Whatever you want to call it -- haute cuisine, molecular gastronomy, progressive food, tweezer food, frou frou food -- like porn, it's a little hard to define but we know it when we see it. Some people have an instant and ingrained reaction when they see any hint of it: "None for me, please."
Others are more like myself: Bring it on. But I wasn't always that way.
I was born and raised, as were two generations before me, on the East Side of St. Paul. Meaning we are blue-collar folk through and through who rarely ate out, and if we did, it was somewhere along Suburban Avenue off the I-94 strip. Zantigo was common -- crispy shell tacos filled with ground beef and shredded iceberg and served with little packets of "hot sauce." I could eat one right now.
As was Bali Hai, a strange, long-lost "Polynesian" joint that once stood, ugly and imposing over White Bear Avenue, specializing in cornstarch gravy chicken chow mein with crunchy noodles. They had hula girls dancing in grass skirts on weekends. The sacks of fortune cookies my mom allowed were an extra-special treat. She liked them too.
Very occasionally, we would go down to Grand Avenue's Cafe Latte for a ham sandwich served on buttered, sturdy French bread and an impossibly hulking slab of dark chocolate cake. I was in awe of that place and never knew quite what to think of it except I knew there was something extraordinary about it. Something fancy.
I wound up in the food business mostly because it seemed like a way out of cubeville. My current life not withstanding (I type standing in a cube these days), it was. Fifteen years ago it was amazing to me to discover that you could get paid (albeit not very well) to do something reasonably creative with your hands, laugh all day, and actually have fun at work.
But for many years, lots and lots of years, even after I started writing about food, it was like people were speaking a foreign language to me. Torchon? Bottarga? Epoisses?
When I worked, or dined in a restaurant and someone started talking this shit to me it was like I was staring straight through their heads. I pretended to know what they were talking about, but really I just glazed over and nodded.
I read a lot of cookbooks, but I was still likely to substitute bacon when a recipe called for pancetta, and if I saw an ingredient like burrata, farro, or chicory? No thanks. I turned the page. I wanted to stay safe, and all of that extra thinking and sourcing just seemed unnecessary. There was plenty of food I could recognize, so why bother?
Someone gifted me with the Alinea cookbook, and while I was impressed with the generosity, the food looked mostly ridiculous to me. It sat on the shelf. I did not envy my friends who scored reservations and actually dined there. I was at this point several years into my culinary career and at least a couple into writing about food.
I put virtually everything in my mouth that was set in front of me and I liked it fine, I guess. Mostly, I didn't even pay that much attention to the details of a dish, and rather tried to focus on the context: my friends, the flowing wine, the conversation. If I could still enjoy my evening, then the food must be good or at least good enough. In the morning the high points would inevitably sally forth in my mind, and I guess I mentally cataloged them: I liked that one thing.
And then at some point, and most certainly not all at once, all of those words started to come into focus, like taking Spanish for several years and suddenly one day being able to follow the telenovela. When I looked at a menu, I could know that endive was just peppery lettuce, that saffron added to tomato sauce brought out thundering complexity that could just about blow you back in your seat, that bagna càuda is just veggie dip. Really good veggie dip.
It's like when you approach the cheese counter and all the shapes and sizes and smells and price tags are just so esoteric that you grab a hunk of cheddar and get the hell out of there. Get the right person to help you and you realize: It's all just milk.
I hate the notion that food, especially good food, tweezer plated or not, is somehow for some people but not others. Roasted squab with rye porridge, sweet woodruff, and tonka bean is really, truly quite approachable and delightful if you can remember that it's just a little poultry with beans and veggies. And if the animal was treated well and the chef is good at what he does, it might be worth paying a few more bucks than Kentucky Fried.
I hate that fancy words have to make things more complicated than that.
Foodie-ism is gross. But good food is delicious, fun, and wonderful if you don't get choked up on the words.
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