Burgers for Tigers

Training Tables

Everything the NCAA touches turns to a waste of money. Whatever illusions we may retain of scholar-athletes enhancing their formal education with the character-building that team sports provides, college athletics is in reality a multibillion dollar media industry. In 39 states the most highly-compensated public employee is either a football or basketball coach.

Colleges and universities rely on these coaches, the everpresent media and communications teams, and trainig staffs that rival professional sports franchises' to deliver higher recruiting and alumni giving numbers in ways that must be always plausible but never entirely verifiable or deniable. And these ancillary training staffs are much more important than their relative lack of fame might lead you to believe: ever higher performance expectations from college athletes are pushing the bounds of fields like sports medicine, conditioning, and nutrition.

Take nutrition. Board plans in ages past were used as a way to keep an eye on players: place the team together in a dorm and dining hall and you will at least have some idea of where they are and what they are doing on a given evening. But as the NCAA has continued to crack down on emoulements to players – because the foundation of this multibillion dollar industry is that the actual athletes must never, ever receive any renumeration – it has begun to limit how often free meals can be given to players. How often, but not what: "Training Tables" are becoming famous for the quality of their fare, as well as drawing some criticism for putting flash and player preference over the athletes' nutrition needs.

And the nutrition needs of college football players are mind-boggling. Harvard recommends that linemen eat 5000 calories a day, and "skills" players 4000. (For comparison, the USDA's hopelessly oversimplified dietary recommendation is 2000 calories a day for an adult.) Players need extensive protein and fat, as well as complex carbohydrates for extended energy, and it can be difficult to actually fit 5000 calories in a day without relying on sugars.

Shabazz Napier, then point guard for UConn, caused some controversy a few years ago when he complained about food insecurity as an athlete; and while people reviled him the fact is that his nutrition was not particularly more secure than any other college student's (UConn not offering a training table), and as his alma mater only manages to graduate 8% of her men's basketball student-athletes, the question of how well they are being compensated for their part in the money faucet remains worth asking. The nutritional silver bullet has not been found yet, but college coaches are increasingly concerned about how much and what their players eat, while prospective players are increasingly interested in what the college they are touring will feed them.

A Frightful Dump

Everything the White House Chief Usher touches turns into a referendum on American culture. Chief Usher Timothy Harleth came to the White House from the nearby Trump Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue where he was Director of Rooms. This is the position that coordinates guest services, valet services, housekeeping, food services, and communications; in the DC area the position earns on average $86,000 per year. Emily Jane Fox in Vanity Fair panned Trump Hotel in DC as "a frightful dump" which served mostly to put the word "TRUMP" on any surface capable of holding it, serving $20 lettuce wedges buzzing with flies.

The Chief Usher position evolved out of the President's personal staff, who began to be Federal employees in the 1850s (before that they were paid out of the President's pocket, or in the case of slaveholding Presidents were often the President's slaves). The Chief Usher's responsibilities are almost identical to that of a Director of Rooms, with the exception that the Chief Calligrapher holds most of the communications brief.

The actual cooking in the White House Mess is done by Navy personnel, and Sailors also serve as the official stewards, under the Chief Usher's direction (the position of White House Executive Chef is generally given to a civilian; the position has been held by Christina Comerford since 2005).

Food has been a powerful and important symbol for Presidents throughout US history. They have used it both to awe and to make welcome; to highlight and to obfuscate the power of their office. The formal state dinner is usually in the "awe" column: continental cuisine and white tie, although Bill Clinton also held a barbecue in a tent in Lafayette Park as a state dinner. Barack Obama "had a beer" (brewed in the White House) with James Crowley and Skip Gates after the former arrested the latter, and another with Dakota Meyer before presenting him the Medal of Honor.

There is a rhetoric to food that is lost in the modern globalized economy. While one will still hear complaints about people buying "steak and lobster" with food stamps, these lack conviction and most importantly lack voice from the under-60 crowd, because steak and lobster aren't actually particularly expensive as groceries go anymore. When I was a child, and shrimp harvesting was still done by small boats with small nets, shrimp cocktail was powerfully luxurious and a sign of wealth, whereas now that the harvesting is done by giant trawlers denuding the depths of prawn, a tray of 60 can be had at Costco for $8 (with sauce and lemon). Herbert Hoover (not, as it is often misremembered, FDR) campaigned on the promise of "a chicken in every pot": in 1928 the idea of a normal family eating meat every day was a kind of triumphal exceptionalist fantasy of luxury, and beans were still the daily protein for a large part of the country; in 2019, the idea of asking Americans to limit meat consumption to 1 chicken a day would be too radical to even contemplate.

