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.