Sunday, January 06, 2013

Someone was right on the Internet

Chris Schonberger, Nick Schonberger, and Foster Kamer wrote this endlessly compelling if somewhat NY-centric list of "20 Things Everyone Thinks About the Food World (But Nobody Will Say)." It's so much more spot-on that something like that seems like it could be, without being gratuitously contrarian. It's refreshingly not yet another revelation that your food was prepared in less sanitary conditions than you might have hoped - thank goodness, because we know, and choose not to think about it. (Even when, as happened yesterday, one's preferred Philadelphia Vietnamese restaurant serves up a spoon with a startlingly fresh noodle already on it, and plates that look clean on top but are coated with grease on the bottom.)

My take on the list, item by item...

Largely endorse:

#1: "Refusing to spend money on non-Western restaurants is racist." Meaning, "Why is it that people are willing to spend $20 on a bowl of pasta with sauce that they might actually be able to replicate pretty faithfully at home, yet they balk at the notion of a white-table cloth Thai restaurant, or a tacos that cost more than $3 each?" An excellent point, although some counterarguments spring to mind. As commenters point out, Japanese food isn't 'white-people' cuisine (see: Masa).* Also relevant: once you take any cuisine past a certain fanciness threshold, it starts to taste generically upscale, probably something to do with cream sauces. This can work for French or Italian, but any cuisine known for intense flavors is going to suffer. So it's not necessarily that customers wouldn't pay more for higher-quality Thai or Mexican food - it could be that past experience has shown that as the price goes up, the taste gets worse. But yeah, caveats aside, point taken.

#3: Yes, there is a conspiracy to make us think Scandinavian food is something to be consumed on a regular basis outside Scandinavia. Which also gets #16 - "Not every country's cuisine is worth celebrating" - out of the way. Exception: gravlax. And to be clear, I say this as someone whose own ancestral culinary heritage is, what, a kosher version of Polish cooking? Also not a cuisine anyone who didn't grow up with it is going to want to eat terribly often.

#5: Someone in the comments protested that this should be "undocumented" not "illegal," which, fair enough, but semantics aside, yup.

#6: A fine critique of the food movement: "Locavorism has become the newest outlet for yuppie guilt, providing a feeling of living ethically and supporting a cause, but too often the onslaught of kale and artisanal pickles blinds us from looking at the deeper problems affecting America’s food system."


#7: Get rid of tipping, pay restaurant workers properly, no argument there.

#10: "All wine mostly tastes the same." Afraid so. See the Freakonomics podcast about this.

#12: "Foie gras is not worth fighting for (or against.)" Wow, could not have put that more elegantly. Probably because I'd have felt compelled to equivocate about how these things aren't zero-sum, but that really, there are more pressing food-industry issues relating to humans, but even if your main concern is animal welfare (and someone's should be), a food eaten on rare occasions and only by the very rich is an odd place to start. And yeah, anyone fighting for the right to use foie gras, eh. Side note: a friend from college, Joe Hanson, took on this issue a while back, from the comedic perspective.

#20: "Brooklyn's hyped food scene will turn the borough into Manhahattan [sic], part deux." Typo aside, a flawless sentence. Because it really is food that seems to drive the new Brooklyn.

Semi-endorse:

#11: "Most sushi restaurants in America stay in business by serving mislabeled fish and ridiculous rolls that have never actually existed in Japan." While this may be true, mislabeled fish is a problem, but inauthenticity is not. As the authors themselves should see, considering #18: "Tex-Mex is often better than authentic Mexican." Different audiences have different preferences, and sometimes preexisting cuisines fuse to create a superior product. Why would U.S.-ness ruin Japanese food but not Mexican? 

#13: "The food world is the only place where Asians get respect as celebrities in America." What about fashion (Vera Wang, Alexander Wang, Philip Lim...)?

#8: Yes, nostalgia bolstered by heritage-chic does lead to some terrible food. Also some wonderful food, and yes, Doughnut Plant vanilla-bean doughnuts and cinnamon buns, hamburgers from Diner in Williamsburg...

Sounds plausible, but I have no idea:

#2: re: NYT restaurant reviews, #9 re: Anthony Bourdain, #14 re: molecular gastronomy, #15 re: anonymous critics, and #17 re: sexual harassment in kitchens.

