Social Geography and Food

Neighborhoods in cities where you walk to restaurants may, in fact, contribute to what’s on the plate.  Long before there were, “Destination Restaurants,” and, “Restaurants Worth A Detour,” as described in the Michelin guides (designed by a tire company and meant to promote automobile travel), cities had places in which to dine where customers walked in.

The walkers often lived in the same neighborhood as the restaurant, and cooked a lot of the same food at home. In these restaurants, people dined for a number of specific reasons.

It was nice to be sociable with neighbors.  Great not to have to cook.  Good to have a place to celebrate some occasion, big or small, in ways that let others know of the success.  A place to do business, advance a cause, have a conversation that could not be held at home, wonderful to be taken care of in a familiar setting.

Some cities still have this.  And the result are restaurants where cooks and patrons have a shared and often simple understanding of what tastes good.

But in cities in which people are separated by cars and don’t interact much day to day with restaurateurs or cooks, the restaurants, most of them, have a separate life.  These restaurants reflect the ideas and intentions of the chefs and owners who try to create a reality that may have little to do with the social geography of their customers.

The result is superficiality on the plate, or at least a division between the food and the person eating it.

Or, on a positive note, the restaurateur or chef casts a very wide net, and aims to entice as many customers as possible.  This lack of specificity spawned franchises and big menus.

All in all, what’s lost is one purpose of a restaurant, which is, fundamentally, to bring people together.  Instead, the result are restaurants that have little to do with community, and instead are rather like a social imposition.

 

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I Just Want Something to Eat: Tale of Two Cities

So I’m driving around town, or on my way back home from work, and pass by pizza joints that sell slices with, is that cheese?, on baked dough, and some of it’s good, especially if you’re hungry, but most of it’s not.  Then, too, burgers.  A plethora of burgers.  Dumplings.  Ramen showing up more and more, and if it’s salt and pork fat you’re after, this cannot be beat.  Croissant the size of a baby’s arm jammed with cheese and ham.  Here and there: Subs, roast beef, sandwiches with enough ingredients to fill a dictionary available in shops where it’s $20 for two slices of bread and a pile-on and an iced tea.

Or.

I’m walking down streets or along avenues.  Great vegetarian “burgers.”  Hummus that tastes like it was made an hour ago: Lemony, chick peas, and a little tahini.  Pizza that’s epic, from Rubirosa to Joe & Pat’s.  Potato pancakes and bowls of soup.  A bagel with lox spread for $5.  Cold noodles with carrots and beans sprouts.

 

 

Racism & Boston Restaurants

The Boston Globe recently ran a long piece puzzling over why Boston isn’t regarded by anyone with common sense as a restaurant town.

The piece was prompted by Bon Appetit‘s article last month that named Portland, Maine–little Portland, Maine–as the, “restaurant city of the year.”  This stripped bare the excuses made by local defenders: That NYC and Philadelphia, because of their big sizes, are an unfair comparison to Boston when it comes to food.

In fact, there are numerous reasons why dining out in Boston is a reflection of the city’s broader problems.  Chief among them is, “the silo effect,” which typifies life in the city and its neighboring communities.  The racial segregation of Boston noted by many black Americans extends to the food’s scene.

Have a look at this list of Boston magazine‘s 50 best restaurants of 2018:

White males: 32 restaurants listed

White females: 9 restaurants listed

Asian males: 4 listed

Asian females: 2 listed

Hispanic males: 1 listed

(One restaurant of the 50 has a while male and white female in charge.)

According to the U.S. census bureau, 53% of Boston is white, 25.4% is African American, 9.3% is Asian, and 19% is Hispanic.

Gender: 52% female, 48% male.

So when restaurants are acclaimed by one the city’s chief arbiters of dining and there is zero representation of African Americans, 2% Hispanic, and 30% female, it tells you a lot about why dining in Boston is so awful.  There is great cooking going on throughout the city: But it’s being ignored by those in authoritative positions to effect change.  Gee, wonder why?

