The United Tastes of America

What exactly is American cuisine? I found myself pondering this question after the most unlikely of prompts — a political conversation.

The context was the dismantling of Confederate statues in the south — a point my friendly rhetorical rival argued is the erasing of an important part of the legacy of people in that region. My counterpoint was that for people of African American heritage, these monuments were painful symbols of slavery. And, by the way, were also celebrating men who were technically guilty of treason against the United States. “You can’t equate it with baseball and apple pie,” I said.

Which got me thinking: “How American is apple pie, anyway?”

When I looked “apple pie” up on Wikipedia, it said: “Origin: England.” Or course, the French would likely argue that. The broader point being that there were no apples in the New World when the pilgrims arrived. Nor were there any much earlier when the first people to set foot in North America crossed the Bering Land Bridge during the last Ice Age.

The British brought apples. That is, when they immigrated to North America. The French probably brought them when they immigrated, too. And they probably argued about who made the better crust for their apple pie. (I would likely favor the French, but that’s neither here nor there.) Before the European migrants, there was no apple pie in North America. There was corn and “natives” — who, as we have already established, had themselves migrated here.

Let us not forget that Marco Polo brought the noodle to China. Or, wait… did he bring the noodle back from China??

Apple pie, photo courtesy Betty Crocker

When I was a kid, we didn’t go out for “American” food. There were five restaurants we frequented in our 1970s suburban Los Angeles neighborhood — Sierra’s, a dark labyrinth of vinyl booths and enormous platters of rice, beans and enchiladas or rellenos or whatever main you ordered; Papa Tony’s, your classic red-checker-tableclothed spaghetti-and-meatballs joint; Twin Dragon, what we would later understand to be “Cantonese” style regional cuisine but what back then was just Chinese; Joy of Tempura, where I learned to use delicate chopsticks and developed an early love for bonsai trees and raw fish; and Papillon, a jewel box that served snails and where my parents liked to delight the waitstaff by having the 6-year-old me order the Pouilly-Fuissé. Cooking and serving and bussing in each of those restaurants were happy Mexican, Chinese, French, Japanese and Italian people who came to America or were born to parents who did, bringing their traditions as they crossed the desert or the sea following the American dream.

Cecilia Chiang, pioneer of the famous San Francisco restaurant, The Mandarin, recently turned 90. She may be one of the most American chefs of all. She was born to a wealthy Chinese family, escaped the Japanese occupation in 1942 by walking for six months, fled Mao after that, and wound up in San Francisco in 1960, where with no experience she opened a Northern Chinese restaurant, betting Americans would be open to exploring authentic Chinese flavors beyond egg foo young and chop suey. Likewise, Wolfgang Puck, whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions. A Carinthian kid with a dream of a different kind of pizza — a uniquely Austrian/California/Italian mash-up only possible in Hollywood.

Growing up in Los Angeles, a burrito was American food. A few decades ago, my friend, Saul, came across the border in the trunk of a car. He got a job bussing tables at a deli, where he met a jewish waitress whom he eventually married. He got into construction, earned his contractors license, built a house and became a citizen. A few years back, he travelled back for a visit to his family’s village in Jalisco, where he grew up in a small house with ten siblings and no plumbing.

“What would you do when you had to go to the bathroom?” I asked.

“We’d go out in the field,” he said.

“What about toilet paper?”

“We’d find the smoothest rock we could find.”

He came back with a large wedge of cheese for me — queso cotija his mom had made from unpasteurized milk from the family cow. It was one of the most delicious cheeses I’ve ever had, and I guarded over it like it was gold. My American friend Saul, and his mom’s Mexican cheese.

The best apple pie I ever had was at a street festival in the northern Japanese city of Aomori, which is known for its apples. Apples originated in Asia, don’t you know. How did they get to England and France? I don’t know, maybe… migrants??

And that, my friends, is about as American as apple pie.

When we think about immigration, we might think not of walls but rather of fences — the low kind we lean our elbow on as we talk to our neighbor next door whom, upon finding we have much humanity in common with, we invite over for a glass of our family wine or to sit at our table for a slice of whatever apple pie is our tradition. And toast to the fact that we all started out someplace else. And brought our food to America with us.

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MSG = Monosodium, Good Mate!

I was at a pizza & wine cookoff recently — me with a few bottles of my family wine versus my pal Craig, with his family wines, making pizzas in the wood-burning oven of my friend and Craig’s brother-in-law, Chris. Basically, dads showing off for their and their friends’ wives.

Somehow we got on the subject of foods-that-used-to-be-taboo-that-have-been-redeemed — perhaps we were talking about eggs from each of our backyard chickens. Maybe it was butter, I can’t remember. I said aloud, “They’ve even determined that MSG is harmless.” Chris looked surprised. “Really??” However, his mother-in-law — his wife Mary’s mom — who had also joined us, looked aghast.

“Oh no!” she said, “MSG is terrible. It gives me headaches and irregular heartbeat and flushed skin!!”

I didn’t follow up.

A few weeks ago, I was cooking a test dinner of a sample menu for a briefly-mentioned-in-my-last-post-restaurant-possibility with some shall-not-yet-be-mentioned celebrity dinner guests who would be involved. My potential-restaurant-partner quizzed the guests about what their favorite kind of chicken was, and one of them replied, “KFC.”

Now I will pause here briefly to say that anyone who has ever told you they don’t like KFC is lying to you. It is @#$%ING delicious. Why? Well, there are those 11 secret herbs and spices. There is also the pressure frying which keeps the meat tender and thoroughly cooked without overcooking the crust. But there is also a fair helping of MSG.