Beg to differ:

Re: #4, New York bagels are just fine, and moving elsewhere even within the same region, it becomes immediately obvious how tough it is to get a good bagel. Not all bagels in New York are good, some are rolls shaped like bagels, but that's not even the issue when people claim a problem with New York bagels. No, it's this whole thing about how bagels these days are too doughy, and it sounds sophisticated and adult to prefer the version that sounds old-timey and less like toddler-food. But this is, at least from my born-in-1983 perspective, an overhyped concern. As long as you go to a place that's an actual bagel shop, you will get an actual bagel. Some of the best (Ess, Absolute) are doughy and excellent. Murray's is maybe too dry, and Bagel Bob's, well, you have provided more $2 grad-school lunches than you know. The Montreal bagels are good, but when outside Montreal, a novelty item.**

Re: # 19, I already have a post addressing why I don't think it's the same when fancy food-professionals celebrate grease as when people who actually influence what people who don't merely pick at a meal at high-end establishment consume.

*I was once wasting time on the internet and on the Yelp (?) page for Masa, a restaurant I've never been to and probably will never go to on account of it's the most expensive food establishment ever. And there was this one review from someone who said something along the lines of, 'My girlfriend and I were near Columbus Circle and really hungry, so we went to grab a bite at this nearby Japanese place,' and you see where this is going.

**Philadelphia has Montreal-style bagels, which I, as someone who has also had the original, and who's of partial Montreal-Jewish heritage, let it be known, for authenticity's sake, can confirm are close enough. New York apparently has some as well, now that Mile End has decided to stop importing bagels from Canada. How was that consistent with the locavore, new-Brooklyn ethos?

8 comments:

Nicholas said...

I noted with some confusion that #1 and #10 seem to offer contradictory advice. Stylized #1: "You should be prepared to pay more money for good ethnic food, and not insist on paying as little money as possible." Stylized #10: "There's no point in buying more expensive wine because you're not going to be able to judge the difference in quality anyway." The limitations of your palate and your budget are supposed to be normative in the latter, but not the former. No big takeaway: it just seemed strange.

Re: #18: Durham has a serious profusion of Mexican and Latin American restaurants of all varieties, and, so far as I can tell, there's no such thing as 'authentic' Mexican, just things that have had greater or lesser influence from the U.S. But this is certainly carping over nothing: sichuan peppers aren't native to China, tomatoes aren't native to Italy. Cuisines always influence each other (possible emendation: good cuisines have been influenced by others. The others can probably be forgotten).

Britta said...

Re. the ethnic food, I didn't read it as saying you needed to eat at fancy ethnic food restaurants to not be racist or have good taste, but if you're the sort of person who goes to fancy Euro cuisine restaurants, you shouldn't get offended that a good ethnic food restaurant charges double digits for their dishes. I don't think there's anyone who drinks cheap wine who's offended by expensive wine, even if they can't afford to drink it themselves, but there are people who are offended by having to pay more than $5 for a bowl of pho, unless it's at a place run by white people. Also, I think he had a good point with fusion food, where it's usually framed as "quality" (European cooking) + "exoticism" (ethnic cuisine), and often prepared by white people.

Re. Japan, I think it's because Japan has always occupied an ambiguous space between white and non-white. Japan was the only non-white colonial power to hold its own and be treated somewhat like an equal to the other colonial powers. Even in the 19th century popular anthropology texts were describing Japanese as "the white people of Asia," and Japanese were legally white in many circumstances where other Asians weren't, like in apartheid South Africa and other European colonial contexts. (I don't mean to downplay the racism suffered by Japanese in the US or other places, but I think there are solid reasons why Japanese food being expensive doesn't weaken his argument.)

I also laughed at the Scandinavian thing, but I think it gets a little at #1 as an example of objectively terrible white people food being seen as worth paying money for. H&M and IKEA notwithstanding, PR people have done a good job of selling the "Nordic brand" as upscale. With the cuisine, it's European yet still a little exotic (so it gets the benefit of fusion food), and enjoyed by wealthy (given currency exchange rates) blonds, so people think it must be worth paying a lot of money for in the US as well. I guess if you can get rich people to pay through the roof for what is mostly potatoes though, good luck to you.

I did think the sushi & tex mex comments were a little contradictory, but I think the sushi was supposed to be more along the lines of, don't kid yourself that you're being upscale or eating anything more than delicious fast food, not that california rolls were gross. With Tex-mex, that's not a problem because no one was ever pretentious about it in the first place.

Phoebe said...

