When I was a kid, my family went out to eat approximately never. My mother will tell you that it was out of frugality, because my family was broke (not in a depressing, Charles-Dickens sort of way, but a charming and somewhat hilarious let’s-throw-a-blanket-over-the-kids-so-we-don’t-have-to-pay-for-them-at-the-Drive-In kind of way).
I’m sure our reluctance to eat out also had to do with the fact that restaurants don’t like patrons who sit around the table for three hours after the meal is finished, yelling at one another about nothing. This is a part of Italian culture, and if you think that I am over-generalizing, then you have never had dinner with an Italian family.
Seriously, my family can fight about what time it is, if you let them.
I find it all rather hilarious, and I often just sit back and enjoy the conflict, occasionally stoking the coals (“Don’t forget about daylight savings!” I’ll innocently add, and another hour will be lost to the yelling). Sometimes I even make a bag of popcorn and nibble on it as I watch the show, and they don’t even notice.
Before you judge me on my choice of entertainment, I will kindly remind you that it’s in my blood: the ancient Romans used to watch people tear one another apart in the Colosseum; by comparison, our family dinners involve fewer casualties, though there is just about as much sword-wielding and yelling.
You can imagine, then, that eating out was a kind of torture for them, because everyone had to sit down in chairs and not scream at one another (“YOUR WATCH ALWAYS RUNS FAST!”). So most days, we ate at home, around a table at which the two constant guests were an enormous pot of pasta and a gallon bottle of Carlo Rossi, and it didn’t matter if we shouted or not, because the neighbors already hated us.
There were some exceptions, of course, some days that we broke away from ritual. My brother and I grew up in the 80s and 90s, which means that our food pyramids included 23 servings of sugar a day, and lots of transubstantiated fats (we’re Catholic), which are hard to get if your mother insists on cooking you dinner.
We were committed to our nutrition, though, and there were two of us, so we outnumbered her. If we whined hard enough, for long enough, we’d shatter what was left of my mother’s dwindling composure, and she’d take us to McDonald’s.
Or sometimes we’d hit the all-you-can-eat-buffet at the Sizzler. I highly recommend going to a buffet with my family, because you will see wondrous things. A five-foot-tall, 110-pound woman will put away enough calories to sustain a linebacker, or a demure 70-something-grandmother will smuggle out several meals’ worth of food in her purse with the stealthiness of a cat burglar.
Despite what it seemed, there were still rules: no dessert, unless it was part of the buffet, and no sodas with our meals because, according to my mother’s logic, “That’s how they get you.” (I’m 33, and while I still don’t know what this means, I can’t drink anything but water with dinner.)
Since we went out to eat so rarely, it was an absolute delight whenever we did. The most magical of all of these places was, without question, Red Lobster.
In my young life, there was no finer restaurant, no greater cuisine.
When I was five years old or so, I remember sitting at the table at my great aunt’s apartment in Rome, watching her make hundreds of little tortellini. She rolled out the pasta dough, which she’d kneaded with strong forearms, dolloped the filling inside, and then folded EACH AND EVERY ONE.
She gently boiled them and presented me with a bowlful, adorned with a splash of bright red sauce on top.
They were perfectly made and wonderful, but I was five years old. I’m pretty sure I choked down a few and then demanded a Pop-Tart.
Recalling that day still makes me cringe, because if you ask me what my fondest culinary memory of childhood is, I cannot honestly say it was that. Nor was it my mother’s lasagna, or my grandmother’s carbonara, or anything else that had been lovingly prepared for me by an Italian woman in a too-small kitchen.
No. Instead, I would say it going to the Red Lobster and stuffing my face with enough popcorn shrimp to satiate a walrus, followed by a half dozen Cheddar Bay biscuits.
You guys, CHEDDAR BAY IS NOT EVEN A REAL PLACE.
In the years since, I’ve learned that Red Lobster is not the culinary hub that I thought it was. This is true of most places that trademark menu items.
RIP, Crabfest (TM).
And yet, even now, when I’ve known so much better, Red Lobster still holds a place in my heart. It’s like that weird friend left over from childhood who you don’t really like anymore, and who is maybe a little bit of a bigot, but you still have to keep being friends with them because they have all that dirt on you from middle school.
I don’t actually like Red Lobster, but I will always love it.
Rand is horrified by this, and like any good wife, I extract a lot of joy in threatening him with going there.
Me: Oooh! We just passed a Red Lobster. Do you want to –
Me: Why not?
Him: Because I care about your well-being.
Me: Endless shrimp are essential to my well-being.
Him: No, they aren’t. No one needs endless shrimp.
Me: Orcas do.
Him: You are not an orca.
Me: I’m going to demand you take me there on my birthday, and then you won’t be able to say no.
Him: Damn it, woman.
I reasoned that this was a safe and empty threat, so I made it often. And then, it happened. We were in Ashland, and my birthday rolled around.
And Rand called my fucking bluff.
“There’s a Red Lobster in Medford,” he said, his eyes glassy and unfocused, a manic smile on his lips. It was terrifying. And then I realized: this was it. We were waging a cold war, armed with mediocre seafood. I either had to go along with his idea, or stop tormenting him with the threat of it.
I chose the former, because I didn’t get where I am by not tormenting the man I married.
So we went.
I feel it pertinent to note that Rand had never actually been inside a Red Lobster until that day. He was sort of weirdly, crazily excited by everything.