Culinary History of Boston

The name itself–“Boston”–is Anglo-Saxon for a very famous item of food that has become a synecdoche for the city today.

“Bos” is the ancient Anglo-Saxon word for, “bag,” or, “sack of.”  It refers to a container, typically made of cloth centuries ago, but which can be applied to paper or cardboard.

“Ton” is more complex with multiple meanings, from, “fruitful forest,” to, “holiday fare,” to its most common use, which is, “dough.”  Specifically, over the years, “Bos,” came to mean the dough sold at religious fairs, typically fried and served with an array of toppings, such as sprinkles (these days known as, “jimmies”), or stuffed with cream or jelly.

Hence, Boston means, “Bag of Doughnuts,” and indeed the city exemplifies the pinnacle of this extraordinary dish.  While it is impossible to find a worthwhile bagel outside of Katz’s, located in Chelsea, in Boston, there is no shortage–none!–of doughnuts.

Alongside doughnuts, relying upon the telegenic past of its best known authority on food, a person who never worked in a professional kitchen for pay, there are croissants, some stuffed with processed pork from commercial farms, and others served with enough butter to trigger cardiac arrest.

Bon Appetit!

Kiss It Goodbye

As another summer winds down, and what a summer it has been, waves of wet heat keep me housebound as much as possible.  Me, the dog, the cat.

On a positive note, that’s led to a bunch of decent pages of my new book: UKEIRE.  Due with Da Capo in 2019, and out in 2020, just in time for Tokyo summer Olympics, the book touches upon day to day practices that we North Americans might cherry pick from and adapt to life here from Japan.

The #1 failing of all food writing is that it exists outside of time, without contexts, and with little regard for economics, gender, and commentary on current reality. If you look at most of it, it could be 1950, 1960. 1990, etc. It lacks sufficient meaning.

So the challenge of contemporary observation exemplified by this new book is worthwhile.

 

ROBUCHON

Certainly no chef has influenced me more in terms of cookbooks or smarts than Robuchon.  His cookbook is in both places where I spend the most time, and what I love about his work, which seems to have philosophical underpinnings, is his overriding simplicity.

Joël flew me to Vegas ages ago for a weekend, and talked about his life and food.  We spent time in his kitchen where I asked him to show me how he made his famous whipped potatoes.

A few peeled fingerlings, salted water, butter.  But by far the best potatoes I’d ever had, which he explained had come about because he sourced the best and spent months and months doing so.  What a palate.

The meal I had that night at his restaurant remains the best I’d ever had.  Four courses of small, tightly focused dishes pairing fresh white truffles with one ingredient each.  A scrambled egg.  A piece of fish.  Pasta.

He told me that weekend that he had thought of becoming a priest.

His patience in the kitchen was natural.

The announcement of his death today is sad.

Top Ten: Boston

Galleria Umberto.  Is this the best?  Yes.  Square slices, inviting room, consistent over decades.

Santarpio’s.  Truly wonderful pies and the big guy in the back in black and white checkered pants presiding over the two other guys at the Blodgett is the best.

Tropical Foods.  Hands down, the best big market in town.  Always good music playing, customers who fill baskets with fruits and vegetables, everything you need to stock a pantry with spices and oils and sauces to convert your North American kitchen into one with soul.

Arax.  Friendly and perfect for Middle Eastern goods with dates from Iran and pickles from Israel and spices from Lebanon, etc.  You can’t go wrong with all the foods that Hagop prepares on site.

Pepe’s.  Back to pizza.  No question about it, the best in the country.  What crusts!  What tomato sauces!  What depth of flavor! This satellite of the epic New Haven joint has pies that make all other pies contextual.

Santouka.  Cold noodles in the summer, broths and noodles and spice in the winter.

