A Kidney Stone of a Decade (2010-2019)

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Let’s face it: 2010-2019 was a kidney stone of a decade.

We couldn’t pass it fast enough.

Consider the following:

10 years ago, Las Vegas was on the balls of its ass.

Down for the count.

Kayoed.

Poleaxed.

On queer street.

And so was I.

The Great Recession (which was really a depression), hit Vegas hard and lots of people harder.

In the span of two years (2008-2009), everything went from coming up roses to straight-in-the-shitter.

Incomes shrank, property values dried up, careers tanked. Everyone was simultaneously on-edge and stupefied by the economic implosion.

It took five years for Las Vegas to see any light at the end of the tunnel, and for some of us, a few years more.

If the first half of the decade was taken up with gloom and doom, the second half made some of us long for the good old days.

Because with the economic recovery (and Vegas’s bounce-back), came other sinister forces: insipid social media, political nihilism, and social polarization on a scale no one could’ve imagined ten years ago.

In my world, I split the decade past in half — into those bleak times of economic despair (2010-2013), and then from 2014-2019, when everyone got on Facebook and Instagram, camera phones improved, and the whole world became a maelstrom of narcissistic bloggers, and internet advertising inundation.

If the last 10 years taught this old dog anything, though, it was that the yin and yang of life is ever-present and never-ending. Because with all of our financial troubles in those five early years of ’10-’14, were also when our food writing persona reached its peak.

The financial remuneration may have been small, but from our Iron Chef and Top Chef Masters episodes, to local TV and radio, to publishing the first editions of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants (2011-2013) with Max Jacobson and Al Mancini, it was all quite a ride for a few years. (To this day, The Food Gal® muses that all that fun was one of the reasons I was hanging on by my fingernails.)

And then, as mentioned above, 2014 rolled around and suddenly everyone became an instant expert.

And as “influencers” rose, blogging (which requires, you know, like actual writing) waned. I attribute this as much to the improvement in camera phones as anything else….because, as they say: a picture is worth a thousand words, and if you can just snap a pretty pic, who needs to write anything?

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It’s the rise of those “influencers” that has given me pause for four years now. Not because I don’t enjoy their tasty snaps, but because, fundamentally, what they are doing is promoting themselves and the restaurants they cover, not looking at anything with any sort of critical detachment or rigor.

At its core, “influencing” is advertising, even though no one wants to call it that.

By the same token, I tend to give Yelp (which also came out of nowhere a decade ago) a pass, because Yelpers (be they informed or idiots) are just tossing it out there whether they liked something or not. They’re not quietly in cahoots with the places they go to, trying to drive business to a restaurant (and by extension to themselves), by telling everyone how “yummy” everything is.

Look at the comments of any food influencer on Instagram, and you’ll see hundreds of comments along the lines of “looks fabulous!” and “get in my belly now!” One wonders if these things really move the needle for restaurants, since, if you look at the numbers, if 587 people exclaim “I can’t wait to go there” to any restaurant anywhere, and even a fraction of them do, then the place would be a raging success.

It’s a fair bet that there are restaurants all over town who are still looking for customers on a Wednesday night who’ve had an influencer garner hundreds of exclamations from their followers over some oozing pizza pics.

For example, check out this feed from someone calling themselves “The Las Vegas Foodie.”

This person claims to have 187,000 followers. A picture of a Big B’s barbecue sandwich claims that 35,706 people saw the picture and “liked” it. Hundreds chimed in with “sooo good” and “that brisket”-type comments, while a few naysayers gave the grotesque belly bomb a thumbs down. The point is if 36,000 people are fans of, or slavishly engaged over, a barbecue restaurant (and hundreds more are proclaiming their love for its sandwich), there should be a line out the door 24/7 for this place. You can take it to the bank: there is never a line out the door at Big B’s.

By the same token, this dumb video of a milkshake being made supposedly is liked by 285,000 people — which is 100,000 more people than “Las Vegas Foodie” has followers.

It’s all quite ridiculous, but this is the world we live in now. Writing about everything except current events and politics has been devalued. People want to be spoon-fed pablum. Big media controls your news feed; social media pictures control just about everything else.

Which raises the question(s): Where will people get their information in the next decade? Is the world going to devolve into nothing but video “stories” and political diatribes?

Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter would like it no other way. They want you to get all of your information (from the food you eat to the movies you see) from their advertising platforms, and as they slowly boil the privacy frog (by using your data to target you), the value of anything besides a tweet or listicle or a flashy snapshot becomes lessened.

The public, who, let’s face it, never liked to read much anyway, is happy to buy consumer products based upon an influencer’s photo, just as it is comfortable with a President conducting foreign affairs through his tweets. The less you have to think, the better, which is exactly how the people selling you things want it.

Ten years ago I was on a panel with the then-heavyweights of the food-writing world: Barbara Fairchild, Jeffery Steingarten, Dorie Greenspan, Alan Richman, Andrew Knowlton, et al. In the audience were several nascent food bloggers (like Eater LA’s Lesley Balla) who asked us what we thought of the budding internet interest in food and restaurants, and if they (the magazine editors/writers) thought that social media would/could ever affect their business model. “They all brushed the question aside,” Balla told me, “and acted like it was no big deal.” Recounting the story to me a decade later, she sounded both bemused and wistful, “I don’t think they had any idea what was coming, and never knew what hit them.” Indeed.

