Wednesday, May 05, 2004

cinco de mayo, or, thanksgiving

It used to be that after travelling somewhere nice, one dreaded returning to the food of the US (excepting the inevitable hamburger craving). The prospect of trading in your mortadella* for baloney is bleak. And I felt the familiar dread creep over me as I enjoyed abbacchio and vignarola** in the colli albani a few hours before boarding my plane. But, while we all know that the situation has improved, it really struck me this time how much it's improved. This is partly a factor of the season -- it's undoubtedly more fun to return to a time of strawberries and asparagus, the first cherries and wild salmon of the year than, say, parsnips (though these are delicious and you should make them more). But it is easy to take the "American food revolution" for granted, or even annoying, and this week, I am very grateful for what it has wrought.

Also, the burrito. Mexican food in general, of course, is now "American" and we are all better off for it -- even if you can't get good pan dulce or jamaica margaritas you can probably find a mediocre yet still delicious burrito. To say nothing of a really good burrito, one of the most glorious foods there is. So on cinco de mayo let us also give thanks to the people of the Mexican diaspora and their foods, whether "authentic" or "americanized".

Which brings me to Bruce Cole's aforementioned essay on mortadella, which contains the following fallacy

We've pretty much ruined every facet of Italian food as it has been Americanized. Pizza in the U.S doesn't even remotely resemble the original. Eggplant parmesan and Fettucini Alfredo?
It is true of course that Californians (and, of course, Chicagoans) have ruined pizza. But so, sadly, have italians outside of Campania, and furthermore -- this is the point -- a real east coast italian-american pizza is as good as (maybe even better than) its neapolitan counterpart. Just different. And even if, for the most part, italian-american "red sauce" cuisine cannot measure up to a roman abbacchio, it is legitimate, and delicious, food. Cf. Lidia. I realize he's talking about Olive Garden, or frozen dinners or something, but it's not a fair comparison.

Here's the thing about authenticity: you can't make an "authentic" abbacchio outside Lazio. Authenticity is by definition a product of its environment. Immigrant cuisines in america are adaptations of inherited tastes to local conditions; hence, just as authentic as anything else. Things get ugly with bad-quality ingredients and undiscerning audiences, and that is why we are thankful for the "american food revolution," which has improved both here.

As long as we're on the topic of things that irritate me, the Times has a few today. Johnny Apple takes his expense account to San Sebastián and produces this sentence:

In this region, unlike many, no gulf of hostility yawns between classical cooks and innovators or grand restaurants and humbler ones.
Is there really a "gulf of hostility" or is this something fabricated by a media in need of column inches, like sportswriters droning on about "clubhouse chemistry"? The taco truck guy is not throwing rocks though some restaurant's window, nor is Bocuse getting medieval on Adrià, except in the pages of your newpaper. Likewise, Hesser writes:
Mr. Gutenbrunner, once seen as a pioneer among chefs, has not been fazed by contemporaries like Ferran Adrià and Thomas Keller. He continues to be a great cook without foam, without powdered kumquat.
Aside from the so-5-years-ago quality of the thought, what exactly is the thought here? Dark forces somewhere insist that you can't be a "great cook" without "foam"? Hesser and Gutenbrunner are brave reactionaries fighting against the tide of trendiness? Please. This is just like the spastic reaction against a reified "deconstructionism" that never existed threating to overwhelm civilization. Let's talk about something real; I don't know, maybe food? Either the schnitzel is good or it isn't. Besides, powdered kumquat sounds like something you might encounter in, say, a Spice Market.

Other highlights include the Chron's genius rent-a-grandma series; David Shaw on foie gras fanaticism, more on why Zagat sucks, Russ Parsons's interesting article about cookbooks and Amazon's Search Inside the Book (from last week), all in the LA Times; fair trade bananas; and a not entirely stupid article on offal by Patrick Keefe in Slate:

Is this irony? Slumming? Or a culinary example of 'The Emperor's New Clothes'?"
Or, Pat, maybe it tastes good.

*Mortadella addendum: so called because traditionally made in a mortar, it is actually an emulsion -- of meat in fat. Thus its deliciousness. I believe I learned this from the Food Network.

** a/k/a/ (approximately) vignole.


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