Dearest Rachel –
You know how our Boy with the Blaze, Simon Whistler, loves to talk about how ‘the past was the worst.’ Heck, he’s even made T-shirts with the slogan on it.
He’s hardly wrong. I didn’t save too many of the books that we brought back from your folks (again, that merciless diktat of “Are ya gonna read that? No? Then why ya gonna keep it?” constantly running through my head), but I made sure that The Good Old Days – They Were Terrible! still has a prominent spot in the sunroom bookshelves, the most prominent of those scattered throughout the house (the others being in the basement and the upstairs office).
But I have to wonder if the future is any more promising. We seem, as a society, bound and determined to slide into one form of dystopia or another; others argue that we’re already there.
And what, you might well ask, does any of this have to do with taking Ellen out for a thank-you meal at Texas de Brazil, anyway? That’s a fair question, and I’m getting to it… eventually.
Just the other day, I found myself watching a video on Dubai, and how it serves as a parody of the 21st century. That’s a heavy accusation to level at one of the (allegedly) most modern and up-to-date cities in the world. Back in the days when I was still required to value his opinion, my former boss Mohinder would extol the place as a modern utopia, one that puts the United States, with its crumbling infrastructure (built as it was back in the 50s and what not) to absolute shame. He would insist that the U.S. would never be able to create a city like this; or even be able to improve any of its existing cities to rival it. I would try to point out to him that the U.S. has a lot of infrastructure to maintain, given its sheer size – it’s easy to find where it’s falling apart, as it’s doing that all over – whereas Dubai is just one city unto itself, fairly self-contained and not required to build arteries to hundreds of other would-be Dubais throughout the Arabian peninsula.
Turns out, it’s considerably worse than that. There’s a reason Dubai is what it is, apparently; it’s amazing what you can build with a virtually infinite supply of slave labor and no regard to workplace health and safety requirements. Even their crown jewels suffer from insane levels of poor planning; the Burj al Khalifa isn’t connected to the city’s sewer system (whether that’s because said system couldn’t handle the volume the BaK produces, or the builders literally forgot to connect it wasn’t clear) and has to have its sewage trucked away on a daily basis, and the Palm and World islands are messing with the local ecosystem (which, according to climate change scientists, will shortly have their revenge by overwhelming the islands in short order as the oceans continue to rise). Yes, there’s not a city in America – or the West as a whole – that could do what Dubai is doing, and that’s probably a good thing.
I promise, I will get to my issues with Texas de Brazil at some point. Just bear with me, honey.
I know I keep referencing various videos in some of these letters, and I suspect it might be considered cheating to use someone else’s work to express your own opinions on life and the world. But at the end of the day, no matter how well I might be able to express myself to you, there’s always someone else who’s already done it better, and in some cases, dived deeper into the minutiae that I merely wish to reference as a sidebar – you’re welcome to look at what they’ve said and done separately. At the same time, these are the experiences (however vicarious, since I’m not going anywhere or doing anything but staring at a screen, either with or without Daniel at my side) that color my life in the days since you left; I might as well keep you up to date on them, and let you determine if they’re of any interest to you.
Anyway, I’m getting closer to my point (such as it is); I mention Dubai as a sort of Disneyworld for rich, conspicuous consumers. On the surface, either one is magnificent in their own way, as long as you can afford to go there and stay in the nicer parts of town (as Mohinder was). Beneath all that, however, there is at best a certain soullessness (which is why the Disney Renaissance would never have taken place and they stuck to the original story as Hans Christian Andersen envisioned it), and at worst a fair amount of pure evil behind it.
Behind every great fortune, there is a great crime.Honoré de Balzac, paraphrased from “Le Père Goriot”
That applies even if the crime is solely against taste. With that in mind…
You’ll remember, when we were assembling our portfolio out of your parents’ holdings, we decided to involve my dad’s investing strategy: if you like the company, you’ll like the stock. You were a big fan of Taco Bell, and all of us liked KFC and Pizza Hut, so we asked our broker to put some money down on Yum Brands. He gave us a slightly quizzical look, and recommended that, if we were determined to invest in restaurants, we should buy shares of Darden (Olive Garden, etc). Eventually, we compromised, and put an approximately equal amount on each company. To date, he’s ever so slightly ahead of us in terms of savvy, but a hundred dollars compared to several thousand each is hardly conclusive.
