December 07, 2005

I Sing the Dinner Eclectic

by psu

We spend a lot of time pontificating on food on this site. So much so that often we are accused of being "foodies" or "food snobs". I categorically deny this accusation. A more accurate representation of my position is that I am a "food hobbyist" or "food obsessed."

The main line of the "food snob" attack is to make the claim that I am picky about the food that I consume. I suppose this could be true, but then it becomes hard to explain some of the favorite foods of my life. Consider that for the entire time I had moved away from Pittsburgh, I had almost monthly cravings for a beef dog with chili and cheese sauce from the O. Consider that I spent a large part of my childhood eating sandwiches made from white bread, slices of American cheese and Helmann's "Real" Mayonnaise. I have eaten and enjoyed the mystery meat sandwich at Chiodos. Cup Noodles for lunch is a staple. No antipasta plate is complete without both Proscuitto di Parma and Mortadella, which, as we all know, is basically the Italian verison of Oscar Mayer Bologna.

I have also been known to eat things that most people would not want to even look at. One of my pet projects on our trips to Paris was to always pick a new organ meat, or other nasty looking dish to try. While I have not managed to try Tête de Veau, I have had Steak Tartare a few times and liked it. Raw seafood and sushi, especially the nasty eggy stuff, is also a favorite. And, an hour after I read Fast Food Nation, I went out and got a Mcdonald's hamburger and fries. Take that anti-industrial food production elitists!

Another avenue of the "food snob" attack is usually the accusation that I only like food that is difficult to obtain, difficult to prepare, or just plain expensive. This stab hits a bit closer to home. It is true that I arrange special trips around favorite food spots. It is also true that I have spent a larger than average percentage of my salary on a meal. And, there is no denying that I enjoy an occasional trip to a place specializing in sophisticated preparations and perhaps overly artistic presentation.

On the other hand, many of my special trips were into some of the more out of the way places in North Carolina to sit down at a picnic table and consume barbeque off of plastic plates with those wedge-shaped sections in them. In addition, I'll go to any number of cheap takeout joints, hot dog stands, greasy burger bars and road side lunch trucks before I would spend too much money in the majority of the soulless cookie-cutter "fine dining" establishments in this great country of ours. Money and pretension do not lead to culinary happiness. You have to work harder than that for it.

A final line of attack usually accuses me of dismissing food which is not "authentic" or in some sense properly prepared. People might point to my apparently psychotic hatred of P.F. Chang's as an indication that I am mentally unstable in this way. But again, I think this is a mischaracterization of my opinion. P.F. Chang's is not bad because it is not authentic. P. F. Chang's is bad because it is bad. The food is made with no more attention to detail and quality than a drunk guy vomiting out in the back alley behind the bar. The fact that they also get the sauce on the twice cooked pork wrong is a fairly minor sin compared to what is going on in the rest of the place.

In the end, my relationship with food is more complex than just bucketing places into large classes mapping to "good" and "sucks". That, in and of itself, is not a very interesting activity, and does not form the basis for my obsessive behavior. If I had to pick one guiding principle for my relationship to food, it would not be some platitude about quality ingredients, sustainable development, or artistic and authentic preparations. No, all I would say is that I believe that there is more to food than a question of biomass per penny, and my ultimate interest is in exploring this more complicated relationship.

Food is interesting to me because it represents one of the most important defining characteristics of the culture and history of a place. At a personal level, my interest comes from the fact that I took a lot of the food of my childhood for granted, and then discovered that it didn't exist in the world outside of my mother's house. I wanted it back. Luckily, I had my mother to tell me how to do it and a lot of time to practice. While I can't do everything that she used to, I have a lot of the basics covered. I still haven't figured out how she does that thing with plain celery though.

