Monday, October 31, 2011

The critic within us all.

I love to eat out at restaurants. The food is, of course, the main motivation for my visit, but I do enjoy the full experience of dining out. However, if the food is REALLY good, I have no qualms about overlooking the more negative aspects of my meal. I have dined within houses of ill repute with nothing but fond memories. Sketchy kitchens, war zone-like neighborhoods, bad service, and restaurants with the personality and charm of a maximum security prison will not deter me from a great meal. Food is king in my dining experiences. Everything else is just filler.

During the time I have spent so far putting this blog together, I have thought about what direction I wanted to take it and I, ultimately, asked myself this question: do I want to write as a food writer, or do I want to write as a food critic?

I have my favorite food critics. The one I turn to for restaurant reviews, first and foremost, is Raphael Kadushin. He is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit, National Geographic Traveler, Condé Nast Traveler, and  He also writes restaurant reviews for a local alternative newspaper here in Madison called the Isthmus. (He's based out of New York, but he's also an editor at the University of Wisconsin Press.) His word is law when it comes to my choosing of restaurants to frequent. His tastes and his opinions have been spot on with my own since the very first article of his I read back in 2006. He's honest, first and foremost; sometimes to the point of brutality. There are restaurants here in Madison, (as, I'm sure, in other places,) that hate his guts. But, he will honestly try to find some good in a bad restaurant, as well as criticize individual dishes in restaurants he likes. These are the qualities I look for in a restaurant critic. There are other critics that write for the Isthmus that I don't like so much. Either they are nothing more than free advertising, not seeming too willing to criticize anything, or they exude a snobby, "too-good-to-eat-here" attitude that rubs me the wrong way. I'll stick with Raphael, thank you.

A new favorite of mine here in the blogosphere is Eating Madison A to Z. Some years ago, I was involved with a few friends of mine in a group we called Saturday Lunch Group. Almost every Saturday afternoon for more than two years, we would get together to eat lunch at a different restaurant. We had a simple rule that at least two people in the group, (there were three of us most of the time,) had to have not ever eaten at that restaurant. We complied a list of nearly one hundred restaurants. I was impressed with this number for a long time...until I ran into the Eating Madison A to Z folks here on the internet. As I'm writing this, they just posted their 734th restaurant review!!!! I feel like a slouch by comparison! They use the "Eats" list of the Isthmus as their guide to choosing restaurants to review, put them in alphabetical order, and off they go. 734...that boggles my mind!

So, then the question becomes, "Do I want to write restaurant reviews?" The short answer is: yes. But, I won't do them very often. As I have said before, I'm a student and I live on a students' salary. (Thank goodness I like ramen noodles!) I think, for our purposes here, I'll do one restaurant review per month and incorporate the format into the blog, along with the rest of it. As an amateur food writer and as an anthropology student, I think a holistic approach works best; a little bit of everything will work well with what I envision this blog to be. Food writer or food critic? The answer is...yes.

Next time, we'll talk about chili. I even have a recipe for ya! Until then...cheers!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

What is "authentic"?

It's not as simple a term as one would like to think. 

Authentic conjures rustic imagery: old wooden tables, copper pots, cast-iron skillets, old women wearing aprons while stirring giant pots of bubbling stew, misshapen loaves of crusty bread, at least it does in my head. You probably have your own ideas as to what is authentic to you when it comes to food....

...and therein lies the issue with the word "authentic" as it is applied to cuisine.

Cuisine, much like language or society, is a living, breathing organism, constantly evolving; in a never-ending state of flux. Authentic is static. It is an snapshot of a time, a place, a person and/or group of people. What is currently labelled authentic may have been something new and different 20, 50, 100 years ago. As technologies, access to foodstuffs, and tastes change, so do recipes. And often those recipes are interpreted and reinterpreted within the same ethnic context time and time again. I could eat a plate of tagliatelle alla bolognese from two different restaurants in Bologna and, while they may look the same, they probably won't taste quite the same. One might decide to use tomato sauce, while the other uses puree. One might use a little more pancetta than the other. Is one of these authentic while the other isn't? Who decides this?

You do, actually.

Authenticity is a product of nostalgia. What is authentic is what you grew up with, what is familiar. Some ethnic cuisines have put more effort into defining authenticity, however, even to the point of creating culinary schools and societies that apply empirical methodologies in establishing authenticity, (often for legal purposes as the world becomes more globalized and producers what to protect their products from cheap imitation.) An example of this would be the Accademia Italiana della Cucina (Italian Academy of Cuisine.)

Which leads me to authenticity of cuisine in America.