You can see that I’m getting closer to the topic I originally meant to discuss, since I’m on the subject of restaurants now.
The thing about these particular restaurants is that they – like Disney or Dubai – are artificially manufactured, meant to mass-produce a culture for consumption anywhere you are, for convenience’s sake. Your beloved Taco Bell, in fact, was always intended to be ‘not too Mexican,’ for the sake of the American palate. Sure, you would often indulge me if I wanted breakfast from Señor Taco’s (their chorizo con huevos burritos were fantastic, and they would serve them at any hour of the day – which, until McDonald’s switched over to their ‘breakfast any time’ policy, was a positive boon, as we had difficulty getting dressed and out the door early enough on Saturday mornings after our time together), but given your druthers, you tended to prefer the Bell if it was available. Not that I minded – happy wife, happy life and all that – but I tended to prefer the more authentic (although, having an American palate myself, not nearly as often as you would want to make those ‘runs to the border’).
And as for Darden, well, you remember back in the days before we got into YouTube and all, when we actually watched television, right? You remember the Tonight Show, with Jay Leno? For all that he wasn’t a particularly biting satirist, he had it particularly in for the likes of Olive Garden. Now, I’m sure much of that had to do with his own Italian heritage – he knew what was authentic and what wasn’t – but my goodness, he could lay into that place for its phoniness. I mean, he went all Holden Caulfield on their backsides.
To be fair, I understand his irritation at the place. I still remember a place from my childhood, a place out in Evanston called Fanny’s. The place was a cathedral to Italian cuisine. That’s not an exaggeration; the wood panel doors were some ten or twelve feet tall (although maybe it’s just that everything looks so big when you’re a little kid), the main room was three stories high, with the walls absolutely chock-full of artwork and classic books (as I understand, Fanny would lend those books out if you asked nicely, but you were expected to return them on your next visit). Those were in the days when restaurants had dress codes; if we were going there after church, my folks made certain to ensure that I was wearing a suit and tie that day, because I’d need it to go there (although I understand from them that Fanny herself was impressed with how Jenn and I were always suitably dressed and polite – makes me wonder what kinds of kid customers she had to deal with from time to time).
And the food! Some of the best, meatiest, heartiest Italian fare you might expect from such a place. Personally, I always loved her mushroom sauce, for some reason. Her kitchen also produced some top-notch fried chicken – an anomaly for an Italian restaurant, but a secret recipe from a black chef who is said to have knocked on her door early in its operating days (either the late 40s or early 50s), announcing that “The Lord sent me to be your cook.” And so he did, for nearly twenty-five years, although he had passed away before I ever darkened the restaurant’s doors.
It was only much later, when Mom found the sauce (and the salad dressing) online that we discovered the secret – a quart of the sauce was to be combined with an entire stick of butter to give it the proper consistency and flavor. And to think, Fanny was such a little woman, too.
Okay, so what does any of this have to do with Texas de Brazil, anyway? Well, I’d think you’ve probably put a few things together over the course of reading this. Even the name of the place is a giveaway in some respects: when we first went there, I pronounced the name in what I assumed to be proper Portuguese, ‘Tehas de Brasil’ (granted, I only had a few years of Spanish in my education, but I figured it would be closer than using the American pronunciation).
Nope. Turns out, there’s a reason for the name. They’re not Brazilian at all; their flagship location is in Dallas (hence, Texas). They’re a chain, just like Darden, just like Yum Brands, just a whole lot fancier and more expensive. Sure, it’s elegant and atmospheric, but you could just as easily say the same thing about Dubai. You could go into any other Texas de Brazil anywhere else it exists in the world, and get pretty much the same experience. That’s nice for convenience’s sake, but whether there’s any soul behind it, well…
Of course, if all you care about is “is the food tasty,” who cares about the soul?