Most Americans only seriously think about bowls on April 20th. But times are changing. The man-devouring wheels of the ol’ restaurant game roll forever on, and surprise of surprises, bowls have become a startling heap of food-win, upon which business upon business throws love and marketing dollars.
Is there a problem with your sandwich line? A bowl will suffice. Is there some deep conundrum with your salads? Bowl them. Is there a law of federal health or personal taste that you will violate by combining two types of kale? No worries: put it all in a bowl.
When did bowls become hip? When I was a child, a bowl was to be escaped: it was the lot of criminal children and the best canines could hope for. Pressing all your food items together was a terrible fate for separate ingredients. Why bother to cook them at all? Bowls were the equivalent of those mass stadium weddings where hundreds of people are married into the eternal frigid bliss—why would you mix everything together? It made no sense. KFC began the practice, clawing at relevance. Comedian Patton Oswalt was on the case years ago:
Okay, stop right there. Can you pile all of those items into a single bowl, just kinda make ‘em into a wet mound of starch that I can eat with a spoon like I’m a death row prisoner on suicide watch? Could I just have that instead?
“Um, yes, we can do that. We can also arrange those on a plate like you’re an adult with dignity and self-respect. You don’t have to actually eat your food out of a single bowl.”
Fuck that, I’m done, I don’t give a shit. Just pile all those things in a bowl. Is there a way that the bowl can play This Mortal Coil’s “It’ll End In Tears” album while I’m eating it at 2 in the morning in my darkened apartment, just kinda staring into the middle distance?
KFC’s famous bowls, that’s their top selling item. Can’t keep ‘em — American has spoken: Pile my food in a fucking bowl, I don’t give a shit, I’ll have it all in one fuckin’ — I just want kind of a light brown hillock of glop. If you could put my lunch in a blender and liquefy it and then put it into a caulking gun and inject it right into my femoral artery, even better. But until you invent a Lunch Gun, I would like a failure pile in a sadness bowl. That is what I want.
Like most great jokes—like the idea of World War—the notion of the shameful bowl never died; it endured, it triumphed; it broke free of KFC and walked to and fro upon the Earth. As Jessie Kissinger wrote for Esquire:
The good news for Oswalt: the Famous Bowl was demoted to an optional menu item at KFC last year. The bad news: neither Oswalt nor anyone else can seem to slow the proliferation of other fast food bowls. According to Technomic, a food industry research and consulting firm, as of 2012, there were 15.4 percent more bowls on American fast food menus than there were in 2007, and 43 percent more restaurants that offered a bowl option.
This is literally true now. Every place offers a bowl. Or it soon will. Its reach is eternal; if the Last Supper was had now, there would be bowls strewn everywhere, with shameless abandon. That’s how far the bowl-fever has spread.
All the secret Google alerts that I have pre-set for bowls, bowl-talk and bowl-related news are screaming into my Gmail account. More to the point, they are shooting through the gaping hole in my emotional armor and straight into my heart. Chipotle has bowls. Every damn food-providing gas station from here to the gates of Hell has a bowl option now. Which begs the question: why are there so many bowls everywhere? There seems to be no reason to take the poor man’s plate, the bowl, and make it into a luxury good for Whole Foods yoga instructors to claim as their own.
Acting on my best non-caffeine-related tool—annoyance—I considered the nature of the bowl. There are arguably two reasons for its predominance.
First: when we drill right down past our slabs of enculturation, our wild, brutish animal nature is totally fine with the fresh new onslaught of bowl life. Our genes are habituated in the essence of bowling—mixing. The questionable habit of mixing our carefully culturally-separated food items is more natural to us than cleanly, diplomatically respecting the boundary issues of each starch, meat, and fruit item.
We come from a species of crafty ape who gorged themselves on wild beast-flesh and surreal mushrooms and alcoholic-ripened fruit, all at once, in a grotesque motley which probably killed a lot of us. The buffet is our ancestral way, and the bowl is the buffet in miniature.
Second, it is the peculiar blemish of middle-class and upper-class life to be frightful of the perils of poor people … but then adopt their ways—their food, their dancing, their slang, their everything—into middle-class practice. Call it the revenge of the oppressed, call it the deepest and dankest irony of all ironies, call it the democratic dignity of shared culture, whatever. This explains why Whole Foods covets the bowl now. It is simply doing what cuisine has always done—taking the lead from poor folk. Before barbeque was fancy food, it was the worst parts of the pig and cow, and before rock concerts sold for hundreds of dollars, it was the music of impoverished Southern people. Bowls are the same, and there is their triumph. When I take the long view, it is natural that bowls rule food now. We are all mixed together in the end—lives, culture, food, tastes. This world is a bowl, and we are but the ingredients.