Remember the main

Pub date January 9, 2008

Our end-of-’07 road tour, with a Where have you gone Nancy Pelosi? theme (to be sung to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel’s "Mrs. Robinson") took me to two states I’d never been to before, Idaho and Montana. In the former, no Larry Craig sightings, but we did keep out of REIs. In the latter, mammoth main courses in restaurants, about which more presently. As for the states-visited list, it is sizable if not mammoth, with Texas and Florida still in the penalty box. There I expect they shall remain. Daniel Walker Howe’s excellent (if mammoth) What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848 (Oxford, 904 pages, $35) contains a fine account of the exertions required on our part to wrest Texas from Mexico, and as a reader luxuriating in hindsight, I found myself thinking: this was not wise.

The main course has been taking a hosing lately, and it isn’t hard to see why. If you think these dishes are too big here — and they are — you’re likely to split a seam at what’s being served beyond the Bay Area bubble, out there in our beloved red states. The situation is like a culinary version of grade inflation; side dishes are sizable enough to be appetizers, while appetizers are big enough to be main courses, and main courses are basically indescribable. Immense. At the Lodge at Whitefish Lake one evening we naively opened with a Mediterranean flat bread, a kind of pizza with olives, feta, and tomatoes and a ramekin of hummus on the side, before moving on to soup and salad, and then the main event.

Why, I thought too late, did I order pot roast after all that? The pot roast was excellent, but was it necessary to include two six-ounce slabs of beef, along with mashed potatoes?

Across the table a cooler head prevailed, and a more modest main course was ordered: shrimp diablo on a bed of multicolored orzo. And the cooler head wisely didn’t even eat all of it. For various bad reasons ("Live, live all you can!" Henry James wrote. "It’s a mistake not to!" Plus, you’re on vacation!), I ate all of mine, in addition to nibbling at the orzo, and wondered if I would live.

We can’t blame restaurants for serving (and charging for) 4,000-calorie plates when there are people dopey enough to eat them. Memo to dopey self: Think small. Remember your stomach. Choose life.

Paul Reidinger