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Funbag

There Are No More Shitty Food Towns In America

TOPSHOT - Dave Barnes enjoys a holiday lunch with his wife Christy Barnes at an outdoor restaurant in Manhattan Beach, California where beaches are closed due to a spike in COVID-19 in Los Angeles County, on July 4, 2020, the US Independence Day holiday. - Beaches and indoor restaurant seating in Los Angeles County are closed to help fight the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Time for your weekly edition of the Defector Funbag. Got something on your mind? Email the Funbag. And buy Drew’s book, The Night The Lights Went Out, while you’re at it. Today, we’re talking about trash pickup, ballgame piss breaks, root beer floats, and more.

Hey folks, before I dig into the bag, let’s all give a round of applesauce to our old friend Albert Burneko for holding this place down a week ago while I hustled Why Your Team Sucks to the finish line. Burneko can come up with turns of phrase that I simply cannot, which is why I plan on stealing his abilities by using some kind heretofore undiscovered mutant superpower.

Now, with that out of the way, it’s time for your letters:

Drew:

Anecdotally speaking, it seems that more American cities than ever before have a reasonable number of decent places to eat. Compared to twenty years ago, cities like Tulsa or Sacramento or Buffalo likely have much better Thai/Indian/Peruvian/Korean than they did at the turn of the century. Do you see any major downside to this?

I don’t. One of the best meals I ever ate was when I was away on business in Cleveland, despite the fact that I retain a brand of urbane snobbery that dates back decades and leaves me assuming that a city like Cleveland has no culinary offerings outside of ketchup smeared on crackers. This is untrue, and has been for a while.

I know that the pandemic fucked a lot of small restaurants. But the current labor market says that, on a macro level, the damage wasn’t all that permanent. The truth now is that if you go to pretty much any major American city (or even suburb) in 2022, you can find a nice place to eat. I know I have. I’ve eaten well in Cleveland, Dallas, exurban Maryland, Portsmouth, N.H., airports, and other places that don’t get paid regular visits by the Michelin Guide. Will that stop me from making easy food jokes at the expense of St. Louis? Fuck no, it won’t. But could I eat well there if I did some quick homework? Probably.

Part of that is dictated by expectations—if you expect bad food when you go someplace, it’ll taste that much better to you when it doesn’t suck—but there’s more to it than that. Here are some reason why the food scene has improved all across the country, presented in list form so that you can study it for the pop quiz at the end of this column.

1. Economics. Commercial rent is so high in places like Manhattan that your average restaurant there needs to be owned and operated by Jackie Frust Restaurant Group LLC just so that it can open, let alone turn a profit. An up-and-coming chef can get a job in those restaurants, but they’re not going to have a ton of of creative input. So where do aspiring chefs and restaurateurs go if the rent in those places is too damn high? They spread out to the suburbs and all points beyond. I live in an expensive suburb of D.C. The food here is average. But go just one or two more towns out from here and suddenly there are strip malls loaded with the kind of kick-ass mid-level Thai joints that can’t afford to exist closer in.

2. The food revolution. Americans like better food than they used to. You’re reminded of this every day when a 1951 recipe for chicken and marshmallow salad goes viral. If you’ve ever had really good food, you want more of it. And if you’ve ever SEEN really good food, as you do every week on Top Chef or any other food show of your choice, that also raises your standards. Your average American isn’t gonna settle for creamed chip beef for dinner, no matter where they live or travel. They know better food exists, and the market caters to them accordingly.

They also want options. No American grows up eating strictly American fare anymore. Everyone eats Chinese food, Mexican food, sushi, kebabs, and every other kind of cuisine, which means that the hipster district of any city is bound include places that serve fancy ramen, street tacos that have never been found on any street anywhere, and burgers that cost $5 more than they ought to. They all taste better than the chipped beef.

3. The internet. No good restaurant goes undiscovered anymore. If Guy Fieri hasn’t paid your joint a visit, the internet has. Yelp is famous for its whiniest reviews, but it’s also quite useful if you’re new in town and need to do some down-and-dirty research for where to grab dinner two hours from now. Same deal with Google Maps (I always use it to find food), Eater’s city maps, Tripadvisor, etc. Some of these sites will lead you astray, or get gamed by the Crazy Eddie of the Boise restaurant scene. But they’re more useful than not, and their existence means that if you open up a restaurant somewhere outside a national media hub, people will still find it. And talk about it. Will that stop the likes of Chipotle from stealing that mom-and-pop joint’s idea and turning it into an upscale yuppie food trough? No. But also, I like Chipotle. And so long as my appetites are satisfied, that’s good enough.

Jim:

Does handedness apply to testicles and ovaries?

Physiologically speaking, no. Although whenever a guy says he’d give his nut for something, it’s always, “my left nut.” Curious, IS IT NOT?