In an era of absolute abundance, formerly spectacular foods seem humdrum. In an era where people are so disconnected from food preparation that they complain to Chipotle about seeing a bay leaf in the rice, the intimacy offered by "authentic" food requires an education that undoes that intimacy. When Safeway carries five dozen different microbreweries' beers, you have to be told that your beer was brewed in the White House itself for it to seem special (though at least Obama's master brewer did not fall into the 2010s' obsession with stuffing as many hops as possible into the wort). With those signals gone, the only remaining symbols to convey what the food once did are the place settings and the attire (and even then, with nearly all American men's formal wear compressed into the tuxedo, it can be blurry – the tuxedo was once the least formal wear you could go out in for an evening, say for a few drinks with friends at your club.)

You would think that a President in 2019 would be hard-pressed, then, to convey any kind of message with food. And you would be wrong.

An Epic Feast

Everything Donald Trump touches turns into a giant dumpster fire. He is a man who lives a bizarrely self-defeating kind of defiant permanent tantrum: a man who, when he sees a drawer, absolutely must slam his balls in it over and over again, each time more angrily saying "I'll show that drawer now".

On January 7th, Clemson absolutely crushed Alabama in the national college football championship (sponsored by AT&T). A week later, Trump hosted the winning team at the White House, including a meal paid for out of Trump's own pocket, of 300 hamburgers from Wendy's, McDonalds, and Burger King. The images were as unfortunate as every attempt he makes at being grand: 350-pound walls of muscle in suits standing with cardboard Big Mac boxes on china plates. Trump later lied about the number of burgers, inflating it to 1000, but the desired effect was instant: liberal and mainstream media outlets were a mix of horrified fascination and outright mockery, and conservatives declared Trump the savior of American cuisine. "AN EPIC FEAST", said Dakota Meyer on Facebook, and Tomi Lahren declared that the choice showed Trump's unmistakable status as an American.

The reception itself was politically questionable, regardless of the food. The US government is partially shut down, with 300,000 workers working without pay and a further 500,000 furloughed entirely. These workers include the TSA officers and Air Traffic Control officers responsible for the athletes' flights to DC. Some people thought the reception should be called off or delayed; Trump himself stated (falsely) that the kitchen staff at the White House were furloughed.

The choice of fast food was surprising enough; the particular restaurants were flat-out puzzling. While McDonalds has several locations close to the White House, Wendy's are thin in the city (the closest one being in Swampoodle at the island between New York and Florida avenues), and Burger Kings are essentially unknown (the closest one is in the Pentagon, and there is a publicly accessible one two miles west at Columbia Pike and Monroe). But DC is famously the home of one of the biggest success stories in fast casual history, Five Guys Burgers and Fries. You actually have to walk past two of them if you walk from the White House to the nearest McDonalds. Routinely in the running for best cheap burgers nationwide, the chain has gone from one location in 1986 to 5 in 2001, and in the 18 years since has expanded to over 1500 locations worldwide, including the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai, the Champs-Elysee in Paris, and two locations in Clemson, SC.

Even more puzzling was that Trump, who operates a hotel four blocks from the White House, chose not to have the event catered by its restaurant, BLT Prime by David Burke. The restaurant was originally slated to be run by José Andrés. Andrés dropped the plan in protest of Trump's racial rhetoric, and is now offering free sandwiches to furloughed Federal employees at his restaurants (sadly not including Minibar). So David Burke got the job.

Burke won several "Chef of the Year" awards in the 1990s but never quite broke into the celebrity chef circuit. His few TV appearances were lackluster (he even managed to lose to Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America). His restaurants – mostly in Manhattan – gradually went from innovative high-concept to pedestrian as the rest of the food industry caught up with his generation of chefs. BLT is a stodgy steakhouse in a city that was known 20 years ago for stodgy steakhouses but which in the meantime has become a world-class food destination and one of the pillars of New Soul cuisine in the US. BLT does have, among the $45 tomahawks and the $20 wedge salads, a $25 burger. And he does events.

