Hold the Everything: A Food Plainist’s Lament

Luke Epplin likes his food bland and simple — why is that so hard to explain?

Illustration by Hallie Bateman

Last winter, I told my childhood friend Amanda that Ina Garten, the so-called Barefoot Contessa, was scheduled to speak in March at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. The next day she wrote back: “Just bought my ticket. See you soon.”

The night after she’d arrived from St. Louis, I walked Amanda to the Y and then ducked into a nearby Starbucks. Over the next two hours, the sky turned black and quarter-sized pellets of hail smacked the sidewalks. It was raining furiously when Amanda burst out of the Y doors, jabbering away with a woman nearly twice her age. They both seemed exhilarated and slightly out of breath.

“You’ll never guess who was sitting in our row,” Amanda gushed when I caught up with them, collapsed drugstore umbrella in hand.

I surveyed the women streaming into the rain and made a quick calculation. “Nora Ephron?”

“Nope,” Amanda said, and then paused for effect. “Jeffrey.”

Of course, we all just left him alone,” the older woman said, “but I was dying to say ‘hi’ to him.”

“Who’s Jeffrey?” I interjected.

She eyed me suspiciously. “Jeffrey,” the older woman said, “is Ina’s husband.” Her tone suggested an exasperated high school teacher just finding out that her students couldn’t perform basic math.

“She cooks for him all the time on the show,” Amanda added.

I shrugged and said, “I guess I’ve never seen the show.”

We stood at the crosswalk for a minute before Amanda turned to the older woman and remarked, “He’s not really into food.”

“I see,” she replied.

I lagged behind as we crossed the street, mulling over Amanda’s comment. She was right in a sense — I’d never be mistaken for a foodie. When I first moved to New York City, I often prepared the same breakfast, lunch, and dinner for months on end, even though that spoke more to laziness and routine than to taste. I still grill chicken burgers for dinner every other night, and each year my Thanksgiving plate consists of dry turkey slices and gravy-less mashed potatoes spaced out sufficiently so as not to touch. While Amanda had greatly expanded her cooking repertoire in her twenties, whipping up impossibly tiered ganache cakes and crumbling hard-to-pronounce cheeses on summer salads, I enjoyed nothing more than making a new discovery in the cereal aisle of my supermarket. I was into food, just not the right kind. I remained what I’d always been: a food plainist.

Not too long ago, Amanda and I shared similar taste in food, which might best be described as Midwestern hearty. We both grew up in a small, corn-encircled town in southern Illinois whose residents boast of having the most fast food restaurants per capita in the nation. To my knowledge, this claim has never been verified, but it strikes me as plausible. Near the interstate ramp, you can find everything from Hardee’s to Dairy Queen to a conjoined Long John Silver’s/A&W Restaurant (for those who favor hush puppies with their root beer floats). When we wanted a sit-down meal, we headed to the Maverick Steak House, where the specials included all-you-can-eat walleye, rolls the size of pillows, and a regional concoction known as the horseshoe, which consisted of a thick slice of Texas toast, topped with a quarter-pound burger, blanketed in fries, and then drowned in cheese sauce. Entrées came with unlimited access to the salad, appetizer (read: fried stuff), baked potato, and dessert bars. To our teenage minds, everything that we might ever want to consume was right there in that restaurant.

At the buffets, Amanda and I were a study in contrasts. She doused her salads in dressings and heaped sour cream and salsa on her baked potatoes, while I preferred everything plain. That’s not to say that I didn’t add cheese or croutons to my iceberg lettuce or occasionally sprinkle bacon bits over my potatoes, but I drew the line at anything resembling a sauce. Salad dressing struck me as too creamy; mustard as too tangy; jams as too sweet; butter as too slippery; hot fudge as too gloopy; and so on. There were exceptions to my eating orthodoxy — I tolerated a spoonful of red sauce on my pasta, as long as it didn’t also include mushrooms — but overall I liked my food boring, monochromatic, and dry. (And, no, I wasn’t that annoying person at McDonald’s who held up the line by ordering a hamburger with no ketchup or mustard. I was a Chicken-McNuggets-with-no-dipping-sauce kind of a guy.)

In general, my dogmatic eating habits weren’t a problem when I was growing up. If I loaded up my plate with enough (plain) chicken wings and (plain) potato wedges, no one gave a damn that my mound of lettuce wasn’t smeared in thousand island dressing. I learned early on that no plate from an all-you-can-eat-buffet is any better or worse than the next person’s. Buffets strip everyone equally of their dignity.

When I moved to New York City nearly a decade ago, I had no choice but to expand my palate. To keep friends and colleagues from branding me a weirdo, I stopped scrubbing ketchup from my hamburger buns with napkins, and no longer ordered separate bins of steamed broccoli and white rice at Chinese restaurants. I developed a stomach for certain sauce-heavy Asian cuisines that aren’t cream-based (anything with yogurt is still out), came around on spicy salsas and thick tomato sauces, and even forced myself to digest sushi when necessary. As a courtesy, I now stock my refrigerator with ranch dressing and mayonnaise, though I make sure that not a drop spills on my salads or sandwiches, which I still prefer dry as rice cakes.

