Friday, January 11, 2008

52.Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives

When the Food Network first began operating in 1993, the concept bothered me. Eating is a tangible experience, what's the fun of watching someone cook and create an abundance of great food when you can't have a taste? To an eater like me, it was more torture than pleasure.

Plus, there were only two types of food programs: cooking shows and restaurant shows. Like it's distant cousin painting shows, ala Bob Ross or Cap'n Bob, cooking shows move too quickly for you to scribble down recipes or try to make the meal in concert with the host. And the host was usually some unattractive Frau like Julia Child or some guy. Nothing really appealing in either sense. Basically, you're watching something that you're never going to do yourself; unless you take the effort to find the recipe, copy it down and then make it yourself. That's a lot of work.

And restaurant shows are inherently useless unless you happen to live in the area where the restaurant is being reviewed. Who cares if the Hungry Heifer in Butte, Montana got four stars? I'm probably not going there and if I did find myself there, I probably wouldn't remember the restaurant's name anyway.

That all changed once I actually started watching the Food Network a few years ago. The channel has long ago shed the image that cooking shows had to be hosted by personalities without personalities. Some of the women, like Giada DeLaurentiis and Rachel Ray, are pleasing to look at. They've come up with interesting ideas about the science behind food and why things taste good (I will be covering this in the “Good Eats” entry), reality shows about a cake store in Baltimore (trust me, “Ace of Cakes” is a lot better than it sounds) plus shows like “Iron Chef America” and answers the question to “What ever happened to the guy who hosted 'Double Dare'?”

Marc Summers is the former host's name and he is actually on a couple of Food Network shows, most notably “Unwrapped” which tracks the history of popular foods. An interesting fact: Summers suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, which must have driven him crazy when he was hosting “Double Dare” and kids were throwing all sorts of crap at each other.

That little aside leads us to “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” which is hosted by Guy Fieri. The basic gist of the show is that each episode Fieri various holes-in-the-wall throughout the country to find the best tasting food that fits the theme of the day's program. Sometimes it will be about the best cheeseburger, other times the best local hangout or the best breakfast. Then Fieri interacts with the owners, workers and customers.

At first blush Fieri seems like a bit of a tool, using outdated phrases like “money” and “da bomb” while pounding fists. But despite his frat boy mannerisms, he actually seems like a fun person to hang out with and he's definitely the correct fit for a program like this. An accomplished chef who graduated from UNLV during the Runnin' Rebels' NCAA dominance years, Fieri won the second season of “The Next Food Network Star” and also hosts “Guy's Big Bite” on the same channel. When it comes to food, he definitely knows what he's talking about. His big personality does give the show a fun quality and keeps the people who run these diners—who probably have never been on camera and are nervous as hell—at ease.

The latter part is most important because if Fieri was bouncing around and the diner owners were as stiff as day old bread, the show wouldn't work. Fieri banters back and forth, tries to figure out the “secret ingredients” of the signature dishes and is just enjoying himself.

And who wouldn't enjoy a gig like that? I'm sure that the Food Network doesn't make Fieri drive to every location like the show intimates, but he gets to do a lot of traveling on someone else's dime and gets to sample a lot of great faire that he probably wouldn't have a chance to do. Because of this, it's the perfect escape show.

One of my biggest regrets is not buying a convertible automobile after I graduated college and just crisscross the state for the summer. There's a lot of exceptional things to see in this country that you can't see by flying from one coast to the other or spending your time in a state's most populous city. “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” shows the viewer the food the missed hidden jewels and more importantly, the stories by the owners of these places.

I've been a purveyor of greasy spoons my entire life, but I've also missed a few places here and there. Fieri actually went to a diner in Somerville, MA that was about three blocks from my old apartment. I'm not exactly sure why I never went there when I lived there, but you can bet that it's on my list of places to go before I move out of Boston proper.

And that's a great philosophy of living your life: trying new things, taking the time to actually speak with people and find out their stories. In this age where we have any information we'd ever need at our fingertips, we often don't find the time to get the real interesting nuggets of information. That's the stuff that makes life so sweet.

For example in 1910, Cleveland's Nap Lajoie beat out Detroit's Ty Cobb for the American League batting championship by one percentage point (.384 to .383). Pretty straight forward, right? Wrong. At the beginning of the season, a car manufacturer offered a new car to the player who won the batting crown, on the penultimate day of the 1910 season Cobb was leading Lajoie by a slim margin which infuriated the rest of the league, because Cobb was such a dick and no one wanted to see him win the car. So the team playing Cleveland (I think it was St. Louis) began making errors on purpose so that Lajoie would win the title—errors counted as hits before this and Lajoie went 5-5 on the final day bringing his average above the Georgia Peach. Cobb, of course, was beyond pissed and never forgot this slight.

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