As I said before, authentic is tied to the idea of nostalgia. In post-modern America, nostalgia is a powerful force to be reckoned with. As everything around us becomes commodified, one of the unfortunate side effects of this commodification is a steady loss of the meanings we apply to everything around us. Shopping for food once had meaning beyond just purchasing sustenance for yourself or your family. Shopping was a social event, allowing one to create and maintain social ties to friends, family, and food producers. Unless you regularly buy food from a farmer's market, you probably don't know where you food comes from, other than maybe a little tag on the packaging, telling you which state or country your apples were grown and shipped from. Our way of life has become so commodified, in fact, the very ideas of nostalgia and authenticity are in and of themselves commodities. "Authentic" foodstuffs are regularly packaged and sold to consumers in hopes of connecting with that sense of nostalgia, a commodity that people will pay top dollar for these days. For when the present begins to lose meaning, we quickly turn to the past.

I'm sure I'll have more to say on this subject, but for the sake of time, attention span, and space, I'll stop here. Next week, I'll talk about my curiosity about restaurant reviewing and perhaps I'll post a chili recipe. Until then, have a great weekend!

Monday, October 24, 2011

¡Yo adoro tacos!


I consider them to be one of the world's most perfect fast foods.
They are simple, versatile, self-contained bundles of joy. No utensils are required. They're made to be eaten on the street, purchased from a food cart, filled with parts of the cow or pig that most people nowadays have never even considered eating, victims of a modernity where eating the unsavory parts is no longer a necessity.

But wait, tacos are so much more, aren't they? 

Some have tried to tie the advent of the taco to the conquistador Cortes around 1520, noting that many a grand feast was held during his occupation of what is now Mexico, these feasts being well chronicled by several of Cortes's soldiers and members of the clergy. These chronicles included descriptions of flat corn breads, what the native Nahuatl peoples called "tlaxcalli" and the Spanish call "tortillas", filled with the meat of pigs Cortes brought over from Cuba. But, anthropologists have found evidence of indigenous people in the Valley of Mexico eating tacos filled with fish, insects, and snails well before the arrival of European explorers.

In the U.S., the first English-language taco recipes began to appear in California in the early 1900's.

Tacos have since gained a level of ubiquity in the United States that is not seen anywhere else, not even Mexico. Mexicans generally eat tacos for either breakfast or as a late night snack. Trying to find a taco between 12 and 6 in the afternoon in Mexico is a exercise in futility. In this age of instant gratification, I can grab a taco in one form or another at almost any hour of the day or night, even here in medium sized Madison, and if I look hard enough, I can find fillings such as lengua, (beef tongue) cabeza, (meat from a cow's or pig's head) and other types of offal wrapped in a soft corn tortilla. Or, I can have ground beef with lettuce, tomatoes, cheddar cheese, sour cream, guacamole, pickled red onions, etc. For all of the vitriol and anger aimed at Mexico and its people these days, Americans have come to embrace one of its greatest imports, doing so in the best way we know how; by taking the basic idea and expanding upon it, utilizing foodstuffs and techniques from many ethnic backgrounds, finding a particular recipe or recipes that appeals to the largest demographic, and then placing our stamp of approval, making it our own. This is what we've done with Mexican food, and other ethnic cuisines in general, for the past 100 years or more. 

Thinking about this has me thinking of other facets of this topic as well. In the past decade, we've come full circle on the "homogenization" of ethnic cuisines. There is a greater demand for the "authentic" experience in ethnic dishes. But what, exactly, does authentic mean? What is an authentic taco? Would someone from Oaxaca find the same taco to be authentic as someone from Mexico City? What does it mean if they do agree or they don't agree?

This will be discussed next time. It may be a bit drawn out and I'm not sure where it will lead us, but I know I'll be hungry at the end.

Until then...¡Tenga una gran semana! 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Don't hate me because I'm beautiful. Hate me because I'm a lazy/ busy, good-for-nothing-except-writing-college-papers jerk!

Holy crap! Has it really been this long?! I haven't posted here since June?! Bad blogger! Bad blogger!!!!!

I am a bad person and I want to apologize. I have allowed life to get into the way of you and me for too long. While I do admit that writing this blog is more for me than anything else, I do have an audience and I need to be more cognizant of that fact. For my lack of content for the last three and a half months and being a lazy jerkface...I'm sorry.

Let's get on with it, shall we?

If you recall or reread my last post, I was talking about the idea of "American cuisine" and all of its implications: its meaning, its effects on modern culture, etc. I was going to split it up into two parts and after a full post dealing with just the cultural aspects, discuss how American cuisine is represented here in the United States and ask, "What is good American cuisine?".

Now, I want you to think of something else...anything else, really. After much thought and gnashing of teeth, I've decided to tackle this subject at a future date. It is far too broad a topic for me to broach without the proper research. If I'm going to ask such a question of you, gentle reader, I feel I should be able to give my own answer to be judged by the court of public opinion. In order to do that, I need to read up a bit more and report back to you my findings for your reading pleasure.

So, for my next post, I think my next topic will involve...tacos.

Until then...