Chow down

By Barry Gottlieb

Going out to eat should be a lot simpler than it is. First you have to decide what kind of food you want. Then you choose the restaurant. After you figure out what to wear, where to park, and whether the hostess at Sizzler is considered a maitre d’ and should be tipped, you get to stare at a menu that makes War and Peace look like a Post-it note while the waiter or waitress rattles off a list of specials that they’ve been studying for two days yet expect you to absorb at the rate of 300 words per minute. This can make dining out a much more stressful situation than it deserves to be.

Wouldn’t it be easier if each restaurant only served one item? Then all you’d have to do is decide what you wanted to eat and go to the appropriate establishment. Instead of combining ethnic foods into new categories, like the Kosher Chinese restaurants in New York City or the Beijing-Islamic Restaurant in Torrance, California, we’d pare them down to single-item eateries.

A chain of restaurants in California, and maybe elsewhere for all I know, called Killer Shrimp is on the right track. They serve one thing—you guessed it—shrimp. And they only serve it a couple of ways. I hear it’s really good but I can’t vouch for it since the name alone gives me flashbacks of Jaws, 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Splash.

People go out to eat for different reasons. Women do it for convenience, so they don’t have to cook. Men (Singles Division) do it so they can eat something more complex than chips, dip, and beer because, even though they firmly believe that meal provides the minimum daily requirement of the vegetable, dairy, and grain food groups, it doesn’t include any of the much-needed dessert group.

Men in the Married Division, on the other hand, do it so they can make their wives happy, which means they have a fighting chance of having sex this month. And children? They go because they need to be reminded of how humiliating it is to be seen in public with their parents. Animals don’t have to worry about any of this. Except, of course, being humiliated by their parents, which is universal. Even lion cubs at the International House of Carrion shrink down in their seats when their parents point out a teenage lion at the next table and remark, “Dreadlocks? Why would he want to ruin such a beautiful mane? I can’t believe his parents let him out of the den like that.”

But just like you and me, these animals can’t afford go out to eat all the time. They have to forage for food, much like our ancestors did before the invention of the drive-through, which appeared in the year 33,000 BC and vanished almost immediately because the wheel hadn’t been invented yet and the mastodons—the sports utility vehicle of the Stone Age—couldn’t get under the 6’8” roof clearance.

In the wild, animals eat pretty much whatever they can get their paws on, which usually means smaller animals. This is what’s known as the food chain—the big devour the small. We humans do the same thing, except being more highly evolved we do it in business rather than food gathering.

Some animals are vegetarian. You can identify them by their wire-rim glasses, cloven Birkenstocks, and hungrier-than-thou attitude. They graze on grass, plants, hay, and overpriced, undersized tapas at trendy bars that put flavorings in martinis that were previously confined to the Baskin-Robins Flavor of the Month.

Animals in captivity have to be fed too, and believe it or not they often have as many entree choices as that new Cajun Noodle Wrap shop that opened in the food court last week. They should thank Purina Mills for this. Not for the Cajun Noodle Wrap place, but for the extensive line of animal food.

Now don’t go confusing Purina Mills with Ralston-Purina, the people who bring us Puppy Chow and Cat Chow. Purina Mills makes more specialized products. You know, things like Monkey Chow, Elk Chow, and Emu Starter.

In their quest to feed the animal kingdom, the people at Purina Mills have spent many sleepless nights trying to figure out what animals like to eat. Well, that and wondering what to name the products. Most of the time they stick with the well-known “chow” line, which includes Trout Chow, Minnow Chow, Reindeer Chow, Cow Chow, Sow Chow, and the little-known Wild Turkey Chow, which is for farmers who like to grow their own whiskey.

They make High Octane Hog Chow (for supercharged pigs), Nurse Chow (which is for calves, not registered nurses), and food for polar bears, kangaroos, and llamas. They even have Monkey Crunch for the picky primate. They make 69 kinds of dairy cow Chow alone, making the bovine menu as confusing as the one at the Chinese restaurant with six pages, no numbers, and no phonetic spelling for the ideogram impaired.

But animals aren’t the only ones who enjoy a variety of food. According to Food & Wine magazine (motto: “Eat, drink, and renew your subscription”) people in other countries don’t eat popcorn at the movies like we do. In China they munch on chicken feet. In Mexico they eat roasted ears of corn. In Korea they chomp down on sun-dried squid. And in Germany they don’t eat in the movies nearly as much as they drink local beer. Can People Chow be far behind? n