Jane’s Diary: The Worst Meal I Ever Ate

People always ask Michael and me what was the best meal we ever ate. This is a hard question to answer, as it changes day to day and often is keyed into what we are craving at the moment.

Nobody ever asks about the worst meal we ever ate. This is an easier question to answer, as horrible-beyond-belief foods stick in the mind as much as they do in the throat.

In 40+ years of researching Roadfood, we have eaten many terrible meals. It is soul-killing to find a lovely vintage diner with food that also tastes all too vintage. Similarly, the prettiest locations often come with awful food. If you go somewhere to enjoy the view, you might not want to glance down at your plate.

Sub par food is forgettable. The meals that stick in the mind are so atrocious that you might think you conjured them up in a nightmare. I will limit this screed to restaurant meals, although I just have to sneak in mention of the dinner at which our hostess prepared steaks by wrapping them in dingy wet washcloths and then sticking them in the microwave.

Michael and I have developed a pretty good system for knowing bad Roadfood restaurants from good ones. We are highly skeptical of places with “Help Wanted” signs out front. We are equally unimpressed by restaurants with billboards or signs that say. “Voted the Best Pizza [or whatever] in the USA ,” but don’t say who did the voting. We assume it was the owner and his family. Sometimes we drive around the back of a place to look at its refuse. If there are dozens of boxes from companies like Sysco that supply frozen, portion-controlled, ready-to-serve stuff, we keep going until we find real home cooking.

But sometimes our algorithms don’t work. A place can get checkmarks on our well calibrated Roadfood scale and still soar to the apex of the must-to-avoid category.

The ways this can happen are many. The easiest and most common is to serve vile food. Stale food, rancid food, partially cooked food, food with bugs or hairs in it have all been set before us over the years. Then there is the category I call “what is it?” food. These are truly exotic regional dishes that most Americans have never heard of. A plate of fried bull testicles, chitlins soaked in vinegar, scrapple, souse, offal pudding, stuffed derma, head cheese, blood sausage, or geoduck might be shocking to look at, but might also be delicious. If you are like me, you say “Wow, what a find” … and simply give it to Michael to taste.

Looking back on all the awful foods we have ordered over the years one genre stands out. It is easy to dismiss a tough steak, overcooked green beans, and cheese with the texture of bondo. The most memorable foods I have come to realize are the foods so bad they are good. Not good in the sense that they taste good, but ones that loop around the bend from horrifying to hilarious.

In that group I would include a plate of chicken croquettes we ordered once in Indiana. Not only were they the size and shape of orange traffic cones but were utterly tasteless. We managed to get one bite in before a confused looking waitress came over with a bottle of brandy. She poured the booze over them, struck a match and immediately turned them into a charred flambéed volcano which she swatted out with the menu.

Then there was the inexplicable omelet we ordered in rural Oklahoma. The cafe did not look promising, so we asked for a cheese omelet, pretty much a can’t-screw-it-up dish. The owner, who was also the waitress, went into the kitchen for a while, then came back to the dining room and sat in front of a small TV on which she was watching a soap opera. Five minutes passed. She got up, walked back into the kitchen, made some clanking noises, re-emerged and started watching TV again. This went on for half an hour. We were the only diners in the place and so could not compare our meal service to any others. Finally Michael stood up, walked over to her, and asked “Will our eggs be ready soon?” She shot him a dirty look and kept watching TV. After 45 minutes, we finally decided to leave. “It’s ready,” she suddenly bellowed. She went into the kitchen and brought out a dish of what might pass as a cheese omelet on Mars, but on planet Earth was an enormous brownish yellowish rubbery thing that looked like a playground ball that had been run over by a steamroller.

My all-time favorite bad meals are ones I never ate, those that I only saw offered on menus from time to time but still cherish. Who could forget the “bowel of beef stew,” the “filet of God,” the “inbred king prawns,” or the scarily seductive “ass cream sundae”?

Bon Appetit!

-Jane Stern

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