rant

Gorging on Cal-Mexican Food: An Brief Look at Food and Place

Posted on March 8, 2012. Filed under: hodgepodge, rant | Tags: , , , , , |

My father pointed out that I came home with a bag of leftovers every day on my trip home to Northern California. “You seem a little bit obsessed with Mexican food, Hal B,” he said.

Big Art was correct. My Mexican binge was totally by design. I made a point to have a meal at a local Cal-Mex restaurant each day I was home, and I also made it a point to order more food than I needed; pozole, two tacos, a burrito all ended up wrapped and saved for a late-night snack. I stopped at a (pre-trendy) taco truck ON MY WAY to lunch–I could see the restaurant from the street where my hands were dripping with chile verde. My belly bulged on the flight home.

I think it’s terrific that, in this period of globalization, regional specialty food still plays prominently on the palate. Although there is a remarkable pizza maker just outside of Pittsburgh (and another delightful one just down the block from me), New York still haunts my dreams. Good BBQ is simply smoke, spice, and meat, and a exceptionally enjoyable one has just opened in Pittsburgh. Yet, the truly transcendent joints are the ones that perfume the air south of the Mason-Dixon line. And, for me, Mexican food is best from a strip mall/truck/hole-in-the-wall in California.

Why? People argue it’s the water that makes a New York pizza special. However, “imported” water, though not commonplace, feeds dough outside of New York. The pizza isn’t any better because of it.

A lot of this has to do with the food you “grew up” on. I have a deep preference for East Coast Angle-Chinese food; the greasy kind with iconic dishes. I judge by wonton soup and chicken & broccoli. My brother, who was 3 years younger when we left New York, has the opposite reaction. He prefers the authentic* Chinese food of the Pacific Coast. Less grease, thinner wontons, more seafood. This isn’t limited to childhood memory, either–though childhood influence in generally the strongest.

Specific geography can play a part in flavoring food. The first oysters I had were grown in the cold-water of Tamales Bay. Small, briny, deep mineral flavor. They FLOORED me. I figured I’d love all oysters after that, but that wasn’t at all true. The large, warm-water Gulf oyster didn’t make me dance inside. I learned that the size and flavor of an oyster are directly affected by the ecology of the local waters and the breeds that can grow in it.

I also think a lot of this has to do with the food-culture of the place. There was a recent New York Times article written by a vegetarian complaining about the lack of vegetarian food in Kansas City. He made some valid points, but he missed the big one–it’s a beef town. He went on to complain about the lack of “ethnic” restaurants in the city, ignoring the fact that Kansas City hasn’t been a historic center of multi-ethnic immigration. Does he think that “ethnic” should be ubiquitous? What a dink.

I’m fascinated between the connection between food and place. It’s an issue that I’m going to continue to explore. I hope you will, too. Share your stories.

*Authenticity is a complex concept, so I won’t spent too much time on it here. For the sake of this piece, let’s just say that it’s generally agreed that the Chinese food in San Francisco is characterized as “more authentic” than the food on the East Coast because it’s more directly connected to the foodways of China. There are holes to be poked in this argument–not to mention the fact that I’m totally lumping a heterogenous culture into one cuisine called “Chinese food”–but that’s the basic idea. 

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Lazy Potato Makes Me Mad

Posted on February 9, 2011. Filed under: hodgepodge, rant, review, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , |

Sometimes I see things at the grocery store that make me mad. Alright, pretty much every time I go to the SuperDuperHyperMart I see something that makes me mad. Today it was potatoes.

Clever potato marketers have decided that we are so lazy or stupid we can’t bake a potato without help. If you’re so inclined, there are two items for sale that will (theoretically) make your potato baking endeavors ever so less taxing. Because potato baking is real tough stuff. Life sure is hard in America.

The first one is a “double washed for your convenience” potato wrapped in very shiny gold foil. Oh! Pretty! Saves so much time! You don’t have to wash your potato! Or perform any heavy lifting by wrapping it in foil! Hooray! Pretty! Sadly, all is not happy happy in the world of the super shiny potato. You have to remove the label that tells you how wonderful the potato is. Oooops. That’s as hard as washing a potato, and I thought I was buying the potato so that I didn’t have to go through the very troubling effort of getting my hands wet for 20 seconds. Also, this special potato takes just as long to bake as a potato that hasn’t been pre-wrapped for me. I still have to plan a whole 50 minutes in advance if I want a potato?! Holy hell, potato marketer, who do you think I am?

Good thing I can get a microwave ready potato. Sure, it’s only been washed one time. But hey, I still don’t have to get my hands wet. That would really suck. I don’t have to go through all the horrible trouble of removing a label. That’s good, removing labels is challenging. And it’s ready in 7 minutes. Life is looking up. Sure, I’m microwaving a potato unnecessarily wrapped in plastic, but I don’t care about my health, I care about having my potato as quick as I can.

Why is it that marketers constantly have to pretend to innovate while they’re actually doing nothing special except charging us an extra 20-30 cents per pound? I spent a fair amount of time thinking about value-added products, and these products certainly don’t add any value. Opposite. Shiny foil and microwave plastic put a physical and psychological barrier between us and our food. It’s sad, really. Baking a potato isn’t a chore, and it shouldn’t be looked at like it is. Baking a potato is one of the easiest things you can do in the kitchen. We don’t need pre-packaged potatoes. Just like an apple or a banana, potatoes already come individually wrapped. Plus a potato baked without all the silly bells & whistles shiny plastic wrap tastes better. Happy happy.

To bake a potato:
Heat oven to 425F
Rinse potato, dry it, and prick it a few times with a fork. (You can rub a little oil on the outside if you like, but I don’t.)
Put potato in oven.
Cook for 45 min – 1 hour. (Skin will be crisp, and you should be able to easily pass a fork through center.)
If you’re really super pressed for time, you can microwave a potato for 7-8 minutes. The skin won’t be all crispy and delicious, but it’s still tasty. No creepy plastic wrapping necessary.

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