Yelling at Clouds

I’ve been “Old Man Yells at Cloud” a bit more than usual lately.

That was my reaction to seeing a photo of a $30 plate of ribs, coleslaw, pickles & bread at Michael Symon’s new restaurant, Mabel’s BBQ. It was the thin slice of white bread in particular that drove me to such heroic lengths. My beef is, I think, legitimate. Foods that have been traditionally valued for their simplicity, tradition, & nostalgia have been hijacked by haute cuisine and paraded around in garish costume.

I feel like the experience of a cultural, regional, or ethnic cuisine is enhanced by enjoyment of it in context. I’m an anthropologist; I want the cultural experience of getting amazing, nothing-fancy ribs from a guy cooking them in a converted steel drum at an abandoned gas station on East 131st Street. I want to buy poutine in sub-zero temps from a food truck in Kingston, ON that has been parking in the same spot and serving the same lunch to the same group of people for years. I want black-peppered grits, either plain or cooked in potlikker. I want to go into a restaurant in Little Arabia or Ukrainian Village or Asia Town where English is a second or third language and take my chances.

I’ve identified two things about this that drive me crazy, and a pretty solid reason why I’m being unfair, which I’ll get to in a minute.

  1. Branding/Marketing. The successful haute cuisine is so aggressively marketed and granularly branded that the experience becomes less about the food and more about the exclusivity of it. Everything is sold as if it is archetypal – postmodernist edibles.
  2. Safety. The successful restauranteur these days seems to be a white guy who appropriates a non-white cultural cuisine and adjudicates its presentation in such a way that the surroundings feel safe and comfortable to other white folks. That’s not an adventure to me.

When I say haute cuisine, I’m talking about a kitchen that mansplains food. “You plebeians, here’s how you should be making your poor-folk food.”

I took a course called Crucial Conversations a few weeks ago, and one of the things we learned is when to identify situations where you’re telling yourself a story because you lack enough information to really know what’s going on. So I tried to come up with an alternative story to why someone might do things to foods that I love that I find completely unconscionable. The easiest empathic path I was able to come up with is thinking of a restauranteur as an artist. The stuff they are doing to food is their art. I can at least understand that motive, even if I think there’s a metric butt-ton of privilege in the implementation. An artist would, can, and sometimes should ignore cultural context if they are remixing another art. This allows a food artist to ignore the fact that Wonder Bread is napkins and gravy-sop for poor Southern folks and create an artisanal hand-ground, preservative and HFCS-free white bread to go with the $30 lamb BBQ. The thing being valued is the exclusivity and remix, not the authenticity. Damien Hirst as chef.

I can at least understand that, even if I think it’s dumb.

Most folks I know don’t think of me as particularly conservative, but on the whole I tend to value the vernacular – craft over art, things that remain rather than things reinvented. Maybe I’m a misanthropologist.


Tangentially, I read an article today about co-sleeping and whether it’s good or bad. This is such a silly argument to me – like arguing whether circumcision is good or bad. (If it wasn’t meant to be there, it wouldn’t be). It wasn’t that long ago that women were completely knocked out when they went into labor and “medical professionals” took delivery on from there because that was considered better than natural childbirth. It wasn’t that long ago that formula was considered a better option than natural nursing. Currently, people in Western countries think it is better to leave a newborn infant alone, in a quiet room, for most of the day or night and to keep track of them via an electronic monitor than keep them close for comfort. Forget the fact that primates have been:

  1. having natural birth for millions of years
  2. nursing their offspring for millions of years
  3. not letting newborn offspring out of their sight for millions of years

By all means, keep the infant in a dark, quiet, separate room, completely cut off from warmth, comfort, and stabilizing influence of their parents. I’d cry too.

Yeah, definitely a misanthropologist.