Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Olive Garden

It began during the summer, when I was comfortably into my second trimester of my second pregnancy. I had somehow managed to dodge the morning sickness this time around, though I often skipped meals anyway during those early months because I was too exhausted to chew. But by June, I was making up for it, ravenous beyond belief for every unhealthy food on the planet. With this in mind, you'll hopefully understand how it came to be that an Olive Garden commercial made my mouth water.

Sure, I see Olive Garden commercials regularly, paying no attention to their tedious chicken and cheese configurations with pseudo-Italian names like Baked Penne Celebretoni. Yet, on this fateful evening, I glanced up and saw the image of a fork pulling a ravioli with a mozzarella train stretching behind it and thought, "Yes. This is everything."

Days later, at a gathering at my sister Katie's, I suggested to my friends that we make it a point to head to Olive Garden for a girls' night. After assuring them that no I was not kidding, I got some hesitant and insincere nods of agreement. I think they hoped I would forget about it if no one mentioned it ever again.

Then, over the next few days, a remarkable thing happened. One by one, they all caved. With visions of endless breadsticks dancing in their heads, a mass text message convo broke out and before long we set a date.

I knew it wasn't owing to their burning desire for an adequate meal at an affordable price. Rather, amidst the flurry of hungry texts ran a common thread of powerful nostalgia.

Growing up, Olive Garden was THE place to celebrate all manner of notable occasions from middle school graduations to one month anniversaries. You'd get dressed up, you'd tell your friends, you'd put your name in for a table and wait fifty-five goddamn minutes. Even when I was a server at TGI Friday's,  I worked with a small group of servers who'd all defected together from The Olive Garden, and I couldn't help but feel intimidated by them.

It was fancy.

Now here we were, a group of women living in a city where a gorgeous new restaurant opens every week and yet we were positively giddy over the prospect of iceberg lettuce salad included with the price of entree.

In the week leading up to our dinner date, things got really embarrassing.

I told everybody about my Olive Garden plans. Sometimes I'd wait for them to ask me if I had anything going on that weekend, but other times I'd just launch into it with no segue. By 10 am on Friday, the day of, I was sitting at my desk at work, studying the menu on their website. When I realized what I was doing I instant messaged Becca to confess. Turns out she'd been doing the exact same thing and had already narrowed down some options.

That evening, in spite of my better judgement, I caught myself getting dressed up. Then we carpooled to Chatsworth --you can only find Olive Gardens on the outskirts of Los Angeles-- talking about our expectations, delirious with anticipation. We arrived to a familiar looking scene: the crowded parking lot, the groups of impatient families clustered by the entrance. Twenty years and 3,000 miles separated adult me from my childhood Olive Garden memories, and yet nothing had changed.

I started to drift back to reality the moment we walked in the door. The ambiance was more casual than I remembered. By a lot. It was like Panera, but with more stenciling on the walls. And worse lighting. The foyer smelled like diapers. There was food littering the tiled floor. Half a breadstick, a ring of red onion.

We didn't wait too long for a table and by the time we were lead into the dining room, we were all exchanging looks of regret and bemusement. Of course this is what it's like. Of course.

As the six of us sat snuggly in our booth, needlessly glancing over the menu we'd already memorized, our server approached carrying a bottle of rosé. She started in with her spiel as she began pouring small tastes into the wine glasses at each of our place settings. "Ladies, welcome to The Olive Garden. Before I take your drink order I'd like to offer you a complimentary taste of our house wine. It's a rosé from OH NOT FOR YOU!" That sudden shift toward the end was her reaction to my pregnant belly, which up until that point I'd thought was rather understated. "OH oh you can't drink. So sorry!" She was laughing nervously and practically yelling. She promptly snatched up my wine glass, and with it went any hope of sneaking a couple sips without fear of judgement. At a loss for words, I smiled politely.