What does my aversion to wet food say about my personality? Nothing, if you ask me, except that I get weirded out by spreadable liquids. But that’s not the consensus view. For many, my gravy-less mashed potatoes and plain bagels hint at a sort of puritanical stodginess, as if the blandness of my meals reveals a similar blandness of the soul. Periodically when I’m lunching on salad in my office, coworkers will stroll by and ask if I forgot to splash on a little dressing. When I mention that I prefer my salad this way, they raise their eyebrows and say, “Huh. Guess I never knew that about you,” as if my penchant for undamp spinach somehow penetrates to the root of my being.

This is nothing new. Food has always been enmeshed with questions of identity and class. French cuisine carries layers of constructed meaning that are opposed to those associated with, say, Bugles (though, just for the record, I’d choose Bugles over steak tartare any day of the year). And even I find myself reflexively judgmental about others’ eating habits. At college I met a guy whose diet consisted primarily of Chik-fil-A sandwiches and Funyuns, and my immediate thought was: “God, why can’t you just eat like a normal human being?”

Still, over the past decade it feels as if I’ve been fighting an increasingly losing battle. I can no longer be certain that my neighborhood deli will carry an appropriately boring pre-made sandwich. Once-reliable food carts have become landmines, offering chicken apple sausages topped with sauerkraut instead of hot dogs boiled in murky water. Stroll through Williamsburg any weekend during the summer and you’ll find roving gourmet trucks doling out everything from lobster rolls to prosciutto and asiago cheese baguettes with a splash of aioli. Itching for a burger? Walk a few blocks in either direction and you’re bound to run into an artisan hamburger joint that specializes in buffalo meat and caramelized onions. Diners that stick with meatloaf and Bisquick pancakes are labeled “quaint”; a dive bar often just refers to a place that serves Pabst Blue Ribbon unironically and without pretense.

Since there’s no single social force on which I can pin blame for the shifting culinary landscape, I usually vent my frustration at the Food Network. The channel is, plain and simple, the enemy to food plainists, though it didn’t have to be this way. Julia Child, for example, never felt threatening to me. She was like a benign visitor from another planet whose otherworldly soufflés and duck confits had no chance whatsoever of landing on my parents’ dining room table. But the Food Network has little interest in the haute cuisine that Child championed. Whirring through the kitchen, their telegenic chefs gleefully blur the boundaries between high and low tastes, gussying up everyday staples with endless supplies of balsamic vinegar, sun-dried tomatoes, and pine nuts. Bobby Flay crisscrosses the country to hold televised “throw-downs” with diner owners to determine who can whip up the most unorthodox sloppy joes. Guy Fieri has made a career out of pouring streams of gravies and melted cheeses on the country’s most artery-clogging foods. And, if Amanda is any indication, the soporific Barefoot Contessa has cultivated a swath of followers conversant in the eating proclivities of her husband Jeffrey, a professor at the Yale School of Management.

Each time Amanda visits, she comes armed with a list of seemingly ordinary foods to sample at trendy eateries: doughnuts, macaroni and cheese, peanut butter sandwiches. But the way these items are prepared is anything but ordinary: crème brulee doughnuts, masala macaroni and cheese, spicy peanut butter and pineapple jam sandwiches. Asking for a plain cake doughnut at these establishments carries a fine of one smirk from the cashier and roughly a dozen pleas to try “just one teensy bite” of Amanda’s gooey pastry. During Amanda’s last trip, we made our way to Pommes Frites in the East Village, a hole-in-the-wall that serves exceptional Belgian fries along with 25 exotic dipping sauces — organic black truffle mayo, sweet mango chutney mayo, and pomegranate teriyaki mayo, to name a few. The feeling that washed over me when I sheepishly explained to the cashier that I preferred my fries plain bordered on shame, as if my dislike of fruit-tinged mayonnaise somehow merited an apology.

I don’t always feel this way. Annoyance is also a common emotion, especially when confronted with sauce bullies — cashiers or waiters who refuse to serve you dry food. “You sure you don’t want any blue cheese dressing with that?” they ask, and when I politely refuse, they put a cup of it on the side anyway along with some lemon wedges. And they’re not the only ones. A typical conversation at my local bakery goes something like this:

Me: I’ll have a whole wheat bagel, plain, please.

Counter guy: You want cream cheese on that?

Me: Nope, plain is good.

Counter guy: No butter?

Me: No, I’d like it plain.

Counter guy: No cream cheese or butter? Jelly?

Me: Just plain.

Counter guy: Toasted?

Me: (explicative-filled mumbling)

I’m not looking for sympathy here. I’m willing to accept that being a food plainist is, in many ways, a sign of stubbornness — a pig-headed desire for food to vary as little as possible throughout one’s life. Recently, when I mentioned that I was a food plainist to a former coworker, she shot back: “What are you, ten years old?” After the initial sting wore off, I realized that she had a point; perhaps my taste buds haven’t progressed much beyond my preadolescence. Years ago, such a comment would have sent me home determined to chug ranch dressing until I either liked it or passed out, but I’ve since come to terms with my severe culinary limitations. My eating habits are entrenched; it’s too late to change now.

So say what you will about food plainists: that we’re unadventurous, that we’re out of step with the times, that we’re connoisseurs of unbuttered biscuits and Fritos. All I’m really asking for is peace of mind when I order plain turkey sandwiches during my lunch hour.

Illustration by Hallie Bateman

Luke Epplin has written for The Atlantic, The New Yorker Page-Turner, n+1, and The Daily Beast. When not scouring YouTube for Michael Jordan clips, he tweets at @LukeEpplin.