Nicholas,

I wasn't bothered by #1 vs. #10, because there really is some evidence that even wine experts can't tell one from the next in a blind taste test. Whereas if presented with two stirfries, most of us would be able to say which was made with fresh vegetables, tofu, etc. The problem comes when the higher price is for 'inventiveness' or something like that, which somehow, with more flavor-intensive cuisines, often means a dollop of this and that on a plate that will be thematically inspired by the ostensible cuisine, but that's about it.

Britta,

You've articulated what I could not, which is why I fundamentally agreed with those items, despite the quasi-caveats I gave. The relationship between food and race, food and which countries seem more upscale...

What was interesting to me about the sushi thing is that there is this popular idea that the stuff is healthy, yet when you look at what it consists of, that doesn't hold up. That's just about the only meal I'll ever go out for and think, huh, I just ate exactly zero vegetables. And it's generally made with sweetened white rice. But it just looks like spa food, or something, and that obviously contributes to its appeal. A relic of the days when low-fat was considered healthy? Because it's, you know, not fried?

Britta said...

Yeah, I think sushi as healthy and upscale is a relic of the 90s. It reminds me of when I used to work at a coffee shop (mid 2000s), and people would order a non-fat vanilla white chocolate mocha and talk about how "good" they were being, diet-wise. I think in the early 2010s we're better at realizing that 500 calorie "coffee drinks" are really just caffeinated milkshakes, but somehow sushi still isn't seen as a white rice & mayo blob, even though that's mostly what it is.

Moebius Stripper said...

Heh, when I saw the title for #1, I thought that it was going to make an anti-locavore argument - ie, that it's racist to insist on spending all of one's food dollars on food that is locally-sourced (ie, grown by mainly 5th generation white farmers and served by trendy restaurants run by white celebrity chefs) as opposed to at ethnic eateries, which rely more heavily on ingredients from abroad. My sample is biased, to be sure, but where I live I've encountered far more sanctimonious locavorism than snobbish preference for pricey pasta over pricey curry. (When tourists with $100 to drop on a single meal ask where they should eat, they're usually directed to a world-renowned Indian place.)

Moebius Stripper said...

And the argument for #12 applies almost word-for-word for a popular Canadian cause: ending the seal hunt. Yes, clubbing baby seals is cruel, but I'm not convinced it's any more cruel than what goes into producing the typical factory-farmed animal. But opposing the seal hunt, and opposing foie gras, involves zero (or close to zero) lifestyle change for anyone who takes on the case, which is always a plus.

Phoebe said...

Moebius,

Its arguments aside, that list does allow one to reflect on food trends and how they change. There's low-fat getting replaced by low-carb and gluten-phobia. But there's also the transition from "gourmet" and the imported/ethically-dubious ingredients that entails, to locavorism/nostalgia, with all the high-quality ingredients and limitations that entails.

And there's always some sense in which what rich people do is presented as more ethical - in the old version, eating "exotic" (which might even mean French or Italian - anything but American) was showing one's open-mindedness to other cultures. Now, of course, there's the locavore argument.

What I find most baffling about it, and I know I've blogged this before, is that it's now considered socially-unacceptable to eat certain garishly out-of-season items (tomatoes, berries, etc.), yet if you spend the winter in the Northeast eating kale from California and potatoes from Idaho, that's fine, because at least you're not enjoying yourself too much, or something.

Moebius Stripper said...

Actually, I think the pro-kale/anti-strawberry argument is somewhat different (though no less stupid) than how you frame it in your last paragraph: specifically, that once you join the church of locavorism, your palate will become so refined that you actually enjoy eating kale as much as your less-evolved peers enjoy eating cheeseburgers (if you're read 100 Mile Diet (and if you haven't, really, don't bother), you know I'm not exaggerating: the authors effuse at length over how much they enjoy eating their locally-sourced food - so very much more than they ever enjoyed the other stuff - and there's one section where they mock their peers for liking, for instance, frozen cake; presumably if you're one of the 99.9% of humans who, in accordance with evolution, thinks that cake is tastier than carrots, you're doing food wrong).

Now that I think of it, much of that list (1,3,8,10,18) falls into the category of "X [tastes good/doesn't taste good], but it's not socially acceptable to say so out loud" - and the reason it's not socially acceptable is because there's an *aesthetic* associated with the food movement. (Foodie health and environmentalist arguments can be judged on their merits, but who's going to publicly admit that they have bad taste?) And that's something I really liked about _Fast Food Nation_: the author avoids aesthetic arguments entirely, and says from the get-go that while much of what goes on in the fast food industry is unethical, the fact remains that the stuff is scientifically concocted to taste good, and that there's no shame in thinking that it does.

But I digress, maybe.