Eric:

How rich is the richest person who has taken a shit in a gas station restroom?

A billionaire. You might think that Royal Farms shitter isn’t good enough for a billionaire, but you’re failing to account for the failsons, IBS sufferers, and incorrigible drunks who reside within that subgroup. If Mark Davis needs to take an urgent shit along the drive to his favorite Bakersfield Supercuts, he’s going where he’s gotta go. And don’t discount fancier rich guys who shit in public bathrooms to prove they’re still simple folk just like you and me. That’s probably as close as the Mara family gets to camping.

James:

Is it me, or does everyone enjoy the feeling when they’re the first car to pull off to the side of the road when an oncoming emergency vehicle with their lights on is approaching? Watching all the vehicles behind me follow my lead is so empowering.

Not every vehicle does follow your lead, though. There’s always one rogue hotshot who thinks he can just keep on driving, and that’s when I shift into Full Dad Mode and tell my kids in the backseat, “What’s this guy think he’s doing? What a jerk!” I see ambulance sirens blaring and suddenly I become a cop. It’s terrible, but also strangely thrilling. They should let me carry a gun.

Everyday driving is full of simple, barely altruistic pleasures like that. Like if I pull up to a four-way STOP sign at the same time as another car, and I wave that other car to go ahead first? Makes me feel like the most benevolent man in the world. I saved a life that day. Or if I stop at a crosswalk—one that has no stoplight—just to let an old lady cross? Again, I have proven myself to be an official man of the people. No need to donate to charity tonight. I’ve done more than enough already.

Brandon:

My sister just had her second kid (a girl!) and made a video of her two-year-old son (my nephew) reacting to her coming home for the first time. Hilarity ensued. A week later, the video of it went viral…on Barstool’s Instagram. It is up to 75,000+ views. Here’s the short video for your perusal. On one hand, my nephew is really stinking cute (pun intended) and despite my clear bias, I think this is objectively funny and completely benign in nature. On the other hand, I feel like a toddler going viral on Barstool is the 21st century equivalent of earning a merit badge from The Hitler Youth. Should I be proud of my nephew for being internet famous for expressing his true feelings? Should I feel ashamed about the medium in which he became famous?

AWWWWW, the brother farted. That’s a good video. Don’t worry about where it ended up. You can’t control the internet, and your sister is hardly the first person to have their content swiped by Barstool. It happens. It’s not like you wanted it on there. Your sister didn’t swaddle the baby in some hacky Ditka t-shirt and then tag Big Cat when she posted it or anything. Just enjoy your nephew farting and then go on about your day.

Ethan:

Floats are overrated, right? They never fulfill the promise made by the idea of them. They always put in a scoop of ice cream that’s too big and it completely overwhelms the flavor of the soda rather than mixing with it. It’s the one choice that will leave me feeling disappointed after I get it at the ice cream shop. Please back me up on this.

I was never into floats, not even as a kid. Childhood me was like, “Why don’t I just get a shake instead?” because a float tastes like a milkshake that they forgot to shake. Too watery to be a dessert. Too much physical obstruction to be a drink. I still feel that way about floats, even if I’ll gladly mooch a sip off of you when you order one. My mom has long believed that food tastes better if someone else ordered it, and I have inherited that same affliction. A dastardly quality, indeed.

Back to floats. They’re a culinary relic, although not a misguided one like the chicken and marshmallow salad noted up above. I’d join Ethan in calling floats overrated, but I don’t recall floats being a hot new thing in 2022. I know modern restaurants love their nouveau takes on old-timey comfort food, but I still don’t see any Wall Street Journal op-eds that are like, “Millennials want their student loans forgiven because they keeps wasting their money at the soda jerk!”

Matt:

What would your life be like if you grew up somewhere else? What would Drew Magary be like if he grew up in California, New York, Chicago, Des Moines, Boston, Philly, etc? Would you be have a regular 9-5 job and what not?

Well now, don’t forget my birthplace. What if I had been AUSTRALIAN? What then, mate? I’ll tell you what: My life would have been completely different. I’d have a cool accent. I’d know how to surf. I’d love meat pies. I’d have skin like a broken-in purse. Whole other Drew. That’s also true if I had grown up somewhere other than where I did (and I grew up all over, leaving me existentially rootless). I don’t believe that anyone’s destiny is predetermined. You’re shaped by your circumstances as much as you’re shaped by your DNA. So if I had lived my whole life in Philly (oh god), everything would have been different. I would have gone to a different school, cheered for different (worse) teams, married a different woman, had different kids, and yes, probably had a different career.

