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Connecting the dots over dinner.

October 18, 2011

I’m sitting in a big restaurant that you’d only find in Texas. It’s called the Hofbräu, but little about the ambience is German. The walls are covered with animal heads and skins. The chandeliers are made of deer antlers, and saddles fill one corner. The chairs are big and blocky and wooden, yet surprisingly comfortable, like a well-worn church pew. Country music plays in the background, and there’s that energetic buzz restaurateurs cultivate with abandon these days. Noise equals liveliness, and there certainly is noise, but it’s not so loud that you can’t hear the person next to you.

I can hear the people near me enjoy themselves, though I’m alone at the party.

It happens often in my business. If I have an interview in a restaurant, as I did tonight, I end up eating by myself after the interview. Usually, I have a good book to go with dinner, but tonight, it’s the laptop and a Texas-tini called a Summer Breeze. It’s actually the way I like a margarita: silver tequila, Cointreau, lime juice and a touch of orange juice. No sugar added. No sweet-and-sour mix. Yet the orange gives it a sweetness that is balanced by the tart lime. Refreshing, to say the least. In fact, I’ll have another sip right now. (Pause.)

OK, I’m back for the moment, waiting for my appetizers to come. Though I have been to this restaurant before, I seem to have ordered all of the wrong items – or at least I missed the items that the owner would have ordered. They include a queso made with Mexican white cheese with a scoop of guacamole on top. How I missed that I’ll never know, as both are favorite foods and the thought of combining them is making me hungry as I wait.

I’m also getting something called Chicken Diablos in which slices of chicken breast are paired with slices of jalapeño before being wrapped in bacon and then cooked in a barbecue sauce. It’s served with ranch dressing, of course, because everything these days is served with ranch dressing. (In this case, it makes sense, because the dairy in the dressing tames the heat of the chile.)

The main course will be pork schnitzel with cabbaged cooked with … (pardon me for leaving you like this for a moment, but dinner has arrived).

OK, I’m back. The cabbage was cooked with bacon, and, as I knew it would, it was my favorite part of the meal. It may not have been the best part, though. The schnitzel had been pounded thin and lightly breaded with panko crumbs before being grilled to a crispy brown on the exterior. It had a flavor that reminded me somewhat of veal versions I had a child in Germany, thanks in part to a Jaeger-style brown sauce with mushrooms and caramelized onion. Good food will prompt such memories. But I’ve always been a side dish person and a cabbage lover, so it was the real star for me. Besides, did I mention it had in it?

Learning to separate what I like from what works best has been a hard lesson to learn, but as a critic, I have to separate the two. Any reviewer who only writes what he or she likes does no service to the reader. It’s a big so what. So what, if you liked the burger? So what if you liked the fried chicken? Why? Why was it successful? Or did you simply enjoy because you had a hankering for fried chicken and any version would do?

Learning the vocabulary for food writing is like developing a vocabulary for structural engineering or differential calculus. Or learning Italian, for that matter. You have to learn to communicate with your audience, and you’ll likely be humbled by the many who know more than you. I still haven’t learned all 500 German verbs that are irregular in their own unique ways, and I haven’t, after more than 13 years, learned all there is to know about food.

What I have learned is the passion that people all over the world have for the food they eat and how it connects us. The food we eat began with ethnic and racial origins, many of which exist today.

Think of feijoada, which began as a Brazilian slave dish made from scrap meat parts left over from the meaty cuts that the rich landowners ate. Fatback wasn’t going anywhere near the gentry, but it was good enough for the workers to eat, so they took it, black beans, rice and so many other discarded, peasant ingredients and made a stew so good that now it’s considered the unofficial dish of Brazil today. This is real alchemy, turning something seemingly worthless into a form of gustatory gold.

But it didn’t just happen in Brazil. It happened in the American South. And in Russia. And in the Middle East. And in Africa. And you name it.

The recipes for these creations have been passed down for generations. And sometimes the stories behind them get confused. Did bread sausage originate in Portugal because of the poverty of the general population? One story says that housewives, in order to stretch their meager meat budget, took bits of slate bread, flavored it with lard and special seasonings, and then stuffed it into a casing. Or did it originate during the Inquisition when Jews tried to find a way to trick Christians into thinking they had converted by making a pork-free sausage? You’ll hear both stories there, but you’ll also be able to taste bread sausage for yourself and discover what an ingenious and delicious product it is.

So many dishes have risen above their origins to become part of everyday diet. In the past 20 years, hummus has become commonplace. So has pad Thai. So has paella. Few Americans knew of these dishes unless they had traveled abroad.

As the world grows smaller, food will continue to be the great unifier. Well, most food. I recently tried a dish called Brain Fry (Goat) at a Pakistani place recently. I admit I did enjoy it, but I think sautéed goat brains will prove to be a much harder sell than to the general public than, say, those bacon-wrapped Chicken Diablos or an icy margarita.


From → #CMC11

  1. VanessaVaile permalink

    Often too the paths from origin to plate are long and centuries old. The tastiest and most spreadable part of material culture. Food was probably the culture mashup, adaptations to local palates normalize the dish, origins eventually fading in local memory. Look back at all the dishes from Persia and further east that entered classic French cuisine in the 18th century. Really good chicken fried steak is kin to schnitzel, no doubt spreading from Texas’ considerable German settlement to the larger population. By now the association is with Texas.

    In traditional Persian / Iranian cuisine, a raw egg yolk is often served on the Basmati rice that goes with kebab. In the Canary Islands, eggs with yolks as sunny side up as possible (just the whites cooked) are served over rice. How many centuries since the contact bringing that dish? There are no doubt other similar egg yolk on rice presentations (and the Persian may have originated in China). The Canary Islands’ dish traditionally goes with fried bananas, connecting another continent in a different direction.

    Best thing about homework for food culture and multiculturalism is the eating, more adventurous and with more choices available than a generation or so ago. Yet, you could also map lack of spread as marker of insularity. Food insularity = cultural insularity and often other conservative tendencies. Checking out a rural community? Read the menu. Check out the fare at local openings, open houses or potluck. When the arts council and local gun club put out nearly identical tables…. what can I say? You’re not in cosmopolis any more.

    Brains… now there’s another story there.

    • There’s also the raw egg in carbonara dishes in Italy and the raw egg on Korean dishes.

      What I find endlessly fascinating about this subject is the way that people are becoming more territorial of their food even as it becomes more global. There’s fierce loyalty to the homegrown and the family tradition. And more histories are being written of food from this cultural and historical perspective. My favorite of these recent books is Jessica Harris’ “High on the Hog” about slave foods that have made it to the common American table.

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