It will be interesting to see what hits in the next 5-10 years in the food writing world…or if another sucker-punch knocks us out altogether.

Happy New Year!

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A Teachable Moment

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My Facebook friends are usually a pretty brainy bunch.

Most of the people who follow me on social media are a cut above in the smarts departments.

A lot of them are in the hospitality industry, too, which gives my feeds (on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook) a distinctly foodie feel, with comments that are invariably insightful and entertaining.

Just like those who read this website.

I generally do not seek out people to “friend” on Facebook, and I try to leave room (inside the allotted 5,000 friends limit) so that people curious about the Vegas food/restaurant scene can hop on board and enjoy the ride.

Occasionally, I will make an exception, and send someone a “friend request” if I know them and think it would be fun to hear their input — pro and con — on things I post about.  (I enjoy a good, spirited argument on all kinds of things, as long as some degree of respect and attention to logic and facts are invoked.)

In 9 years on FB, I’ve never refused to add a “friend,” and I’ve only un-friended one person: a local food blogger who holds a doctorate in unpleasantness, with post-graduate honors in practical assholiness.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in almost a decade of social media activity, it is that people love to weaponize taking offense at something they’ve read. It is no longer enough to simply disagree with someone, you must now personalize that disagreement, and turn your disaffection into something that diminishes them and makes you feel better about yourself.

So it was with a “friend request” I sent to a friend of a friend recently.

I had met this person more that once, and know our mutual friend rather well in a professional capacity.

Adding this person to my list of contacts seemed logical since we had run into each other, and no doubt would again.

So, I sent a “friend request.”

This is what I received in return:

Hi Mr. Curtis. I see you have thousands of FB friends, and perhaps weren’t expecting a dissertation on the matter of friend request etiquette, but, I won’t be adding you at this time. In a previous pic that (our mutual friend) had posted, you commented with a meme/gif that I found to be offensive and derogatory. While my initial inclination was to “go along with the joke” or simply ignore, seeing your friend request caused me to view this as a teachable moment. Even if a woman displays cleavage and/or sexy garments in photographs, it is not an open invitation for her body to be mocked and trivialized into an anime gif of a bouncing woman with large breasts. Thank you for taking the time to read. Have a nice day.

My response:

I have no idea what you’re talking about….but I will say this: any person (man or woman) who intentionally draws attention to a body part…such as cleavage, musculature, booty, whatever…is fair game for whatever reaction comes their way. And anyone in this day and age who gets offended by the trivialization of body parts is not living in the same century I am…….and for the record: I have no memory of posting any gifs of bouncing breasts…so if you know of any, please advise.

Their response:

Sad that even in a more enlightened time in history, the “you asked for it” mentality still prevails for you. Take care.

My response:

I still don’t know what you’re talking about…but yes, if you flash your ass at someone…you forfeit the right to complain about their reaction to said ass-flashing. I’m sorry you see things differently, but again, I have no idea what you’re talking about, vis a vis whatever “meme” or gif offended you.

And that was it. No further response.

Just to remind you: I’m the same guy who was accused of condoning sexual assault because I advised holding off on judging Mario Batali until all the facts were in. Fat slobs hate me because I have the temerity to call them such; and all kinds of people accused me of having horns and a pitchfork because I pointed out the impropriety of scantily-clad women who pass out drunk in shopping malls.

Now, I’m a bad guy if I post a gif of some woman’s bouncing breasts, as a bemused, humorous reaction to a FB posts. (FWIW: our mutual friend’s sense of humor often strays into Rabelaisian territory.)

This whole idea of, “I don’t like your reaction to something you saw on the internet and I’m going to use it as an excuse to (dislike, berate, condemn) you,” is actually quite comical.

It is also the mother’s milk of social media.

It’s at least understandable to despise someone for outright saying something that you didn’t like  — but are we now going to judge people based upon the gifs they post in response to other’s comments?

When did we get so far afield from normal behavior? When did the smallest pin prick of impropriety (as defined by others) give people license to chastise you?

If the above is true, we may have gone so off-the-rails that there is no turning back, as far as productive human discourse is concerned,

As with our political institutions, once this mindset takes hold, instead of hammering out differences like adults, everyone just runs back to their tiny mental comfort bungalows where nothing is challenged, and everyone agrees with you. Especially yourself.

I actually felt a little sorry for my almost-friend. The world has to be a tough place for anyone that sensitive.

But the encounter taught me a lesson. Social media is riven with individuals who are just looking to be affronted about something. And those somethings can be far more trivial than your social mores and political beliefs. Outrage can even be directed at the merest slight or hint of vulgarity. Which is pretty rich since, next to taking false umbrage, bad taste is the Internet’s stock in trade.)

Yes, in some people’s worlds, even something as innocuous and juvenile as this:

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…can cause one to clutch one’s pearls and think harshly of the person posting it.

