Last week I was reading the New York Times and, being somewhat bored, I visited the “dining” section. I love to compare the culinary offerings in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to New York City, New York. Of course, we don’t have the Red Rooster Harlem, serving gourmet Southern cuisine — what an oxymoron! — but we do have Hong Kong Buffet that lovingly serves amuse-bouche fried cheese sticks, a Johnstown favorite.
I remember attending my son’s wedding reception, so wonderfully hosted by his Indianapolis in-laws. There was a nice man with white gloves standing next to me. Not sure why he was there, I tried to shake his hand which he politely did but kept standing there. I was handed a warm cloth by a man wearing white gloves. I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to do with it — I am embarrassed to tell you what I do with small white clothes—but I saw that most folks were wiping their hands, and some pioneering souls were even wiping their faces. I, being a real trailblazer, went further. I wiped my hands, my face, nose, and when I was moving on to my ears my wife Karen stopped me with a glaring frown. I guess those things are not for ears.
Next, the nice man with a towel on his arm offered me one little bread roll that he parsimoniously placed on a plate that swallowed the pathetic thing. The nice man, no doubt discerning my disappointment, asked me if I wanted a couple more rolls, but my sweet wife, who occasionally helps me out this way, with somewhat too much enthusiasm replied, “No.” Next the waiter — what was he really? — gave me something that looked a lot like a salad except that it had all kinds of red stuff, allegedly lettuce. It looked nothing like my personal favorite — an iceberg wedge smothered in real blue cheese dressing. I gratuitously gave my salad to my wife, hoping she would reciprocate by giving me her pigs in a blanket and rigatoni that every Johnstown wedding sports — but do you know what? Apparently these poor Indiana people have not yet discovered these foods of the gods. There were no pigs in a blanket and rigatoni at this Indianapolis wedding. I suppose nobody told these poor folks that wedding cuisine always includes these two items. In fact, if food has two motifs, if life is full of motifs, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, one fills one’s wedding reception and life with simple, tasty metaphors.
I am an inveterate Johnstown cuisine lover. My love affair, my wife Karen would say, has put 80 pounds on me in the last 21 years, but she is being ungenerous since I mostly eat her wonderful cooking. And what fine cooking it is! I remember the first meal Karen cooked for me in 1977. It was broiled chicken seasoned with salad dressing and boiled broccoli seasoned with lemon pepper. Until then, I had never eaten broiled chicken — my chicken was always fried — unless Big Momma served her famous chicken and dumplings. After that inaugural advent, I never had fried chicken again! Broccoli, southern style, was cooked longer than it took General Grant to capture Vicksburg, and I had heard of pepper (and used it liberally after I coated everything with salt) and lemons (which I put in my sweetened ice tea) — but never both together. Actually, my first meal was pretty good as were the next 33,000 or so she has cooked for me — my expanding waistline is a testament to my thorough conversion to Nouveau Yankee cuisine. Yummy good!
Well, anyway, the New York Times article argues that finally — finally — there is a vegetarian burger that rivals the most delicious Whopper or Quarter Pounder. Apparently, while the rest of us languish in the throes of the new Angus Quarter Pounder, inventive New York chefs have been working tirelessly to create the penultimate veggie burger. Food reviewer Jeff Gordinier is veritably overcome with joy when he writes “Veggie burgers . . . have explored into countless variations of good, and in doing so they’ve begun to look like a bellwether for the American appetite.”
Bellwether for the American appetite? Excuse me, but I doubt it. Can you imagine cruising through the MacDonald’s drive through and asking for a veggie burger with fries and milk shake? Hmm. . . .
But excuse me. I respect vegetarians. More power to you. But why do you want to copy my food? Do I try to copy yours? Respectfully, I doubt, even in NYC, that one can find broccoli and asparagus that will match the effervescence of a Quarter Pounder with cheese. Nonetheless, “There is something very satisfying about holding one’s dinner in one’s hand.” Indeed. But it can’t be done. Not really. A meatless burger is an oxymoron and it can never be a dinner.
And here is another oxymoron — and this is where I am taking this — our society is desperate to emulate the Christian life. The Christian life, like the hamburger, is genuine, real, juicy, and full of protein. Lived in the right way, it can bring great life to a person and to his world. And it cannot be replaced by good feelings, good intentions, or other existential offerings. As Tolstoy writes in War and Peace, “Let us be persuaded that the less we let our feeble human minds roam, the better we shall please God, who rejects all knowledge that does not come from Him; and the less we seek to fathom what He has been pleased to conceal from us, the sooner will he vouchsafe its revelation to us through His divine Spirit.”
“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ ” ~ John 14:6