Young and Restless

Bellied up to General Mills' Cereal Adventure Milk N' Cereal Bar
Diana Watters

Dear Dara:

I am a simple food lover, home gourmet, and avid consumer of food, cooking, and wine publications. Not unusual, I'm sure, but it seems so for a twentysomething working-class female of color like me. (It all started when I had a boyfriend who was a waiter at a high-end steakhouse and an incredible foodie/snob type.) With all due respect to my friends, it's hard for me to really feel comfortable making this a topic of conversation, as I fear it will come off as snobby or elitist. Wine enthusiasts don't have the best image. And, awful as it sounds, most of my Gen X friends' culinary repertoires rarely extend beyond ramen, p'sketti, Boca burgers, and microbrew.

Anyway, it's my amateur opinion that this is a rotten restaurant town. I've been to cities where you can find interesting meals 24 hours a day, and places where fresh ingredients don't have to be flown in four months out of the year. This changes your perspective. So I had to write and tell you of my weird, tragic, and funny weekend dining experiences.

Friday night, 9:00 p.m., an Uptown bistro, a noisy corner table. A great Rioja and the fondue is perfect. But: comedy. The waiter opens the $28 bottle awkwardly, struggling, slides the cork out at an angle, holding it against his white shirt. Breaks cork, stains shirt. He gets a new bottle and opens it the same way. He describes the fish special as "huge" and says that he and a co-worker split one for dinner. We decide to split the fish and two sides, reassured it'll be "enough." The fish arrives and it's tiny, it's whole, and it's cold, too. I ask him to score the fish, which I've seen Oceanaire waiters do tableside with a flourish. No, this is not Oceanaire, but it's a $23 plate of very diminutive whole fish. The waiter looks stricken. He stares at me quizzically, then swoops the plate away singing, "I'll be baaaaack!"

Fifteen minutes pass. We shift uncomfortably and guzzle wine. Back he comes with a whole new plate. It contains new servings of the sides, and two sad, even tinier, fillets of the fish. I stare at it, my smile by now a Rioja-fueled slack-jaw, and the waiter yodels, "We were all gathered around it in the kitchen, wondering what you meant!" That'll be $84.01, with a 20 percent tip. Minnesota mice, we are.

Sunday, 3:30 p.m. The same friend and I patriotically dash off to the Mall of America for some Xmas shopping. Being big fans of both grossly funny displays of capitalism and lovers of cereal, we take a load off at the General Mills Cereal Adventure Milk N' Cereal Bar. I love the fact that it's actually set up like a bar--stools, a counter, a wisecracking bartender. Belly up and order a pond-size bowl for $1.50--with your choice of milk! For $3 we had a fabulous, fast, friendly meal and walked away laughing even more at the absurdity.

Does this just prove that as diners we're unlucky in the Twin Cities? Or that I'm still just a dumb, pretentious kid playing dress-up with Saveur, Wüsthof Trident knives, and truffle oil, when I really just prefer a bowl of food-court Golden Grahams?

--Minnesota Mouse


Dear Minnesota Mouse:

Hey, that shortens to Minne Mouse! Good job.

Coincidentally, you're not the only Minnesota mouse in my life. But I think you're the best off.

Okay, you know that mousetrap I put inside the built-in in my bedroom, the one I baited with some lovely sopressata and organic peanut butter? The one near the big hole in the wall? Well, 4:00 a.m. last night, sproing! Woke me up. Scared me, too.

But the mouse must have only gotten a leg stuck or something, or a shoulder, because he managed to drag the trap back into the wall and has been dragging it around in there, clacking, rattling, and suffering ever since. Which has driven my cat insane. So she is adroitly hopping from shelf to shelf, knocking crap off the built-in, mewing, and trying generally to get that mouse. Which she will never do, unless she overcomes the solidity of matter.

And more to the point: What the hell am I supposed to do now? Fire random gunshots into the walls? Flood the house with poison gas?

The poison gas has a certain appeal: At least it offers the added bonus of putting me out of my misery. Because I am sick. So sick. My life is a parade of naps and Get Better Bears. Ever had a Get Better Bear? Dimetapp makes them. They're medicine in the form of a teddy bear-shaped lollipop. This idea is ingenious. If more things were in the shape of a bear lollipop, the world would be a better place. Like municipal bonds, for one. And, perhaps, trout at Uptown bistros.

Actually, I think you raise about a million interesting points about food and class and culture and life in these here Twin Cities, and since it's the first week in January and probably all anyone really wants to read about is how to swindle free liposuction, I might as well answer them.

As far as being a young foodie on Tombstone Pizza Island: Persevere. In a decade all your friends will catch up to you. Trust me on this one. Life is too short to also be crappy, and eventually your friends will realize this, and they will come to realize they want to swap cheap and convenient for pleasure, and there you will be, with the organic peanut butter and the sopressata.

Or, with the knowledge about Rioja, and how fish should be best presented, and why truffles are good, and what to do with them.

And you'll have gotten this knowledge by stumbling around and making mistakes and being confused. Because frankly, right now, you're stumbling around and being confused. Yes, it sounds like your waiter steered you wrong. But here's a rule of thumb: Don't split an entrée and be surprised if it's not enough food. You, your dining companion, your waiter, the chef--frankly, everyone involved--would have been happier had you gotten your own cheaper, non-special dish. And now you know it, because you had the courage to go try stuff out and not be intimidated and then write a letter about it. And you're just putting yourself out there in the world, and that's great.

As to this being a dismal restaurant town--oh, it's not that bad. What we lack in 24-hour dining we make up for in nice people, big, cheap houses, lots of work, pretty lakes, good schools, and a vibrant arts community. They're trucking food into Manhattan and London, too; trust me, there aren't any chickens free-ranging down Park Avenue. If you want to live there, you have to reorient your priorities to making a lot of money to support your real estate, and with the money come the world-class restaurants, which maybe you only get to enjoy on the dark side of the 24-hour wheel.

Life is a tradeoff. Sit down and figure out what you're willing to trade off, and what you aren't. The first week of the year is good for that. Sometimes you can get the sopressata, but at what price? Sometimes you miss the sopressata, and what price then?

It sounds like you suspect the grass is greener elsewhere, which is a pretty pervasive sentiment hereabouts. If you've never lived anywhere else, take this unencumbered part of your life to try it out. Otherwise, you'll always feel as if the grass is greener someplace or other, and that can make your life sort of crappy. And life's too short to let it be crappy! So I enjoin you, and I exhort everyone else in town, to go do some of these things that you never do in town. Take a risk, take the drive up to Singapore Chinese Cuisine for some amazing Malaysian curries, go to Bullwinkle's for that garlic burger you've been wondering about, book yourself in for the bouillabaisse at the Loring Cafe, a weeknight tasting menu at La Belle Vie or Aquavit. If you live in St. Paul, go to Minneapolis. If you live in Minneapolis, go to St. Paul.

You might head out with trepidation, you might return with mixed feelings. But you'll learn some new thing about the place you live, and you'll learn something about your taste.

And your taste, your taste is a great thing. Your taste is your taste. It's as individual as your fingerprint, full of nuance and detail and personal insight. It might lead you to London, it might lead you to a house in Minnesota near a good school, it might lead you right into the walls with a mousetrap on your arm, it might lead you straight to the Cereal Bar and fond memories. But it's individual and interesting, and it's always right. So have the courage to explore it. Welcome to 2002.

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