Last year, I went with a friend to get her first tattoo, two pairs of cat-eye glasses -- one big and one small. They were chosen as a tribute to her late mother, a devotee of funky eyewear who had passed along the obsession to my friend. Though I had never been tempted by tattoos, I felt like a vicarious badass and rattled on about the experience to my parents. It wasn't just a standard tattoo, I explained. It was symbolic: "Like if, God forbid, anything ever happens to Dad, I would get a burger tattoo. A big burger and a little burger. Like a slider. I would be a slider."
My family is very into food. We're not foodies in the sense that we obsess over local ingredients or seek out obscure delicacies. Rather, we just really like the experience of ordering it, consuming it, and telling others about it. Before family vacations, we exchange emails with links to restaurant websites and discuss which dishes sound like winners. Not only are multicourse meals booked well in advance, but cupcakes, French fries and other snacks are placed on our itinerary as well. The food trucks open at what time? We'll be there 30 minutes before that. My dad's airplane reading includes menus he's printed out to study, and we pass them around in order to further educate ourselves about what's to come.
None of this preparation stops us from reviewing the options in our hotel rooms immediately before we depart for a given meal. I will be sitting on the chair in my parents' room and my dad will reach over from the bed and wordlessly hand me a stapled set of papers. Specials make our decisions trickier, but they're always preferable to those five dreaded words: "That was a seasonal dish." Waiters love us. "Sure, throw in a side order of gnocchi. That ravioli special sounds delicious. Can we share it as an appetizer?" [Quick glance around the table] "I think we might be able to find room for dessert."
When family friends joined my parents for a trip to New York a few years ago, they quickly got into the spirit. Others in their social circle were vacationing in Las Vegas that weekend, and things soon became competitive. From the first night, every dish was photographed and sent to the other group. Someone at our table would reach for the newly arrived garlic potato chips only to be met with an almost-panicked "Wait, wait, wait!" The dish had not yet been captured for our challengers. Among the e-mails sent back and forth: "We'll see your chicken and raise you a dozen cupcakes!" The post-vacation Kodak album contained 62 images, 57 of which were of food.
I imagine my dad has always taken pleasure in food, but when I think back to my childhood, it doesn't stand out as a theme. I don't remember the facial expressions that I now recognize to mean "holy sh*t, this is good fried chicken." I don't remember scheduling our Fourth of July meals around the broadcast of the Coney Island hot-dog-eating contest. I blame (thank?) his friend Jeff, who once texted my mom "ICE" -- short for "I Could Eat" -- during Yom Kippur services. Though my father and Jeff have known each other since college, they've spent more time together over the past decade and now egg each other on, making it clear that feeling full is grounds for mocking. Jeff and my dad take trips to Vegas structured to squeeze as many meals as possible into a weekend. After their inaugural vacation in 2006, they shamelessly showed their wives photos of the women they had chatted up at a nearby table one night. They proudly explained that they had accomplished their objective: getting offered slices of the cake they had been eyeing.
It's funny to think that, once upon a time, my dad had to warn me not to make faces when I worried we'd gone overboard at Chinese restaurants. "Is that too much?" I'd whisper, as my grandpa scribbled down the dishes on a small notepad retrieved from his shirt pocket. "That seems like a lot ..." Now I find myself embracing the exuberance as part of my birthright. On the first night of my parents' trip to Chicago last September, I was in my apartment eating an omelet in sweatpants when my dad emailed me the name of their dinner restaurant. I immediately went to the computer to investigate, and soon I was sending him stream-of-consciousness emails:
"I'm so jealous."
"Is it just you and Mom? How many plates are you ordering? Make me proud, Dad."
"If you don't get the honey-ginger braised beef short ribs, I will never speak to you again."
"If Mom doesn't get the Brussels sprout salad, same deal."
"I am really worried about you guys. Do you want Kate to come meet you? Ariel?"
At that point, I was offering up my friends in the city as dining companions so they could taste more dishes. My parents proved this wholly unnecessary by devouring seven dishes on their own, including a dessert called "The Ridiculous" -- vanilla ice cream coated in carrot cake, tempura-fried and topped with caramel sauce and candied walnuts. My mom sounded so happily choked up when she described it the next day that I had to ask if she was crying. (She swears she wasn't.) My parents continued to send updates throughout their trip, through which I learned that my dad was upset with my mom ("She pushed the Snickers pie away from me"), and it was a good thing the trip wasn't any longer ("I am running out of Pepcid").
You may be picturing my family as the Jewish version of the Nutty Professor's Klumps. (The Klumpbergs?) Maybe you are worried about our health. But so far none of us has required an extra seat on an airplane or had a scare related to our blood-soy-sauce levels. This type of indulgence doesn't take place every day. With my sister in Los Angeles, my parents in Houston and me in New York, the real feasts happen when we come together. When my sister and I were kids, my parents took us skiing and horseback-riding and whitewater-rafting. But as we got older and we began to have input into how our family vacations were spent, I think they were relieved that none of these activities stuck. We wanted to lie by the pool, then go eat some food, then go back to the pool, then go eat some more food. If all happy families are alike, then some are just less expressive about their love of lobster tacos.
I realize our passion can seem extreme even to those who do value the dining experience. Last summer, I went to dinner with my cousin and his girlfriend and attempted to paint a picture of the Fradkin mind-set. "Like if we were deciding between two starchy sides, we'd probably end up getting both," I offered as an example. "Or if we were at brunch and the vanilla-bean French toast sounded good but no one wanted it as a meal, we'd just get an order for the table." This seemed to make sense, but then my cousin raised a question that revealed that even he was a little mystified by the whole thing: If we ended up ordering too much, would we ever take home leftovers? I started to say no, unable to recall many doggie-bag requests over the years. But then realized I couldn't really answer.
Leftovers. The situation was far too hypothetical.
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