Becca, on the other hand, decided to speak up, saying, "She's not pregnant." Never one to make trouble, we were all caught off guard by her unlikely remark. The server looked as though she might die. "Oh, uh, oh I'm sorry, I..." No one could react fast enough to rescue her. Then Becca broke into a smile. "I'm just kidding." She waved her hand dismissively. She may have thought it was just a joke, but we would all come to realize this single action would change the entire course of our evening.

The server hated us now. She denied us straws. She delivered salad refills by throwing the bowl on the table mid-stride on her way to someplace less painful. We scolded Becca for ruining her. Hoping to salvage our relationship, we'd started to take inventory of everything we needed so we could put in one single request when she arrived at our table. It didn't work. She was giving us the silent treatment. Actually, she was giving everyone else the silent treatment. For me, she was making bizarre, increasingly uncomfortable, exclusively pregnancy-related small talk. I think my favorite excerpt was, "How's that baby liking the ravioli?"

Speaking of the food, it wasn't great. The highly anticipated breadsticks were fine. Just fine. The salad was salty. I wondered how I used to be able to eat so much of both of these that I'd leave the restaurant in actual physical discomfort. As for the entree, I'd pretty much assumed it would be less-than-gourmet, but I was expecting at least restaurant quality. This was more like an above-average frozen dinner.

By the time we were done eating, everyone was more than ready to leave. We'd been there for hours and it felt like it. I didn't even want dessert. And, I must stress, this was a time in my life when dessert was very important to me.

When I got home I offered Devin my leftovers. He declined. I reheated them for lunch the next day, more out of obligation than hunger. It was then that I could see the breadstick for what it truly was: a hotdog bun sprinkled with garlic salt. And silly as it is, I felt disappointed by the whole experience. Then again, what did I expect?

The potency of nostalgia depends on our inability to time travel. It's why the tragically hip can get away with saying things like, "Before cellphones, people couldn't reach you all the time. It was so much better," or "I liked New York back when it was gritty and dangerous, you know?"

Memory lane was meant to remain a one way street.  When you start going back for a second look, you don't know what you're in for. This is especially true when you attempt to revisit your childhood. With the exceptions of Space Mountain and Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead, few favorites have held up.

Take, for example, waterparks. Years ago, after living a good decade of waterpark-less existence, I once again dipped my toes in its heavily-chlorinated waters. What I remembered as fun in the sun turned out to be terror in the tube, and I found myself clunking around in a fiberglass chute, choking on the rushing water while my bikini top and bottom shifted around to problematic positions.

Then there's Milo and Otis, a movie I revisited recently and repeatedly thanks to Oscar. I'd filed it away in my memory bank under "delightful baby animal romp," when all along it really belonged in "90 minutes of intense animal abuse and endangerment." The filmmakers send a kitten down river in a cardboard box. They make a puppy fight a bear. A bear.

But I think as a parent, I have a workaround for tarnishing fond childhood memories. My kids aren't adults experiencing things I loved as a kid; they're kids experiencing things I loved as a kid. Oscar's waterpark experience thus far  has been more like swimming pools, splash pads, and this small slide at a hotel, but he's loved every second of it, playing until he's so cold his lips turn purple. He frequently requests to watch Milo and Otis, and even quotes lines. It's a bonus, of course, that his little brother is named Milo so he has someone to address when he says, "Milo, get back here and eat your breakfast or the dogs will get it!"

One of the great joys of parenthood that people don't tell you -- or, more likely, that they tell you but you don't listen because it sounds so sentimental-- is that you get the opportunity to rediscover the world through your child's eyes. And I think we can all agree that kids probably have better judgment.

As I ate my microwaved Olive Garden leftover slop, Oscar looked up from his toys and pointed to the bowl in my lap, asking, "What's that?"
"It's my lunch. Ravioli in...some kind of pink sauce. Wanna try some?"
He wrinkled his nose. "No. It's poo poo."
"Yeah," I sighed. "You're right."

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