Last week, I discussed a dilemma I recently faced while standing in the middle of Wal-Mart with an exhausted, hungry 7-year-old who had spotted the Dunkin’ Donuts counter and desperately wanted a donut. (Read "Yes, no, and "later" foods: why Walmart depresses me as a parent.") I didn't buy her the donut, but I reluctantly agreed to take her to Dunkin’ Donuts the following Sunday.
Many readers commented about what I’d done. Most of your comments were helpful and empathetic, and several of you even had great suggestions for the future (including how to make my own wreaths so I could stay out of Wal-Mart to begin with). I appreciated them all — even Jack’s comment that I had scored a Big Parenting F. The truth is, we parents do fail sometimes. We fail, then we fail, then we fail again. Sometimes we do OK too, and in the end we cross our fingers that the scale eventually tips more toward "OK" than "fail."
I read your comments. I reflected on the conversation that was taking place. Meanwhile, I took some of your advice: I looked around for a locally owned donut shop, I perused donut recipes, and I waited for Merrie, my daughter, to forget about the Dunkin’ Donuts promise.
She didn’t, of course.
In the end, here's what I did: I read her my whole post aloud, and I read her your comments (more or less; some of the strategies I decided to keep to myself for the time being). She listened attentively, smiled sheepishly when she heard the description of her Wal-Mart meltdown, raised her eyebrows in surprise at some of the comments, and even nodded thoughtfully at times.
When I finished reading, I said, “I like the idea of making donuts best of all. It would be so much fun to make donuts together.”
She was silent for a moment, then she looked down at her lap and spoke slowly. "Well...that would be fun… I mean, I want to…” Then she paused.
“But?” I said.
"But…I...guess I still want to try Dunkin' Donuts. Because Emily and Jana" — two friends of hers, not their real names — "eat there all the time. Emily goes to Dunkin’ Donuts every single Friday on her way to school. Jana goes after school, whenever she’s hungry and wants a snack. They always go. And I don't think I've ever been there, not even once."
I sighed. Here on the Ethicurean, it is so easy to dismiss people who make regular fare of fast food. We are Ethicureans. They are Fast Food People. Never the twain shall meet. But in real life, there are no such neat categories. We are all jumbled up together, moving in and out of each other’s lives fluidly, navigating our differences as gracefully as we can. Emily and Jana are two of her dearest friends. They’re good kids, and their parents are lovely people. Emily’s dad recently rescued me in single-degree weather after my car battery died on the side of a state highway. Jana’s mom is witty and smart, a hard-working business owner who still never fails to watch other people’s children, bake a chicken dish for a friend who's feeling low, or join whatever committee most needs her. These aren’t Fast Food People. They’re friends and neighbors, and I feel lucky to know them.
There was a long pause, and Merrie added, quietly, “I mean, I guess I just really wanted to know what Dunkin’ Donuts is like.”
And then it was clear: she was curious about life on the other side of the food divide. Already, Dunkin’ Donuts was beginning to take on more importance than the place was worth. Soon, it would have all the potential of the Mystery Prize Behind Curtain #3.
It was time to demystify the place, to strip it of any cache that it might have gained.
“Fair enough,” I said. “We can see what it's like. Tomorrow morning.”
Was she — and by extension I — responding to peer pressure? Yes. Are moments like this precisely why news reports say obesity and poor health habits are contagious? Probably. But on the other hand, Jana’s mom recently joined an organic CSA for the first time — inspired in part by a visit to my own CSA for me, when I was out of town. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that when we are all jumbled up together like this, that good things are contagious, too.
Anyhow, we went. We went the following morning, after offering up a gift to the Gods of Real Food (local eggs with local kale, scrambled in local butter and covered with local cheese). I ordered a coffee, Merrie a Boston cream donut.
While we waited, we talked a little bit about what we observed. Did Dunkin’ Donuts seem like the kind of place we’d want to spend a lot of time in? Were the people behind the counter treating customers like friends, the way they do at our favorite coffee shop? Did the seats seem comfortable? Were there any vegetables or fruits, anywhere in sight? No, no, no, and no.
Here’s what we could say: it looked clean. It was fast. It was cheap.
We sat down, and I sipped my coffee. It wasn’t bad, although I realized with some horror that I was sipping out of a Styrofoam cup (who still uses Styrofoam? Didn’t McDonald’s do away with Styrofoam like 20 years ago?).
Then, about halfway through her donut, she slowed down. She looked up at me and surprised me by saying, "Maybe this isn’t the right Dunkin’ Donuts. Maybe other ones are better.”
“You don’t like your donut?”
“Well, I do. I just thought it would be….better. Maybe other Dunkin’ Donuts are better.”
“Actually, they’re all the same,” I said. “That’s the whole idea of chain restaurants. They have the exact same food, everywhere you go. It's all prepared the same way, too. Everything about the place is the same — the menu, the colors of the tables, the uniforms that the employees wear, all of it. The food isn’t special, but it tastes the same everywhere.”
She thought about that for a moment, and then asked, “Then why do people like it? I mean, Grandma J. eats here all the time.”
“Well, some people — like Grandma J. — find sameness comforting. It makes them nervous to try new things. They feel safe when they know exactly what they’ll order, and what it will taste like, no matter whether they’re in Florida, or California…”
“…or Vermont,” she finished.
“Right.” I said. “But me? I like when things are different. I like that the cheese from Cricket Creek Farm tastes different from cheese that we find anywhere else. I like eating kale one day, and squash the next day. And if I go to a restaurant, I’d prefer one that isn’t quite like any other, so that everything we see and smell and taste and hear is a little different from what we’d find anywhere else. Then the whole experience becomes a kind of adventure.”
She nodded. “Yeah, I like adventures.”
I waited a little bit, as she finished her donut. Then I asked about how this trip compared to some of her favorite local haunts — all of them locally owned, with a connection to the local food movement. “So I'm curious. Would you rather go here? Or Brew Ha Ha?”
She grinned, licking her fingers. “Brew Ha Ha.”
Here? Or Izabella’s?”
“Here? Or the Blue Benn?”
“Here, or the food co-op?”
I nodded. “Yeah, me too. All of them.”
It could have gone a different way, of course. She could have fallen in love with the place, decided it was her favorite restaurant ever. But as we sat there, surrounded by cold, hard plastic, watching people who did not speak to one another, all eating their breakfast out of unceremonious paper bags, I realized that perhaps that had been the least likely option all along. In the end, maybe even to kids, Dunkin' Donuts offers only what it promises: fast, cheap donuts that are identical from store to store.
I thought about Jana's mom, about how I know — I mean I know — she will love her first year at our CSA. I remember my own first summer there — the way I was floored, literally floored, week after week, by the farm's bounty, community spirit, and jaw-dropping beauty. I remember being struck by the smell of the place, the notion that sources of food should have smells, and by the rich sensory pleasure I'd found, so different from the antiseptic supermarkets and convenience stores and fast food outlets that had defined American food for me until that point.
Merrie and I gathered our things and left. On our way out the door, Merrie looked up at me and said, “Mom, I’ll bet that when we make donuts, they'll be a lot better.”
I put my arm around her, and said, “I hope so. But you know what? If we don’t like them, we can talk about what we’d do differently next time. Then we can try it again another time. We’ll just keeping playing with the recipe until we really love them.”
“Like an adventure.”
We climbed back into the car, and drove away. I glanced at Dunkin’ Donuts in my rearview mirror, and smiled.
Sure, they had gotten a couple of bucks from us. But I’m pretty sure we’re done with the place, at least for a while.