Notes From A Synthetic Environment

For the past five days I’ve been living in an unreal, unearthly limbo.

I’m at a professional conference, in a 34 story hotel, in Chicago. I could easily have no idea what time it is. I certainly have no idea what the weather is like. My menus over the past few days read something like this:

  • Breakfast: slushy yellow paste – scrambled eggs? Maybe. Powdered eggs? Likely. Coffee.
  • Lunch: pasta, probably, though resources prevented thorough testing. Vegetables, possibly dating from Carter administration, certainly from Reagan. Coffee.
  • Dinner: Burger. Again. I believe my capacity to enjoy a pint of beer and a hamburger may finally be approaching its limits.

I think a lot of people live like this all the time.

I really have no idea who made any of these things. I don’t know where they were grown, when they were grown, how they were grown, or by who they were grown. They just emerged from the bowels of the hotel. Somehow.

Moments like this remind me of how close I’ve gotten to my food. Sometimes I’ve known it by name (Bruno, you were a tasty, tasty lamb). Often I’ve helped raise it or harvest it or at the very least had some contact with the producer. Even when it does get to me through the long, long Rube Goldberg of the food supply chain, I’ve had the luxury of choosing ffrom what endpoint in that chain I will purchase it.

And that might be the most critical point of all – choice.

Even if I do fall off the wagon and, for convenience or indulgence or necessity, set aside my values and pick up a burger or order a pizza or grab something from the cafe at the office, I am the one saying, “Tonight I choose to compromise” and slapping a twenty down on the counter at Dick’s and bringing burgers and fries home.”

I am the one saying it. But there is no choice in the Synthetic Environment, not really.

Cream of Mushroom Soup Cannoli?

Once or twice a year I end up at one of these shindigs, for a day or four. I’m hardly a regular road warrior or convention traveler. Every time I start of with a sort of gleeful secret inside me: hehe, I get to eat crap and not care or worry and it is totally getting paid for.

It is like a free pass, a don’t-give-a-fuck-and-don’t-feel-guilty card. Chicago’s a fabulous food town but I don’t have the time or the budget, sorry, so it’s hotel food for me. I know I should be saving my body and saving the environment but the option just isn’t there.

They have both kinds of buffet fruits: crunchy orange and crunchy green.

And for the first day or so, it is a joyous, liberating sensation. I’m not muddy or wet. I’m not chasing chickens back into the yard. I’m just sitting on a barstool with some mindless meal beside me and a book in front of me. I’m not caring about how much it cost or if it was the right decision.


But now, on day four, I hate it. The food feels as synthetic as the HVAC-pumped air and the polyester comforter. Can I please have some kale? Are there any broccoli stems lying around in the kitchen that I can absent-mindedly munch on?  Why is this egg such a sad, flaccid thing?

Erica, honey, I know I’ll be home soon, but do you think you could FedEx me some cauliflower?


  1. says

    I love your occasional articles, they really round out this blog. I love the unashamed way you bring your corporate tech day-to-day realities and super anylitical brain into what might otherwise be an overly gardenlifebubble. Thanks for keepin it real!

  2. says

    That second picture kind of freaks me out. WTF is that? It can’t be pasta…can it? It always amazes me when I take a break and eat some crappy food just how crappy that crappy food makes me feel. And then I start feeling guilty. Maybe I just need to stop eating crappy food altogether?

    • says

      Deep fried mushrooms fried by someone who hates mushrooms, deep-fried foods, and possibly life, then left in a steamtable for 180 minutes to de-laminate is my guess.

    • Just Nick says

      I can confirm from the little index card label at the buffet that those were, indeed, deep fried mushrooms.

  3. says

    In April I was travelling for two whole weeks, four hotels/B&Bs in all (for work). You describe it exactly, by the end of the 2nd or 3rd day I am SO ready to stop eating fake crap. (although a few hotels in Nova Scotia have fabulous a bit more local-ish fare…).

  4. says

    When I go on trips like that, in order to avoid factory farmed meat and eggs, I usually end up getting oatmeal EVERY morning, and the vegetarian option at other meals, but you said it … what decade are those veggies from! And I get really tired of instant oatmeal that costs a ton. I feel for you!