The Hall of Fame Bowl, brought to you by Outback Steakhouse

Everything NCAA Football touches turns into a lucrative opportunity for a few select schools. For decades, different cities hosted bowl games in late December and early January. These were enriching media deals for the schools invited and tourism boons for the cities. Over time the bowl management was taken over by sponsoring corporations, such that the Sugar Bowl became the Allstate Bowl, the Cotton Bowl became the Goodyear Bowl, etc. Bids were made based on regional contracts with more of an eye to broadcast media than to any sense of finding the best team in the country. After all the bowls were finished, a group of coaches and sports journalists would sit around and "decide" who "won" the season that year, but this was mostly just to give men something else to complain about after the season was over. (The process resulted more than once in a team being declared champion over a team that had beaten them, which was likened to a Presidential candidate winning the popular vote but losing the electoral college.)

Then in 2014 NCAA gave in to fan pressure and constructed a slightly less arbitrary system for determining a NCAA football champion. Since a normal round-robin tournament was out of the question, and since most teams don't play each other during the season, and since the bowls are incredibly lucrative for their broadcasters, hosts, and participating schools, it was decided to maintain the bowl system more or less intact but seed some picks (rotating among the most ancient and lucrative of the bowls) as a four-team semifinal, whose winners meet in a Championship Bowl whose hosting is bid on like the Superbowl in football.

2018 was the fifth season to use this scheme (the 2018 season's championship is held in 2019, because why not?) and several of the traditions around this game are still forming. Trump did not, for instance, invite Alabama to the White House after they beat Georgia last year, but Obama did invite Clemson (again, over Alabama) after the 2016 season. Whether the process will continue remains to be seen, but this year's invitation will no doubt be a factor in that decision, one way or the other.

Some things are better than others

Taste (in both the gastronomic and general senses) has stalked Trump's campaign and administration, and his public life since it began: he has none, he is proud of having none, and he will do his very best to make you feel bad for having any, you out-of-touch elitist.

The most discussed and most problematic idea in food criticism right now is "authenticity", and it attracts passion because the judgment on the food is always projected onto its preparers and consumers. Are there people who should not cook some dishes? Consume some dishes? Profit from some dishes? Alter some dishes in their preparation? Educate others about some dishes? The fraught minefield brings in colonialism, racism, capitalism, sexism, generationalism, environmentalism, and the entire merry band of intersectionality.

The most discussed and most problematic idea in politics right now is also "authenticity". And for every pair of hipsters who argue about whether this or that phở is authentic, there are a pair of scions of the Scotch- Irish post-industrial diaspora who are certain that, whatever the status of the soup, it's the person asking that question who has lost authenticity. This is a game Trump plays very well, and he knows that fast food straddles these two questions admirably: the formed pink slime and textured protein in a Big Mac may have only the most tenuous relationship to actual beef, but the God-fearing sombitch who eats it in his pickup is as real as Americans get. In a time of unprecedented access to a wide variety of minimally processed foods, people choose the processing that they are familiar with.

Despite the number of people who mocked Trump for eating steak with ketchup (this is apparently not true) and well done (this apparently is true), I haven't yet seen a review of Trump Steaks that called them "bad" in any objective sense: they're perfectly normal, boring steaks. His wine (which he doesn't drink) is an absolutely bog-standard boring California blend. The suspiscion is not that he's actively promoting bad food, but that he simply doesn't appreciate, understand, or care about the difference between bad and good.

Everything Donald Trump touches turns into a piece of plastic Trump-branded memorabilia commemorating the event. I believe that our country is divided, and it is divided over aesthetics – over taste. It is divided over whether the fine and the shameful are the same or different, and over whether shame is an appropriate response to shameful behavior or is merely social conditioning. I find the stack of cardboard burger boxes on White House silver to be shameful, to be something I wish to hide and not let others see. To Trump, and to people who like Trump, it is a triumph: a final thumb in the eye of elitists like me who believe that some things are actually better than others, and that people can be (and should be) educated into understanding and appreciating that.

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