Chili’s in New York City: An Investigation
Indiana Governor Mike Pence accepted the Vice Presidential spot on the now Trump/Pence ticket. Then he did something that bread (haha) controversy:
— Mike Pence (@mike_pence) July 16, 2016
This opened up a dialogue. Allegedly, this began when some people mocked Pence for eating at Chili’s in New York City. I caught the second phase, which was people defending the choice. Then came the third phase, which accused everybody in Phase Two of being faux-populist because Chili’s is trash and everybody knows it.
It was an endless plate of meta.
But it brought to light several questions:
- Is it acceptable to eat at Chili’s in New York City when there are other options available?
- Why, precisely, was Mike Pence eating at Chili’s in New York City? Was he trying to flash some working class cred and engage in some culture wars, or is he a tasteless dweeb without sufficient taste and sophistication?
- Is it acceptable to criticize him for doing so, and suggest that it is indicative of said lack of taste and sophistication? Or does that make you an elitist?
- Is it acceptable to defend eating at Chili’s in New York? Or does that make you a phony populist?
One of the more interesting aspects of this discussion is the notion that Chili’s represents “working class” to begin with. It doesn’t, especially, in my view. I associate it more with middle class, in suburbia, small cities, and large towns. For those on the left talking up phony populism, and those on the right trying to demonstrate populism, Chili’s is an odd hill on which to do battle. It’s not especially inexpensive. Apart from Denny’s, none of them carry a blue class vibe. Outside of the bar, they cater as much as anything to families on their night out as anything, and groups of people who all want to grab a bite to eat and want something they can agree on. Places of this sort tend to have wide and varied menus that can cater to different people at once.
Due to my biography, the place I most recognized this dynamic was small city and big town America. In suburbia you sort of take these places for granted, but in Deseret it was a big deal to get one of these restaurants. That’s not because there’s no good local cuisine, exactly. In fact, in Deseret, you have an unusually high assortment of restaurants with dishes from all across the world. (Think Mormons, who like to open businesses and many of whom spend two years overseas in foreign cultures.) But you grow up and you see these ads for places on TV and then you find out they’re opening one here! Wow! You can finally get those dishes that you keep hearing about!
And they’re not bad. They’re median food, almost definitionally. They’ve been field tested extensively by corporations with a lot of resources and a strong motivation to figure out what median people like. You don’t have to like it, but if you think it’s trash then… yes… you run the risk of snobbery or elitism. Even if you aren’t, you are in the company of a lot of people that are.
On the other hand, if you think they are unremarkable and you’re puzzled as to why someone would go all Michael Scott and eat at Chili’s in New York City, I get that. As with a lot of things snobbery-related, a lot of it depends on the delivery. If you feel the need to denigrate Chili’s, though, well that came come across poorly. If you’re of the mind that Pence wanted that reaction, well maybe he did. But if people took the bait, they took the bait. If you don’t want to get caught up in the “dining wars” of casual dining chains, then don’t. And if you’re a snob, then own it. (I’m not a snob about food, but I can be a snob about other things.)
I don’t know Pence’s motivations and don’t much care. I could see him thinking that he could get a rise out of people by eating at Chili’s. Or that this could be a homespun appeal to Regular Folk. On the other hand, the guy had a really big weekend and there was a lot going on. When we last moved across the country, we passed through a lot of good food towns and ate chains. Why? Because food wasn’t really the point. We just wanted something reliably good (to us) and get on our way. Mike Pence was just tapped to be a Vice Presidential nominee and had gone to New York on the equivalent of a last-minute business trip. I can certainly imagining myself finding comfort in Chili’s under those circumstances.
Truth be told, though, I didn’t actually see as much original outcry as I saw outcry against the outcry. Which is to say, by the time I caught wind of the conversation, it was people saying “Actually, Chili’s is okay” and “Chili’s is awesome” and “Screw the snobs!” This is not uncommon. Either I miss the first round, or as often as not the blowback to the thing is bigger than the thing. But even if we accept that some people did go ahead and mock Pence for his pedestrian ways, and we figure on the blowback, the third round was people telling people in the second round that they can’t possibly like Chili’s (or can’t not have a problem with Pence eating there).
That’s actually a more severe statement than “I don’t like Chili’s” and even “Chili’s is crap.” The first is a statement of personal taste, but even the second allows for some disagreement in the “Okay, you like crap.” This, though, is to suggest that Chili’s is so bad that anyone above a certain who claims to like it is a liar.
This lead to the anti-Chili’s populist argument that it’s actually more insulting to the normals to “pretend” you like Chili’s than to insult it. That was kind of a new one on me. I can sort of get the argument that “Actually, Chili’s isn’t that cheap so there’s nothing working class about it.” As mentioned, Chili’s isn’t exactly a working class haven and so it’s not a working class populist deal. Or more precisely, the “class” argument with regard to Chili’s works both ways. But this takes us into a weird space where it’s practically suggesting that liking Chili’s is, in itself, putting a bone in your nose to fit in with the locals. Not anything a sensible person would ever do.
So yeah, let’s chill out about Chili’s. Try their southwestern eggrolls. Good stuff. Or don’t, because it’s not your thing. But let someone else try it, and like it, even if it doesn’t seem like it should. Don’t rise to the bait of politicians baiting you, if that’s what they’re doing. And if that’s not what they’re doing, Chili’s really isn’t such a bad place if you’re a politician crunched for time, want something reliably good, and need to be asking yourself serious questions about your life choices.