My MSG

The bad rap MSG got from the beginning was largely bogus. It’s simply a protein isolate attached to a sodium molecule. The bad rap also dates to the 1960s, when people reported experiencing strange symptoms after eating Chinese American food. In a famous article exploring “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” the author proposed a number of possible suspects — huge quantities of sodium, equally heroic amounts of oil… or, a heretofore unknown substance called monosodium glutamate. It was the latter that captured the public imagination — especially after some well-meaning scientists injected pregnant mice with 30,000x the amount of MSG any human could possibly consume and discovered problems in the resulting offspring.

If you are afraid of MSG, consider that you likely consume half a gram of the stuff daily in the foods you eat. That’s not counting naturally occurring MSG, which is chemically the same as the additive, and found in foods from mushrooms to cheese to fish.

I wanted my guests to really like the chicken. So I purchased a bag of MSG.

I was a little ashamed as I brought my contraband to the check-out line. But then I remembered I was at the Japanese market, and the Japanese still dig MSG. They were the ones who brought it to the world! Anyway, in terms of my meal, it would not be the main component of the dishes I was making; rather, it would merely enhance the flavors of garlic, salt, sugar, pepper, spices and so forth. I used a very small pinch in my spice mixture, a bit in my brines, etc. How was it? Delicious — and a bit better than it would’ve been without. My celebrity guests were on board 100%.

And I am now onboard too. With MSG.

Don’t shame me, well-intentioned food extremist. I realize yours is a small, flavorless world in which your self-righteous indignity to my defense of the world’s most hated food additive will provide you a temporary sense of purpose. I give you that. With a side of kale.

Just give me a KFC thigh and wing, please. And some kung pao chicken on the side.

Pretentious Plating and Other Random Thoughts

I had meant to do my periodic sort-of annual “Trends for the New Year” post for 2019, but all of a sudden it’s late March.

What happened to February? How is it one day we are hugging and ringing in the New Year, and then suddenly the year is a quarter over?

I haven’t been blogging as much as I used to. I’ve been quite busy with potential movie projects, potential restaurant projects… and paintings sets for my daughter’s elementary school musical.

I’ve also been spending more time on my @skinnygirlsandmayo Instagram account, where I have a bazillion followers and advertisers pay me untold figures to endorse their products as a social media influencer. (Actually, I don’t really have that many followers, and sometimes I worry that advertisers will actually charge me for doing whatever the opposite is of appealing to their all-important 18-34 demographic). It’s fun to just post photos and not have to write anything about them. But then, since I am technically a “writer,” after awhile I miss writing and so return to my blog.

I follow a hashtag on Instagram called “Art of Plating,” that features chefs, foodies and restaurateurs posting shots of beautifully photographed plates of food. Examples:

This was something I could enjoy looking at! So I followed it for a couple months, and then realized that all the photos kind of looked the same. There were lots of flowers and microgreens, nasturtium leaves, creatively smeared or dotted sauces, ingredients cubed and brunoised, food all pushed to one side of the plate… Everybody is doing beautiful food now!

Sometimes I do beautiful food. I do admit that. (And then usually have to go out on the back property afterward to chop some wood.) But all this Instagram “Art of Plating” was beginning to feel a little precious and pretentious. So I decided to have a little fun with #artofplating.

My first submission was “toaster hash brown with ketchup”:

The response was positive.

Whether people were picking up on the joke, or perhaps overly serious foodies were saying to one another, “Look at what he manages to do with a simple hash brown!” I do not know.

This was followed a couple weeks later by my next beautiful food shot, “fish nuggets with tartar sauce and parsley”:

I had something here.

Perhaps I could do something with Pop Tarts. Then, of course, there was Hamburger Helper.

In the interest of full transparency, I may have been subconsciously inspired by a photo my pal Jon sent me many years ago of his dinner — mac n’ cheese with chicken nuggets randomly dropped onto the shiny plasticine surface.

I often wonder where the food world can possibly go next, especially now when everyone is doing beautiful food. What is the next trend — ugly food? And while they may be beautiful, it is fair to ask — how many people really enjoy eating flowers??

 

There Are Hipsters in the San Gabriel Valley

I don’t want anyone to be alarmed, but there are hipsters in the San Gabriel Valley.

They’re hard to escape these days — bearded, tattooed young guys wearing Vans and cool t-shirts emblazoned with logos for Nashville honkytonks, their hair either coiled up in a man bun or shaved off entirely, accompanied by beautiful tattooed braless young women of often indeterminate Hispaneuroasian ethnicity.

Jaydyn, Willa and their dim sum

San Gabriel Valley is as unhip as it gets. Why, then, are the hipsters there? I partially blame it on Jonathan Gold, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning Angeleno food critic. Jonathan Gold was unhip, too — a portly, balding guy with suspenders and a squeaky voice. But he wrote with the music and flourish of a poet as he gleefully took the road less travelled to L.A.’s grittier corners in pursuit of a great meal. He was, as it turns out, was a muse for L.A.’s hip and intelligentsia, who could boast amongst one another of the most recent Jonathan Gold treasure they’d frequented. More

A Waffle Does Not Make Good Sandwich Bread (and Other Thoughts)

I received a Groupon in my in-box this morning (why I still receive Groupons in my in-box is another conversation) for a place called “Red Maple Café”. A rather generic attempt at an Americana tavern/eatery type name (the trend these days). Obviously not drawing the people they expected, if they are putting out a Groupon.

The photo included with the Groupon was of an ill-conceived sandwich, a meat of some kind — probably smoked heritage pork belly — suspended between two waffles. Making matters worse was a sprig of cilantro sitting ominously close to the meat. More

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