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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Friday, June 30, 2017

Authenticity is In the Eye of the Beholder

The most overused word in the foodie universe these days is “authentic.”  And, to avoid accusations of hypocrisy, I freely admit that I have probably used the word myself. How many times have you heard someone mention—usually with a tone of self-satisfaction—a restaurant where the food was the authentic embodiment of some country or people’s cuisine (usually the more exotic the better)? Really, how would they know? Have they actually been to Kerala region of India? 

So what does it mean for a particular dish to be “authentic?” More importantly, authentic to whom, when and where?

The increased culinary emphasis of authenticity is a blessing and a curse—the product of the increasingly diverse nature of culinary options in America today. Thirty years ago, we couldn’t have talked about an “authentic” Indian or Vietnamese restaurant because we were lucky to have a third-rate Chinese restaurant serving lo mien. Now, we have cafes offering banh mi sandwiches with southern style barbecue sauce. But does that make that banh mi any less authentic than one served from a truck in Hanoi? 

A recent trip to Huntington, West Virginia, provides a perfect example. I was in town on business; it was late; I was hungry. Like many of us, I grabbed my iPhone and pulled up the Urbanspoon app and found a place called Black Sheep Burritos and Brews. It got a pretty good rating and seemed halfway decent, so I decided to give it a try. I thought I’d find the typical burrito there, but to my surprise, they served one with Hawaiian pork-confit with a grilled pineapple glaze, shaved red cabbage and fried plantains; and one called the “Bulgogi,” with ginger and sesame marinated flank steak, kimchi, and cilantro Dijon and smoked  cashews. The one that really caught my eye, however, was a curry burrito. Vindaloo spiced chicken with smoked peach chutney, seasoned rice, all topped with a curry sauce.  Of course, this is not even remotely “authentic” Indian, but then again neither is chicken Tikka masala (the national dish of England).

A nation’s cuisine is not monolithic. It is inaccurate to speak of one kind of “French,” “Italian,” or “Indian” food because what people eat varies so widely within their own borders. Classic haute cuisine in Paris would be foreign to people raised on the rustic stews of Southwest France. The red sauce that Americans associate with Italian food is rarely found in the cuisine of Northern Italy. And what most Americans consider “Indian”—a country of a billion people—comes from just one rather modest-sized region. If anything, authenticity is a concentric circle that expands outward from the home to the larger world. The authenticity of my mom’s fried chicken did not extend past the front door, and North Carolina style barbecue ceases to exist once you drive into South Carolina. Authenticity is also about time, as much as place, because like any human cultural endeavor, cuisines evolve over time. For example, what is “American” cuisine? Is it jelled veal from colonial New Hampshire (yes, this is a real dish) or a turducken? 

With the world getting smaller and the international travel ever more routine, maybe one day there will be something called “world cuisine,” the last concentric circle. Pizza is seen as American more than Italian, with a pie from a NYC pizzeria no less authentic than one from the Piazza Navona in Rome. Heck, you can get chicken Vindaloo burrito in a small restaurant in Huntington, West Virginia!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

What Happened to Lunch?

“The three-martini lunch is the epitome of American efficiency. Where else can you get an earful, a bellyful, and a snootful at the same time?”
—Gerald Ford

Please let me work here!
No one goes to lunch anymore, at least not during the hours of nine to five, Monday through Friday.
Grabbing a burrito at Chipotle while picking up dry-cleaning, or grabbing a sandwich at the corner bodega, or grabbing a protein bar that is scarfed down between emails at your desk doesn’t count. Doesn’t come close. I’m talking about a real lunch at a restaurant with friends, colleagues, or one’s spouse. Do any of us really remember when that happened? 
When did we become so dull?
I’ve come across several reasons during my extensive research for this post (wink-wink): lunch has gotten more expensive; more people are working from home; pressure to be more productive. Yeah, that all sounds good—after all it was written by people who actually get paid to write—but my theory is more intoxicating: no one drinks at lunch anymore. It’s an antique, like the 9-volt battery. 
Back in the day, the three-martini lunch was lunch. Now it’s a unicorneveryone has heard of it, but never seen it. But they did exist, at least according to some wistful old-timers I knew when I first entered the work-a-day world in the mid-1990s.
Believe it or not, work is getting done here.
Of course the three-martini lunch was once more manageable. The drinks themselves were half the size of today’s titanic tipples. One could easily spend two hours at The Palm on Madison avenue and give your liver time to do its magic before that 2:00 p.m. meeting with the client. (In fact, that client was probably with you at lunch and, if you were lucky, there would be no need for a 2:00 p.m. meeting.) And during this two-hour excursion, there were plenty of oysters and steak to soak up that gin or vodka (if you were so inclined). And the nicotine from those Lucky Strikes surely helped. 
R.I.P. Mr. Moore. I miss the 70s too.
The three-martini-lunch was a big deal because not everyone could imbibe. It was typically reserved for the boss…the partner…the CEO.  And yes, ladies, it was pretty chauvinistic. But then again, do you want your boyfriends/husbands hanging out with you while you get a mani-pedi? More importantly, the three-martini-lunch meant that you had arrived; you were somebody because you could eat steak and drink alcohol in the middle of day and not get fired.
And that’s why going out to lunch at work is dead. Hierarchy is dead. Democracy is in. Bosses are now expected to eat at their desks like their “colleagues” in the cubes. (Who, by the way, doesn't get a door to close while eating a ham sandwich.) Really? This is progress? Morale would increase considerably if us plebes were allowed, or even expected, to leave the building for lunch. Besides, most of us would rather do that that read some TPS memo and smell the leftovers from Tuna-Melt-Tuesday. 
The return of the three-martini lunch could even restore some civility and commonsense to our divided politics. Can you image the possibilities if Sens. Mitch McConnell and Bernie Sanders sat down and threw back a few? (Ok, I don’t see Bernie drinking a martini, but maybe a can or two of Schilitz?)
I know bringing back the three-martini lunch may be a fool’s errand. But all revolutions begin in the minds of the nostalgic. So come now my fellow workers and break those shackles that tie you to your desk and a reheated Hot Pocket! Let’s grab a burger and a beer and dare the boss man to fire us!