That last one is, more than the others, a little less plausible given that I owe my career to the internet, and you can be online from anywhere save the middle of the Gobi Desert. But everything that went into my digital life was informed by all of the analog experiences that preceded it. I wouldn’t be the same person if I grew up elsewhere, which means I wouldn’t have had the same life. Different life, different man. Same goes for you. And it’s easy to fall into a wistfulness trap and pine for that other life. To pine for something different than what you already know. Then again, if I had grown up in El Paso or something like that, I likely would have fantasized about becoming a famous Vikings fanboy blogger who didn’t kiss a girl until he was 19. We all have that dream.

HALFTIME!

Jacob:

Around six months ago, I logged onto my state’s tax commission website to renew my car’s registration and one of the first things that popped up was a “personalized plate availability” button. Right away I entered my very common last name and to my surprise it was available with any spelling adjustments, numbers as letters, or random character additions. Without thinking, I immediately ordered the $25 plate. 

Six months later, having all but forgotten about my purchase, the personalized plate featuring my unadjusted last name just arrived in the mail. Seeing the plate in person I realized that, as a thirty-something, a personalized plate featuring my last name might not be as cool as I thought. Though in fairness, I’m not really sure I ever thought it was cool. I was just overly excited it was available at all. Kind of like the adult version of seeing your name on a souvenir keychain, I suppose. Anyways, pepperoni or Canadian bacon for a one topping pizza? 

Pepperoni, although if you’ve read this column before, you know that I’ll always campaign for regular bacon pizza. It’s the ideal trans fat delivery system.

But let’s talk vanity plates for a second. Vanity plates in my state are $50, which is just enough to keep me away. I don’t know if I could resist one at half that price though, especially if there was an online impulse purchase option for one at my disposal. Because even though I goof on shitty vanity plates, I’ve daydreamed about having one. Same as having a boat I can name. In every instance, my imagined choice of vanity plate (for the record, mine would be NSFW) would be way cooler in my mind than it would be affixed to the back of my car.

Think of every vanity plate you’ve ever seen: LUVDOGS, NO MPG, 2SEXAY, ETC. Are you ever blown away by these plates? You are not. You’re like, “What’s that plate say? Oh that lady’s a dipshit,” and then you drive off. I’m not immune to triggering that reaction. Quite the opposite. I look like the kind of guy that people can’t WAIT to shit on. I am that kind of guy. A vanity plate is merely an invitation for them to get started. Much cheaper and easier just to have a Vikings license plate frame instead. No one will knock me for that!

Ian:

Suppose you’re a billionaire. Your standard, generic, soulless billionaire. You’ve decided to buy a team (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL). You don’t actually have a favorite team, but you want a venue to feel important. My guess is a championship would be sort of cool, but you’re already pretty numb about things as trivial as sports, because again, you’re a billionaire. What team would you buy?

USC. HEY-OOOOOOOOO.

I’d like to pick Paris Saint-Germain, because Paris. But Ian restricted me to the big four North American men’s leagues, and so I have to honor those conditions. Thus, my answer is … the New York Knicks. No venue is better for making everyone inside of it feel important than Madison Square Garden. I fucking love that arena, and I would enjoy toggling between sitting courtside and wolfing down free bacon-wrapped shrimp in my luxury box during every Knicks home game.

Also, I’d be a hero in New York simply by being the guy who bought the team out from James Dolan. There’s no lower bar to clear. I love MSG, I like the Knicks’ uniforms, and I find their fans strangely charming online. So that’s my answer. Second place is the Dodgers, because I love L.A. Those are not terribly creative choices, but if I said I’d prefer to own the Texas Rangers, I’d be lying through my teeth.

James:

What’s the ranking for doctors in terms of how proud the parents would be that their child is that kind of doctor?

Brain or heart surgeon has to take the top spot, right? No one will dispute your ability to save lives when that’s your area of practice. I know I’d be proud of MY brain surgeon if he had been my son (NOTE: he was not my son).

John:

What is the single greatest guest performance of all time? Guest hosting, musical supergroup, musician walks out on stage at a concert, that cool substitute teacher you had in 4th grade, etc… all count.

Oh god, I’m gonna fuck this answer up. This’ll be worse than two weeks ago, when I had no idea that Wilmer Flores used the Friends theme song as his walk-up music because he learned English by watching that show. I’m gonna forget some obvious answer, like Prince at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony or something like that. Or I’m gonna give some terrible jokey answer like, “Matt Damon’s 57th time doing a cameo at the opening of SNL!” I can’t defeat this question, so let me just say Busta Rhymes’s verse at the end of “Scenario” and be content with it. RAWR RAWR LIKE A DUNGEON DRAGON.

Matt:

When is the best time to take a piss at a baseball game? Counterintuitively, I believe it’s the worst possible time from an entertainment perspective (like bases loaded, no outs), since that’s when the bathroom is emptiest and thus offers the quickest in and out. Maybe you miss a grand slam, but you’re probably back before one or two at bats, and odds of a grand slam are slim. Whereas if you wait until between innings, you could miss the entire back half of the inning waiting on the urinal line. Is there a happy medium?

