San Diego: Sea World, the Zoo, and a Fine Meal at the Nursing Home

it’s funny how vacations to places like Sea World and the San Diego Zoo are both completely reproducible, as uniform and indifferent as a can of peas to who you are, and yet are nevertheless cherished by individual visitors who have their own idiosyncratic experience of the place.

now that we have the Unreliable Narrator, i’m acutely aware of the mass migration of parents with kiddies on summer vacation and the places we go to amuse and delight them. how many zillions of pictures of shamu with tail arched over the back are there now on flickr? how many snaps (or videos) of kiddie looking back at daddy, with finger pointed at the glass of the penguin enclosure, asking, “why is that penguin lying on top of the other one?”

it’s meant to be special family time but can be, and so often is, very generic. and yet so enjoyable. altogether and all at once not at all a contradiction.

it turns out the UN was initially terrified of the “sea creature”/acrobats of cirque de la mer, sea world’s cirque-du-soleil-like aquatic/acrobatics show in one of their lagoons. i think he was scared by the creatures’ black swim goggles; not being able to see eyes on another human being is scary. but by the end of the trip, he was imitating, on any available mattress surface, their flips and twists into the water. (there’s no jumping on beds at home but on vacation, on a hotel bed? we have the same reactions as when we park clumsily in a rental car—eh, rental car.)

while in san diego, we ate at the venerable San Diego Chicken Pie Shop. it amazes me how a 6″ diameter chicken pot pie smothered in yellow gravy and accompanied by a scoop of mashed potatoes with a smattering of over-tender green beans on the side signifies “home cooking” or “meals like mom used to make” to so many people.

for a time, my mom cooked “american food”…weird things like ‘ambrosia’—sour cream, canned mandarin orange slices, grapes, canned fruit cocktail, shredded coconut, canned pineapple, miniature marshmallows, and walnuts—that she got the recipes for out of Sunset magazine. i still hold it against Sunset for supplying the blueprints for mom’s awful picnic contributions–a jello mold would’ve been fine–and for shaping her ideas of what “american” food was.

what’s remarkable to me is how San Diego Chicken Pie Shop‘s vision of cooking is not racially or ethnically marked by whiteness (which it is, big, ole honky Whiteness with a capital W), but instead feels historical: a time machine for your tastebuds, when sweet and salty were basically the only two flavors worth mentioning. eating at the San Diego Chicken Pie Shop is the culinary equivalent of a civil war re-enactment of food sensibility, a visit to a colonial williamsburg of the tongue. in this special land, decorated with chickens of all kinds and the odd bantam rooster, we can conjure a pre-betty friedan 1950s mom happy to whip up some comfort food in a time before trans-fats, hysterical carb-watching, or organic anything. (the sign above the cash register reads, with rosie-the-riveter pluckiness: “the rooster may crow, but the hen delivers!”)

the chicken pot pies are very good (for a six dollar dinner that includes a slice of fruit pie, plus a beverage and a salad or soup). i suspect the chicken meat is twice cooked: de-boned from old roasted chickens and cooked to tender shreds in a veggie-free sauce inside a thoroughly average crust. the coleslaw is finely shredded and indeed, slaw-like. (i loathe slaw, sauerkraut, cabbage of any kind. ’nuff said about that.) the vegetable soup’s homemade and originates from a pleasantly beefy stock with big chunks of victory-garden surplus: zucchinis, cabbage leaves, lumpen potatoes, carrots as big around as your big toe, the tomatoes that overflow their beds at this time of year, onions… i.e., all the unlovely cinderella’s stepsisters of the veggie world, not a baby this or fingerling that among them.

do i sound depressed? it was a fine meal. filling. and even nutritious.

people for whom this was the sole way of eating are becoming fewer and far in between. me, i felt like i was eating at the commissary of a nursing home. and a mighty fine meal at the nursing home it was, too.

i wanted to find my time machine (or at the very least a baja fresh, if not a more adventurous place) and set the dials back to the 21st century.

heresy alert: i love frozen marie callendar pot pies, even frozen swansen pot pies. they’re a guilty pleasure–have you SEEN the trans fats listing on a marie callendar frozen pot pie? i rest my case. the crusts on those microwaveable/bakeable wonders are the best, dipped in corn-starchy gravy from the pie’s innards. it’s not San Diego Chicken Pie Shop’s pies, it’s something more than the time warp; it’s what the food and the theme park you eat it in respresent.

of my past i will say that i grew up among working class white folks in a small upstate new york town, so far upstate it was almost canada. the family next to us lived, literally, in a glorified shack; their idea of an upscale remodel, in the late ’70s, was to remake their ramshackle ranch house into a brand-spanking new pre-fab log cabin. i kid you not. PRE-FAB LOG CABIN. and whenever they cooked hash browns, the smell of hot oil, potatoes and cheap meat wafted over from their yard to ours and smelled like nothing else than hot cat food.

for a little chinese american girl growing up in bumfuck, new york, there was no choice but upward mobility. up and out, because up meant OUT. my future in that little town was unthinkable, and the present, barely habitable.

so for me eating what white folks ate in 1959, recreated to a T, but here and now in the present day, isn’t comfort food. it’s claustrophobic FREAK-ME-OUT-THE-WALLS-ARE-CLOSING-IN, GET-ME-THE-FUCK-OUTTA-HERE food.

the unquestioned whiteness, the suffocating domesticity…it’s never bothered me before. but this time it hit me hard. i must be getting old: it’s effortful to be all hipster-”ironic”–why am i doing all this work to excuse away the things that don’t appeal?

so if you’re okay with a kitschy take on “comfort food” in a “so earnest, it forgot to be ironic way,” you’ll groove on the San Diego Chicken Pie Shop.

if you harbor darker demons, you might want to go elsewhere.

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