Remember this lesson the next time you decide to show off your girlfriend’s tits on Facebook….or make fun of someone else who does.

 

Dim Sum Dilemma

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What should you do about mold on your food?

To complain or not complain? That is the question.

And does it matter whether you’re in a Chinese restaurant (where they may or may not speak English that well) or a less “foreign” one?

Allow me to explain.

Here’s the scenario:

You’re driving to Los Angeles.

Part of your tradition is always to stop in the San Gabriel Valley (Monterey Park, Alhambra, etc.) for some dim sum fun.

You’ve been doing this since 1991 — decades before Instagrammers and Yelpers discovered the place, and long before Jonathon Gold made it cool to go there.

In other words, you know what to expect: huge, open rooms, packed with Asian families of all stripes, and rolling carts (or menus) filled with a mind-blowing assortment of small bites, steamed, fried, and baked goodies straight from the Cantonese playbook.

You also know that kitchen hygiene can be a rather flexible concept in certain Asian restaurants. But no matter, the food is usually spectacular (especially compared with the meager dim sum offerings of Vegas), so you look past these shortcomings.

Every time you come to the SGV, you try to hit a new joint. On your last trip you made it to Sea Harbour and it was spectacular.

This time, you decide to try a place that’s received some buzz called Lunasia Dim Sum House.

You get up early so you can get there when it opens, because these places get nuts around lunch time, especially on weekends.

You’re super excited (and starving) when you drive up, especially when you score a parking spot right in front of it.

Right away, you see it checks all the boxes:

Giant crowded room full of Asians – check

Fish tanks brimming with crabs and other creatures of the sea – check

Smells like soy, steam, shrimp, and Shanghai – check

People scurrying about with trays full of delicious looking dumplings – check

Everyone smiling as they stuff their maw with har gow, shu mai, don tot, and char siu bao – check

Chopsticks flying across tables in a pitched battle for the last bite — check

All of this gets you very excited. But then, just to pee in your cornflakes, The Food Gal® — a clean freak but also someone with (slightly) bendable standards when it comes to certain, hyper-delicious Chinese food — notices the sign on the front door:

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“Are you sure you want to go here?” she asks. But you are undaunted — you wade right in, confident it was simply the kind of misdemeanor that would fade from consciousness as soon as your table was swamped by a tsunami of dim sum umami.

And it did, and for a while, it was.

For a while, you were transported by golf ball-sized sui-mai:

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Concupiscent spicy clams:

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Sticky/terrific/thick/sausage/turnip cake:

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…and delectable don tot:

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It wasn’t the best dim sum we’d had by a long shot. But it hit the spot, even if it fell short of Elite, Ocean Star or Sea Harbour excellence.

As you know, dim sum can be a willy-nilly eating experience. Everything shows up in random order, and you might find yourself slurping a beautiful almond milk-puff pastry sweet soup — or those warm-from-the-oven Macao-style custard cups — before you’re done with the savories. No matter, when it’s all good, it’s all good.

Right up until it isn’t.

Because of that delicious chaos, sometimes you circle back to a savory after a sweet. Which is what we did with these peppery stuffed peppers:

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They were hot — that innocuous-looking black pepper sauce was a scorcher — but they were also real good, so you want to tackle one more before pushing away from the table.

Big mistake.

One bite and you know something is wrong. Where before there was pillowy minced shrimp on bright green, herbaceous pepper, now there is an moldy, old, damp and musty taste in your mouth. The textures are still right, but the aftertaste is of dank cardboard — as if you’d just licked a fuzzy petri dish.

It turns out you had.

Tearing the top off of the pepper, there was the culprit: staring at you like a fungal funhouse of funky mold — the kind you grow in labs, the kind vegetables grow by themselves when they’re left too long to their own, organic devices:

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Is this a cardinal sin for a restaurant? Not really. But it shows a certain sloppiness. The kind that gets a “C” grade from the health inspector.

Does it give your wife a gigantic “I told you so”?

Of course it does. And she ain’t lettin’ you forget it for a long time to come.

Was it worth pointing it out to the management? Ah, there’s the rub and the dilemma.

Would it have resulted in them taking $7.88 off the bill? Maybe, but only after discussions, delays and sideways glances, and having to convince them you weren’t trying to get a free meal out of the ordeal.

There might also be debate over what it was. No restaurant is going to willingly admit it serves moldy food, so you’d have to be ready for an argument…an argument that could be won if they’d take a bite out of that musty-dusty pepper….which, most assuredly they would not.

Then you have to consider: will your complaint cause them to clean up their act?

Probably not. If the “C” grade didn’t do it, showing them some fungi fuzz tap dancing on their produce won’t.

So you pay the bill in silence….all $76.28 of it.

But you won’t be back, even though you were probably never going to go back anyway. And now your California food fantasies are a little less fanciful. There is no dim sum Santa Claus in San Gabriel, and you’ve learned no matter how rave-worthy some of it is, some of them are cutting the same corners as everyone else.

And it’ll be a cold day in hell before your wife lets you walk into another low-rated restaurant.

(Sigh)