Diners, Drive-Ins, and Daughters

[Photograph: GuyFieri.com]

For my grandmother’s generation in postwar France, it was about simple peasant fare and making do with what you had.

For my mother, it was Julia Child, who made traditional cooking look easy. Later came the affable Graham “The Galloping Gourmet” Kerr, who made cooking look fun (even when it wasn’t) with liberal doses of fine wine and flirty banter.

For me, it was the debut of the Food Network in the early 1990s. The rage was for Ragin’ Cajun Emeril Lagasse and Paula “The More Butter the Better” Deen, and, to a lesser degree, Ree Drummond, a.k.a. The Pioneer Woman. In addition to sharing a love of good food, these cooks had something else in common: They were relatable, down-home folks who wouldn’t give you the side-eye if you didn’t know the difference between a bread knife and a steak knife.

But for today’s millennials — if my three girls and their friends are any indication — it’s all about the high-octane Guy Fieri, the flip-flop-wearing, bleached-platinum-spiky-haired host of the popular Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and other, more gimmicky shows. Cross Deen’s populist appeal with the delivery of a Pomeranian on speed, add a cast iron stomach, and you have the ubiquitous Fieri. From a North Pole Christmas at Big Daddy’s BarB-Q and Banquet Hall in Fairbanks, Alaska, to fried whole belly clams at Bob’s Clam Hut in Kittery, Maine, Fieri is like an Olympic torchbearer, except his torch is a convertible. Welcome to Flavortown, USA!

If you’re not in his target demographic, Fieri’s act can easily wear on you. The show is a celebration of high-volume, high-calorie gustatory overload. Subtlety has no place in this age of hyperbole. Fieri raves about nearly everything he tastes; when he really loves a dish, he licks his chops and declares it “off the hook.” He chats up the owners and mugs for the camera. He teases the chefs and often rolls up his sleeves to help out, adding ingredients or stirring the pot.

To be sure, Fieri is a born ham who revels in the spotlight, but it’s also clear that he genuinely loves the food. Fieri may not have the most refined tastes (you wonder how he’d do in a blindfolded taste test in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen), but that’s not what we expect from him. He isn’t looking for high art; he’s championing food — American food, at that — in the timeless tradition of the uncluttered highway and the small-town greasy spoon. And my kids, who grew up on Hamburger Helper and Bisquick quiche and pizza, are into it.

Consider my daughters: Adrienne, the eldest at 35, is a bona fide New York City foodie who, after three-plus years of renovation, still doesn’t have a fully functioning kitchen. She and her significant other consider themselves true gourmets and have made many road trips to Fieri-recommended eateries in their Prius.

Heather, at 33, fancies herself an unpaid restaurant critic. She spends hours on Pinterest, scrolling for recipes to comment on and/or criticize: “Ooh, doesn’t this cinnamon roll look ginormous?” or “I wouldn’t eat this slop even if you paid me.” She’s on a first-name basis with Guy and has never met a Fieri episode that she didn’t drool over.

Stephanie, 27, the baby of the bunch, loves to cook and bake, even when the temperatures would smoke a rattlesnake in Death Valley. While all my kids are obsessed with Fieri to varying degrees, she’s probably the most extreme. Her idea of a relaxing evening is a Triple D marathon; even though she’s seen many of the episodes several times over, she never gets tired of them, eating the food with her eyes. She’ll look up recipes featured on the show and plan menus around them. If a family vacation or a spur-of-the-moment road trip is coming up, she’ll bust out her GPS and map out a Triple D itinerary faster than a Donald Trump comeback on Twitter.

Why do they find Fieri so fascinating? Even they can’t adequately explain it. According to Fieri’s official bio, he may be close to the half-century mark, but in spirit and demeanor, he’s a 20-something beach bum, albeit one with a multimillion-dollar entrepreneurial empire.

Born in Ohio and raised in California, Fieri arguably has one of the coolest jobs in the world, combining two of America’s favorite pastimes: fast food and faster cars. He searches for pearls in a vast foodie wasteland. A surfer on wheels, Fieri’s on a perpetual adventure for the perfect meal — bigger, better, best.

How the world has changed. I remember when McDonald’s was a novelty. When Mom took my brother and me there, it was a genuine treat; the fries were gloriously crisp, the milkshakes thick and creamy. So what if the burgers tasted like hockey pucks? It was something new and untested, and we gobbled it up.

Fast food used to mean bad food, but no more. Nowadays, it’s rare that one has to settle for a cheap, tasteless meal in the US. We’ve developed a more discriminating national palate, and, simultaneously, we’ve become more willing to try unfamiliar foods from different cultures. As the de facto face of the Food Network, Fieri and his enthusiastic endorsements are at least partly responsible for that. You name it, he’s tried it: Korean, Polish, German cuisine. Fieri eats them all with a relish and gusto that are undeniably infectious.

My kids, and to a large extent their friends, are all saddled with student debt and decidedly unglamorous jobs. They live vicariously through Fieri; he has the freedom to do what they can’t. Who wouldn’t love stuffing themselves silly on someone else’s dime? Watching Fieri eat his way through rib joints and crab shacks on America’s back roads, and having such a good time doing it, is cheap entertainment after a hard day. Better still, they’ve found his reviews to be on the mark most of the time. After visiting a place he’s gushed about, they usually report back that the food is pretty damn good.

The Michelin Guide may still be the benchmark for international food lovers who want only the best in the world. But for young people who want what’s fun? They need only follow Fieri and his muscle car, and they don’t have to go too far — his roving, over-the-top ode to Americana is right in your own backyard, if you only know where to look.

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