Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Food and Culture

Red RoosterA few weeks ago Eddie Huang and Francis Lam posted a conversation over at Gilt Taste regarding Lam's New York Times article about chefs becoming famous for cuisines they weren't born into. Like how, say, Rick Bayless and Alex Stupak are considered two of the best Mexican chefs in the country by many, but started cooking the cuisine somewhat late in life. With Stupak in particular, there seems to be some concern that since he's not cooking his food like a Mexican grandmother that he is doing it a disservice... and that his restaurant's popularity is somehow hurting the authentic Mexican joint in your neighborhood. Haung (Lam is pretty even handed) seems to have a lot of anxiety that outsiders will come and "steal" a food culture and successfully monetize it in a way that brings massive mainstream praise, while the original owners of that food culture languish in obscurity. Worse, maybe they'll bring their foams and scary chemicals! Essentially the worry is that a white dude with a CIA degree will do a "modernist" take on some cuisine and instantly be regarded as the master of said cuisine, even though his food isn't authentic nor necessarily trying to be. I didn't/don't agree with Huang's concerns in pretty fundamental ways, but I could never really got my thoughts cogent enough to blog about the original conversation and eventually I forgot about it.

Now, Huang has what I can really only describe as a hit piece on Marcus Samuelsson up at the New York Observer, which brings up the same anxieties and argues along the same lines as the conversation mentioned above... so I finally felt the need to put some contrary thoughts out into the ether. This time we're talking about an African born, Sweden raised, US immigrant who dared to put a fancy soul food restaurant in Harlem. His crime? He's an outsider that's become famous, with a successful restaurant, cooking a cuisine that he's had to learn and is not doing it authentically enough for Huang. I suppose it's fair to be upset that the original soul food restaurants in Harlem... the real pioneers... aren't being appreciated the way you want them to be, but unless you think the only people who should be eating Harlem style soul food is people who were born and raised there (excluding Huang natch)... all outsiders verboten... then simple angst is counterproductive.

My opinion is that a rising tide lifts all boats, and that if Red Rooster is bringing national attention to Harlem's soul food culture then how can that possibly hurt? In the Gilt Taste piece Huang argues that there is only so much attention to go around, and so praised heaped upon something he feel is unworthy necessarily must detract from more authentic places. Now to believe this fairly ridiculous assertion you not only have to agree that there is a constant amount of "foodie enthusiasm" to be doled out (never mind the rise of cooking shows and competitions in recent years!), but that it is constant within a cuisine. That is, we are only capable of caring about Chinese food a certain amount, and that if I get really really excited about Mission Chinese it couldn't be because I'm not really into burritos as much as I used to be. If someone went to Red Rooster and thought it was awesome, why would you think that would decrease their interest in soul food? Wouldn't they be more likely to go to another, more authentic, place in the future? I know that's what happens to me, at least, when a restaurant challenges my ill founded preconceptions of a cuisine. It seems likely that many people who thought soul food was "low class", or not worth appreciating, now know differently... and very well may seek out a more authentic meal with broader food experience in their belt and newly opened eyes. Certainly one might say that these people should have appreciated this great food from the beginning, and not needed a celebrity chef with an inspiring bio to show the way... but why should we blame Samuelsson that this is often how it works? Would we currently revere French cuisine in this country as much as we do if Julia Child hadn't first cooked coq au vin on TV? Does the fact that she brought mainstream appeal to it somehow lessen the importance of Brillat-Savarin or Escoffier?

I can appreciate the cultural anxiety... this kind of thing is kind of like the gentrification of food... but if one really loves a cuisine then I would think you'd want as many people as possible to experience it, and mainstream appeal is part and parcel to that.