This is what I mean by history and culture. All of the great food is passed down not in the huge reference cookbooks, but from mother to daughter (or son) because at some point someone makes the discovery that there is more to the stuff they loved as a child than just opening a can of soup. The act of searching for and finding these traditions, and tasting what results from them drives my apparently irrational obsession for doing things like smuggling cheese that smells like dirty socks through customs in my carry-on luggage. This is why we went to the Slow Foods Pittsburgh event at Lidia's last weekend and gorged on fish until we staggered out of the place, bloated and almost ill. This is why we drive to Toronto for Dim Sum, or DC for pulled pork, or why we head back to my mom's place to get another plate of her pot stickers, or stewed ribs. I'm pretty sure those ribs are one of the reasons I ended up marrying my wife.

This illustrates another aspect of my relationship with food, which is that many of the important experiences of my life have centered around food. A large part of the search for new food experiences comes from trying to replicate old food experiences. We don't go back to Paris over and over again for the great scenery, the art museums, or the awesomely attractive populace. No, we go there to eat. We go to recapture that sense of discovery that we had the first time. The giddy wonder that you could walk into a random place off the street and have fish that was perfectly cooked. The rush of trying something that you are not sure will be great, but having it turn out OK. The even greater rush of discovering some completely new way of doing things that is just incredible, like a poached egg and Hollandaise on an artichoke salad, or a rare piece of veal liver. Who would have thought? We go back to re-experience old wonders and to search out new wonders, because the French food traditions are both wide and deep. There are so many things to try, and so many places to try them that my only real regret is that we won't ever manage to get to Italy and Spain and Portugal to do the same thing. Life is too short to find all the great ways to cook organ meat.

So, far from being a food snob, I claim that I am a food eclectic. My goal is to run out and find good eating in as many different forms as is practical in my limited amount of time on Earth. I do not require that the food be fancy. I do not require that the food look good. I do not even require that food smell good. All I require is that the food is prepared with care and a personal connection to its origins and history. If you can do that, I'll even eat that Jell-O mold and Cool Whip salad that you bring to the pot luck. Jell-O molds are a great American tradition and not to be taken lightly. They also remind me that my mom used to make almond flavored gelatin cubes and put them in canned fruit cocktail. Now that is good eating.

There is always more good eating to be found. You just have to go out and look for it.

Posted by psu at December 7, 2005 10:06 PM | Bookmark This

I claim that my love of frozen-then-deep-fried clam strips at Benkowitz frees me of the claim that I am a "food snob".

But I'm willing to own up to "food obsessed."

Posted by peterb at December 7, 2005 11:36 PM

I for one enjoy hearing people who are not food critics speak in such lavish detail about food and drink (although as a vegetarian, much must be skipped over). I think the term 'food hobbyist' is a lovely term!

It came as a suprise to see so much attention paid to this topic since I originally mistook this as a gaming blog. :) Perhaps people feel the same way about my philosophy of religion rambles.

No matter.

Enjoy what you enjoy, write about what you must write about.

If you ever visit the UK (not as glamourous as Paris, but...) you must try chips from a genuine fish and chip shop. They really are like nothing else on Earth!

Bon apetit!

Posted by Chris Bateman at December 8, 2005 07:45 AM

For what it's worth, as near as I can tell many of the people who read this as a food blog are bored and irritated by the gaming articles, and many of the people who read this as a gaming blog are bored and irritated by the food articles.

But we like it.

Posted by peterb at December 8, 2005 08:08 AM

is _Steak Tartare_ organ meat? I thought it was just raw beef, egg, and some spices...?

I don't know if you've tried these Toronto joints for dimsum, but Ambassador (up on hwy 7) is excellent, and nice and clean (order from cards though). Also, Lai Wah Heen, in the Metropolitan Hotel on Chestnut St. downtown, is really good, but it's pretty non-traditional. Think "refined take on dimsum meets high-end service and technique". Pricey though.

not sure how recently you've been up, but downtown Chinatown is a wasteland for dimsum now. Gotta go up to Richmond Hill (in which Ambassador is located). I'm still trying to find a good old-school place with the carts, yelling, and plastic tablecloths, though.

Posted by Weiguo at December 8, 2005 10:17 AM

psu, we must go to Toronto now now now. I want to go. Let's go. I need Dim Sum. Now. Let's go. Now.