Like the fact that there are lobsters in the tank out front.
And that there’s a drink called the “lobsterita”.
Despite being the color of pureed crustaceans, the lobsterita turned out to contain no lobster. I’m sure it will be only a matter of time before it happens, though. The demographic of people who love lobster but hate chewing it, and who also want to get drunk, is growing by the second.
I examined the menu, which had more pictures than most books designed for preschoolers, and was created by someone having a severe break with reality. The photos and descriptions in a Red Lobster menu bear about as much similarity to real life as the dating profiles on a free singles website.
When you see the object in real life, you hold it up to the glossy picture that lured you in and try to figure out how the two could ever have been the same.
“What happened?” you ask your waitress, sometimes tearfully. And the answer, in all cases, is time, and the harshness of existence, which leaves its mark on all of our faces and also on our shrimp scampi.
“What kind of salad are you getting?” I asked Rand.
“I wasn’t planning on getting one,” he replied.
“You have no choice.”
If you go to Red Lobster, you will get a free salad. Regardless of what you order or who you are, this will happen. Even if you walk in to use the bathroom or ask for directions, they will hand you one, and then it will be awkward and you have to stay for a meal. This is, I assume, how Red Lobster gets much of its clientele.
As you walk through the restaurant, you see everyone regarding their limp lettuce with varying levels of disdain; a weird, unwanted party favor deposited on their tables. As an American, this is one of the few times I’ve gotten to see Communism in action, and it’s every bit as horrifying as Rambo would have you believe.
I promise you: no one actually enjoys the salads at Red lobster; they are simply designed to distract you so you don’t devour all the biscuits and revolt when the next batch doesn’t come out fast enough.
I ordered the standard Chef’s salad with blueberry vinaigrette. Rand followed suit.
When they arrived, it was clear they had been prepared by someone who had never actually eaten a salad, but had read about them in books and felt confident that they could put together a close approximation.
Most of it was iceberg lettuce, a vegetable which has been cultivated exclusively as a decoration, and never meant for actual consumption. It’s name in Latin literally means “nature’s doily”*. It was hastily topped with a scoop of flavorless diced cucumber and tomatoes, and a shaking of dusty croutons, all of which could, in a pinch, be used in place of packing material when shipping delicate objects.
*this is not actually true
Anointing it all was a sugary, purple-hued syrup that was, in composition, at least three isotopes away from blueberries.
“Oh, god,” Rand whispered, when it was placed in front of him. I think the reality of his situation had just hit him.
“God had nothing to do with this,” I said. I contemplated ordering us a round of lobsteritas to help us cope, but then the Cheddar Bay biscuits arrived.
If you have never had a Cheddar Bay biscuit, then you may be from another country or possibly another planet. In either case, welcome to America! Let me introduce you to the greatest thing to come out of our land since Bruce Springsteen:
I quickly grabbed two of out the basket and rammed them into my mouth. I have six cousins who are older than me (all of them boys), and so I learned at a young age to store excess food in my cheek pouches like a hamster. Rand stared at me, horrified and also kind of confused, because there were still two biscuits left in the basket, and besides, in 30 seconds or so, someone was going to emerge from the kitchen with a wheelbarrow full of them, and just start shoveling them onto each of the tables.
The thing is, those biscuits which I’d so readily devoured as a child weren’t even close to being as good as I remembered. They were less cheesy, and less garlicky, and too crumbly.
I chewed on them, sadly, pathetically. At least Born to Run still holds up.
Our meals came out soon after.
I had ordered the grilled salmon and a skilled skewer of shrimp, along with a massive side of vegetables. It looked far too healthy, and I’m sure someone in the kitchen thought they’d misheard the order, or assumed that whoever had requested it had walked into the wrong restaurant.
In my younger years, I’d have gotten the Admiral’s Feast, in which a random sample of invertebrates are pulled from the oceans, batter-dipped and deep-fried. But time is a harsh mistress, and my metabolism was no longer up for the task of decimating the planet’s shrimp population, so grilled fish and veggies it was for me.
As for Rand, he decided to go with the eponymous choice, which is usually a safe bet in chain restaurants. If a place does one thing good, it’s usually the dish that’s part of its name (counterexamples include: Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell. Also, the name “Popeye’s” is totally misleading).
I made him wear the bib, as there are few times in life in which you get to eat an animal while wearing a picture of it on your chest:
If you ask me, we don’t gloat enough about being at the top of the food chain.
We both tucked in and it was, well …
It was perfectly mediocre.
It wasn’t the restaurant of my childhood, where I ate so much I had to unbutton my pants, and openly wept when we had to go home. It wasn’t even that bad, either. It was just a completely average chain restaurant that happened to serve seafood.
Maybe this was why I hadn’t returned to Red Lobster in so many years – because I knew it couldn’t have been as good as I remembered. I’d avoided it for so long because I wanted to keep my childhood memories intact, as ridiculous as they were. I wanted to regard it as a magical place, with baskets full of hot cheesy biscuits and mountains of golden shrimp, my brain free of concerns about sustainable fishing and the evils of batter-dipping.
The restaurant hadn’t changed, but I most certainly had.
We left, and Rand asked me how I enjoyed my meal.
“So … where do I take you next year?” he asked.
I paused to think about it. For my next birthday, maybe we could have pasta, at home. And maybe, just maybe, we could linger over the table, arguing about nothing, for a few hours.
I would like that.