There is. I go a little bit after play has resumed. The line has cooled off, and I’m probably not missing anything important when there’s only one out up on the scoreboard. Also, I long ago accepted that when I attend a game in person, I’m probably gonna miss something important when it happens. The NHL based an entire ad campaign off of this fact. If you’re not in the can during a key play, you might be stuck in the concession line, or looking at your phone, or trying to flag down the beer guy, or thinking about sex. It’s all right. You still get to say you were there. You can omit all the other details.

Plus, taking a satisfying piss is its own in-game highlight. I wouldn’t miss a good piss for the world.

Adam:

Today I went to a new dentist. They took a full x-ray, which involved, like, 16 different x-rays. Way more than I’m used to. It was kind of annoying, but when they were done, I actually regretted that they removed the heavy lead blanket. It was comforting! Why not offer to leave this on? Especially for patients who have anxiety?

You can ask them to leave it on you. Worst thing that happens is they say no. I’ve asked my dentist to put the seat back so that my back pain won’t be aggravated, and they’re always happy to comply. Oddly though, my dentist is always surprised that the X-ray equipment triggers my gag reflex. As if I’m the only patient with a distaste for having a plastic flap jammed into the back of my throat while I bite down hard. Did you expect me to whistle during this process, Doc?

By the way, I borrowed my daughter’s weighted blanket the other night to see if it would help me sleep better. “Maybe I won’t get up to piss so much!” I thought to myself. Then I threw on the weighted blanket and my sciatica flared up like a Baltimore police officer. Off it went.

David:

We recently had our trash pickup date moved from Fridays to Tuesdays. At first I was bothered (this used to free up our recycling for beer cans over the weekend, now I have something else to do to start the week dammit), but after a couple months I’m now pro-Tuesday pickup. I no longer have to worry about missing trash if we go out to dinner Thursday night and I forget to put the cans out, and I don’t miss putting the cans away if we are leaving for a three-day weekend. Plus it seems like I’ve accomplished something early in the week by ridding the house of trash. Tuesday seems to work out best.

Ours is on Friday, which means that the previous weekend’s trash has to stew all week long. This is bad during the summer, when raccoons go a-foragin’ and I discover a miniature Woodstock ’99 at the foot of our driveway on a random Tuesday morning.

To keep the varmints out, my wife secures the cans with a series of bungee cords. I fucking hate these cords and wish them dead. But that’s on me for not buying a little garbage shed to secure all of our unwanted filth. It’s also on me for not living where my in-laws live: a city that has not one, but TWO garbage pickup days every week. What luxury. I’d kill for it. When you only have the garbage man come once a week, you will inevitably struggle at the tail end of that week, no matter which day pickup lands on. And God help you at Christmas. That’s when you’re fucked good and hard.

John:

I’m a Gorillaz Hater. I’ve never liked “Feel Good Inc.,” though I’m the right age for it. If I’m driving and scanning through stations and the only song on is that one, I’ll listen to a gun show commercial instead. However! I heard a song in the background there other day and liked it enough to ask my phone to identify it. I was mildly disconcerted to find it was, “On Melancholy Hill,” by Gorillaz. Turns out this song is 10 years old. I listened to the rest of the album, and it’s also great. Why did I only know about their worst song, and why is it so popular? Am I actually a Gorillaz Guy now? 

Sure sounds like it. By the way, I love “Feel Good Inc.,” but have never bothered to listen to any Gorillaz album in full, which makes me the precise opposite of John here. But it’s OK to keep some artists at arm’s length. You don’t have to love or hate every musician to ever exist, and I say that as someone who abhors the word “fine” when it appears in any critic’s review of anything. You can still land in the middle, as I do with Gorillaz, or Harry Styles, or Collins-era Genesis. It’s actually important to have such artists in your life. You don’t have to belong to a fucking hive for everything.

To that end, I have never heard “On Melancholy Hill,” so let me do that right now.

[cues up the track]

This does nothing for me, this song. Damon Albarn seems like a cool guy though.

Jeff:

I think the MLB would be more fun and chaotic without the first and third base coaches. Let the players figure out for themselves whether they should round third or not!

I’ll second this, although I do love a good waving-in from the third base coach. Looks like Pete Townsend windmilling at the end of a Who concert.

Email of the week!

John:

It’d be totally possible for a Hannibal-esque psychotherapist to get Trump to take credit for 9/11, right? They wouldn’t even need to use the MK Ultra drugs before he’d be posting about how “many people told him it couldn’t be done,” and how, “they told him just one building, but he had to do both. Only both for Trump!”

OK that one killed me.

Now, to the pop quiz: What are THREE reasons why food is America is as good as it’s ever been? Please show your work.