Weiguo, what do you think of Bright Pearl on Spadina?

We've been to Lai Wah Heen. The food is great, but I am intimidated by the service and always feel underdressed.

Posted by peterb at December 8, 2005 10:58 AM

My wife is still bitter about the tragically bad food planning that I did when we travelled to England ... next time I will do better. Fish and chips and Indian food!

Lai Wah Heen is probably my favorite dim sum place on the north american continent. Purists will scoff at the service style and the lack of carts and the price, but I challenge anyone to find better food. I've only been to a couple of places in SF (Yank Sing) that even come close. Nothing I've had in NYC or Boston was any good in comparison.

We have, in fact, been to Ambassador, and it is nearly as good as LAI WAH HEEN and less expensive. I also loved the big Chinese mall out there.

Posted by psu at December 8, 2005 11:02 AM

oh. steak tartare is not organ meat. it is the sort of thing paranoid waiters will ask you about twice if you are a tourist and you order it.

Posted by psu at December 8, 2005 11:10 AM

Maybe they ask you twice because of stories like this :-)

Posted by Chris Winters at December 8, 2005 12:11 PM

Actually, they ask because people order not realizing what the food is, and then send it back.

Posted by psu at December 8, 2005 01:12 PM

Bright Pearl is for the tourists. I was there about 2 months ago, on curiosity, and I posted this about it elsewhere:
we saw an endless parade of dim sum of dubious origin (rice flour roll of...long bean and mushroom and baby bok choy??), washed-out flavour (siu mai so bland that I really believe they used the meat for soup, before forming the siu mai), and servers who wouldn't even speak Chinese to us.
it's sad because the building that houses Bright Pearl used to be home of _Hsin Kuang_, the best Chinese restaurant (dunno about dim sum) in Toronto, but that was a good 15+ years ago. Before all the money moved up north. And, amusingly, folklore about that building is that it used to be a morgue, which is why all the restaurants that have been there since have (what looks like) the main door boarded up, and entrance via a side door -- the main door is where the bodies used to come in.

I was in a t-shirt and jeans the last time I went to Lai Wah Heen and didn't feel intimidated. In general, dress codes in hotel-based restaurants seem to be more relaxed. Underdressed is a state of mind :) (I like to dress up to make an occassion out of a nice dinner, but I don't let it bother me too much if impromptu plans are made)

Posted by Weiguo at December 8, 2005 02:07 PM

I can see no reason not to celebrate and take great interest in food. What other pleasurable activity do you do, consistantly, at least 3 times a day? Even the end result of eating is quite pleasurable in its own way.

I believe people who fail to appreciate good food (in all it's many forms) and strive to seek it out, are missing out on life.

I'd add that set and setting are also key to the eating experience (and many other experiences too.) I had one of the best steaks in my life this week, and it was just some random utility-grade supermarket NY strip... but after a few days of camping on a nearly deserted tropical island, when cooked over a plain charcoal fire and sawed into pieces with a fishing knife, it was elevated to near perfection.

Posted by Mark Denovich at December 8, 2005 08:53 PM

Imagine living in a city where you did not have to make a road trip for dum sum, or pulled pork, or bun bo hue.


Posted by Amos the Poker Cat at December 10, 2005 07:46 PM

Where do you go for bun bo hue around here? Vietmanese (lol) food is terrible in pittsburgh.

Posted by iliopsoas at December 11, 2005 12:38 PM

Ya, vietnamese food in PIT sucks.

I go to CLE (3 places, all average, Phnom Penh, 13124 Lorain, Minh-Anh, 5428 Detroit, Number One Pho, 3120 Superior), or AC (excellent, good sized hock, blood pudding, yum, Little Siagon, 2801 Arctic near infamous White House Subs). There are 3 vietnamese places in Harrisburg. Not sure if they have bun bo hue. I have not checked out stuff in Philly either. DC area has got tons of great vietnamese stuff. As good a reason as any to move.

Posted by Amos the Poker Cat at December 14, 2005 12:24 AM

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