps because not everyone shares the same specialized taste in food that we do. Does that make them cave-dwelling knuckle-draggers?

    Every one of us has “common” and “unsophisticated” taste in at least one area or another. You might care a whole lot about what’s on your plate, but not very much about what kind of wood your floors are made of or what kind of engine is in your car. No doubt there are interior designers and gearheads out there posting on a message board bemoaning the mediocre tastes of people like you.

    The chain restaurant and the chicken caesar salad is aimed at a certain audience and we aren’t it. So just leave them be. They’re not meant for you.

  • veron

    Can’t wait to see that picture of chicken fried pork belly confit caesar! Mr. D over at the CIA showed us how to make Caesar salad table side during the CIA boot camp. That was one of the best tasting caesar salads ever…the first being from the Zuni Cafe.

  • latenac

    I think Chicken Caesar Salad is the adult equivalent of chicken nuggets on a kid’s menu. It’s a safe bet – greens for those looking for the “not too fatty dish”, chicken for the same reason, creamy dressing that one can pretend isn’t too fattening esp if there are some lemon wedges. That said, it is my safe bet when at mediocre restaurants for work lunches. Add an iced tea and I don’t really have over analyze the menu while trying to talk business.