Pretense

Main Entry: pre·tense
Variant(s): or pre·tence \ˈprē-ˌten(t)s, pri-ˈ\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, probably modification of Medieval Latin pretensio, irregular from Latin praetendere
Date: 15th century
1 : a claim made or implied; especially : one not supported by fact
2 a : mere ostentation : pretentiousness b : a pretentious act or assertion
3 : an inadequate or insincere attempt to attain a certain condition or quality
4 : professed rather than real intention or purpose : pretext
5 : make-believe, fiction
6 : false show : simulation

There’s a new restaurant about a mile or so from my house. It’s a small place, called the Heartland Cafe. I’ve eaten there twice in the past three days, and it has got me to thinking about food more than any other restaurant I’ve visited in the past year or so. The thoughts going through my mind? What connotes “pretense”?

Let me explain a bit about the restaurant first, to help me explain my thought process. The Heartland Cafe offers nothing more than a subset of diner food. Hash is on the menu in the morning; casseroles and meatloaf are on at dinner time. Oh, and they have burgers, and lot’s of them. Missing from the menu? Their approach at the cafe is in their mission statement – “Providing a friendly, neighborhood cafe serving Midwestern comfort food like mom used to make.”

The food is good…quite good, for being what it is. Diner foods are not often shown the care and respect they deserve, and from what I’ve eaten at the Heartland, it’s clear that they paid attention to all the right details. The fried onions on the green bean casserole are crispy and fresh, the cheese on the tuna noodle casserole was melted and browned just right.

This type of food is the “Smoke on the Water” of the food world. Most anyone can play these tunes, but you still appreciate those who play it better than others. I walked away from dinner on both nights, pleased at the meals…for being what they were.

See! There’s that phrase again! “Being what it is”. Qualifying this food as if I had to somehow explain away my pleasure at a decent dinner is the worst sort of criticism. At best it’s a backhanded compliment. At worst, it’s patronizing. It’s good food. Period. For those of us who are more at home in diners than five-star restaurants, the food is eminently accessible.

So why do I like this food more than, say, the latest in five star, small plate, molecular-fusion cuisine? It comes down to pretense.

Sometime food just needs to be food for me to be happy. I don’t care how clever the chef may or may not be, nor do I worry about the aesthetic influences a dish may show. When it comes to my palate, all foods are equal. All a dish has to answer is one simple question – did I enjoy its taste?

That’s not to say that food cannot and should not ask other questions, but these often fall into the category of either intellectualism or entertainment. “What influenced this dish?”, “How was the food prepared?”, or even “Will this restaurant be covered in Saveur?” have their place. While these aspects are important, these are still secondary traits of food. My guess is that for the most part, a great majority of eaters out there don’t concern themselves with these questions.

So what to make of food that focus primarily on these secondary questions? That’s where pretense come in. If the primary goal of a restaurateur is something other than “make food that tastes good”, I believe there’s something flawed in their approach.

And then there are certain customers perspectives that also fall under scrutiny. Why do some people go to certain restaurants? If it’s only because it was written up in Zagat, or because it’s owned by Mario Batali, or it was highlighted on the Food Network, then I have to question their judgement, because I’m uncomfortable believing that “Zagat”, “Mario Batali”, or “The Food Network” should be a shorthanded catch-all for “good food”. Taste is an intimate opinion based off of first hand experience, not off of someone else’s.

My point? Well, if you’ll forgive the above rambling, what it boils down to is this: For all the marketing, for all of the PR noise surrounding certain restaurants, for all the flash surrounding celebrity chefs, sometimes all a person really wants is a cheese sandwich. A cheese sandwich that is well made, mind you, but a cheese sandwich nonetheless.

This is why I am so taken with the Heartland Cafe. The food they provide is nothing more than what they say it is. It’s not art, it’s not marketing, it’s not even technically savvy. It’s just food. But it’s pretty damn good food. I find something quite compelling in that approach.

Oh, and for the record? Placing a definition of a word at the beginning of an essay not only contains a fair amount of pretense, it’s a bit clichéd as well. Mea culpa.