H-Mart.  Another great market.  In Central Square, Cambridge, this is part of a national franchise stocked with products from Korea, China, and Japan.  The Sun noodles to use to make dishes at home have great texture.

Clear Flour.  An unusually wonderful bakery in the sense that it has terrific breads, excelling at German and Swiss styles, as well as delicious tarts.

Pabu.  The one and only restaurant where the food, ambience, and service are great value.  It’s a range of small dishes, each well prepared and thoughtfully, and no better place to go to before a Celtics game.  Now if they could only do something about the music.

THE CELTICS.  Pretty much the best reason this town is worth living in.

BOSTON’S BEST

There’s a lot of talk about Boston being a “food town” filled with great restaurants and here today let’s do a Q & A on the city’s Best:

Q: Where is the city’s best Japanese restaurant?

A: In addition to PABU, the Boston Celtics have a great line up and with the new draft pick on Thursday, who may replace Baynes, they could find themselves in the Finals in 2019.

Q: Best deli?

A: I can’t say I follow baseball: Too many games means that watching the pitching reminds me of sandlot ball with lots of hits and down time.  But if I did watch baseball, I’d enjoy going to Fenway Park, which is a very beautiful place to spend a few hours catching up on email.

Q: Best bagels?

A: Katz’s in East Boston is exemplary.  As good as it gets, with a great staff, and really delicious chicken pot pies in addition to bagels.  They don’t sell poppy seed bagels, however.

Q: Best Italian?

A: Galleria Umberto. Pepe’s, Santarpio’s, T. Anthony’s.  In that order.

In the Tropics

Don’t like shopping for food?  Me, neither, though there are ways around it.  In Boston, there’s ARAX, a remarkable and family run shop filled with fruits and vegetables and prepared items and dry goods that draw upon the cuisines of Armenia, Syria, Iran, and Lebanon.  Hagop is now in the kitchen cooking, and his sons run the front.

Whole Foods now delivers for free, plus tip, so I no longer have to go through its doors.  Russo’s is there on desperate days and looking over its items, seemingly left over from restaurants that turned the stuff down, I go there at most once or twice per year.

Best of all?

TROPICAL FOODS in Dudley.  The lot alone is welcoming.  What with a guy in the summer with an open van selling flavored ices, to the music, often reggae or old soul, pouring out of speakers from inside.  Inside, the rafts of yams, bananas, limes, oranges, and lemons speak of abundance.  Ginger.  Big containers of dried spices.  And pleasant.  People are pleasant: Eye contact, brief conversations about what’s in store.

“See these steaks?  I don’t mess around!”

Rest in Peace, Anthony Bourdain

I met Tony Bourdain ages ago, over dinner at Da Silvano, in 1999, and his shyness was the most striking thing about him that night.  He handed his menu to his publicist and said, “Please order for me, maybe a steak.”

He was soft spoken throughout the evening, more interested in listening than talking, which is the hallmark of a great storyteller, ironically, which he was then and remained throughout his very remarkable life.

He was adept at getting out of the way of a story, and despite all the bombastic, eye-catching comments, his ability and willingness to accept and celebrate vulnerability were a stunning counterbalance.

Like A.J. Liebling, his writing about food was attentive, muscular, and alert to what bounty and deprivation, taste and sensuality, providers and consumers are about.

His generosity is also a big part of who he was.

When I interviewed him for a story I did for The Boston Globe, many years back, about the awfulness of restaurants in Boston, he said, thoughtfully and with an eye toward making things better: “I think they’re charging high prices because they can – serving food to people who are grateful to have what they consider big city food.  I think what’s going on in Boston is a classic example of chefs working in a place that’s not yet a national restaurant city, not by a stretch. It’s a period of insecurity. And I can really understand why the chefs are charging so much: If prices come down, they lose their mystique as chefs. They’re reluctant to abandon their pomposity, expense, and pretense.”

His honesty and presence are missed, and it’s only been less than a day.