  5. says

    Much sympathy, and thanks for the chuckle at the end begging for a Fed-Ex shipment of fresh food. One sentence really stood out for me. “I think a lot of people live like this all the time.” Unfortunately, I think you’re right, and I think it’s a major reason why so many people in the U.S. are so unhealthy.

    • Just Nick says

      That’s exactly what this post was born around, Alison, this realization that the black-box of food production is the norm for a lot of people. And it was really validating to have this experience and confirm that even though it is a great deal of work to know/control where we get our food from, in the end run it is worth it!

  6. MrsWJAA says

    The next time you plan to go out for a stay, bring a cooler / ice chest with a couple of packs of fresh hardy veggies for snacks (think carrots, broccoli, etc.). Then you can get your veggie fix.

    Or, if the rooms have microwaves (not exactly the best, I know), you could bring along a few ‘freezer meals’ from home to suppliment the crap food. (When there are leftovers at home, put them on a divided plate, cover, and keep in the freezer)

    • Just Nick says

      Actually on the first day of the conference, they did have carrot sticks and celery as mid-afternoon snacks! It was great! But as things wore on the snack choices eventually drifted down to Dorito’s in a handy-size grab bag…

  7. says

    Most people never even understand that the “food” they are eating day day out is as bad as it is. We have the same dilemma when we travel….

  8. Lady Banksia says

    Erica – are you feeling ‘toxic’ yet? I’d overnight you some beets from the garden if I thought you had a way to cook them… :^)

    Pamina et al: speaking of oatmeal, has anyone besides me ever put a packet of that pre-fab instant oatmeal through a series of 2 or 3 fine-mesh sieves? (Start with a regular-mesh, then a finer one, then a finer one yet.) Oughta do it, just for kicks, and then look over what is left behind in each one.

    • Lady Banksia says

      oh, wait, I thought it was you, Erica, that was traveling… missed that HB Hubby was on the road and wrote. Sorry – my bad.

  9. ShellsBells says

    Oh the powdered eggs from the buffet line….*shudder*. I have had a few jobs that had me on the road for a few months at a time a couple times a year and I have nightmares about those “eggs”.

  10. says

    This reminds me of how I felt after a week in New Orleans, I told my SO I felt like a goose that had been fattened for the feast. At least it was delicious!

  11. Alice says

    As a Chicagoan, I am hideously ashamed by my city. Which hotel are you located? We have some awesome, and locally grown, food in the city – please don’t take this as a representation of what we have to offer! Quick! Find Topolobampo as if your life depended on it!

    • says

      Don’t take it personally, Alice. These ginormo events are outside any real location: they are serviced by huge global food service corporations with huge trucks full of boxes of frozen, pre-breaded, deep-frier ready mushrooms. They are the same, everywhere. It would be the same in Seattle or Miami or Los Angeles. Sadly. :) Nick was bummed that his schedule didn’t allow him to dive into the real food scene of Chicago, because we’ve both heard nothing but good. He did get away for some excellent pizza one night. :)

  12. says

    I try to avoid work travel as much as possible, because I miss my garden, my animals and most of, my real food. I have been known to get on an airplane with a litre of fresh raw cow’s milk, a litre of homemade yoghurt and several kg of homekill beef + various veges from the garden :) and lots of eggs.

  13. says

    Yes, yes, YES! Goodness gracious, yes. You have summed up my disdain for conference / hotel food (and conference living in general) very nicely here. I just got done with a short jaunt to Disney for a conference, and one of the afternoon snacks was… FLAMING DONUTS. Donuts flambe. Whatever.

    (I will say that they did this lovely creamy quinoa with fresh fruit as an option for breakfast, though).

    • Just Nick says

      Disney conference hotel…that wouldn’t happen to have been the Swan & Dolphin, would it? Aargh, the Swan & Dolphin…no, anything but there!

  14. Arrianne says

    I make the mistake of ordering eggs every once and a while. Eggs! I love eggs! I’ll have the eggs. Then the “eggs” come . . .

  15. says

    When I was a “road warrior” I always found myself wishing that I’d packed my own carton of eggs, so I could send two of them back to the hotel kitchen every morning to be prepared for me.

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