Thursday, May 12, 2016

Kevin Alexander Preaches to My Choir

Thrillist writer Kevin Alexander has written a big, intense essay that makes me want to stand up and cheer. It's called "Why the 'Hot New Food Town' Must Die" - and though "die" might be a stretch, I agree with pretty much everything he writes.

It appears that at some point, Alexander was planning to write about Pittsburgh's burgeoning food scene - the city is being hailed all over the place as the next big thing in dining. Instead, he applied what he observed about Pittsburgh - and other places - and wrote about a subject I find fascinating: the sameness of the culinary scenes in smaller cities named as hot new places to eat and the culture that has created that monster. (He admits he's part of that culture.)

He calls it the Good Food Revival Movement - a name that's just about perfect, given the religious zeal that people have adopted when it comes to food.


I've been thinking about the similarity between food and religion for quite some time now. In 2009, I wrote my first post about food as the new religion. My starting point was an old Tom Wolfe essay about art being the new opiate of the masses. Food, I suggested, had replaced art. In addition to his use of "revival" to describe the current food climate, Alexander calls food the "social currency" of millennials. We're speaking the same language.

In 2009, I expected that the spotlight would shift away from food and that something new would take its place as the social currency of our time. Maybe it still will. But for now, it looks like food is it.


Alexander's other big point, about the sameness of the Good Food Towns - and that they're all based on Portland, in one way or another - is also something I've written about a ton.

My first post on that topic was back in 2006, after my sister's college graduation dinner in Lexington, Virginia. At the time, I bemoaned what seemed to be a lack of regionally-specific dishes and flavors.

A couple years later, as the food world's collective gaze shifted to Charleston and southern flavors reigned supreme, I thought that regionalism was back. (This 2012 post summarizes my shift in thinking.)

If Alexander is correct - and I think he is - regionalism might have slightly returned, but it didn't manifest on a grand scale. He talks about cities "doing a 2007 Portland impression" - instead of digging into their own histories, figuring out their roots, and building unique food identities around what was already theirs.


It's a good story - thoughtful and thought-provoking. But, of course, I don't live in Pittsburgh. I live in Baltimore. So I wonder...what does this mean for my city?

People in Baltimore complain sometimes because we've been overlooked, frequently in the past, as a food city. I've had a chip on my own shoulder about it. Why does Cleveland get the love, I asked in this 2008 post. Actually, apparently I couldn't shut up about that in 2008.

But maybe we've been overlooked because we haven't hewed so completely to the Portland 2007 model. Not that we've completely rejected it - there's plenty of charcuterie in town. But one of Alexander's points is that before its revival, Pittsburgh "was a crap food town" without a clear existing identity or even strong ethnic communities.

Without an established culinary sense of self, adopting the Portland model made sense. I'm sure Pittsburgh is home to some great food history and stories, but those things can be tough to dig up. Especially for chefs who want to, you know, make money.

Baltimore, on the other hand, has always had its own thing going. In recent years, we've been peddling the "more than crab cakes" message, but the reality is that we are crab cakes - and steamed crabs and muddy oysters and rockfish and Old Bay. We're more than that, but those things that come from the Chesapeake are at the core of who we are.

This is us. (At my house last summer.)
Plus, those roots have champions. Food innovation here is homegrown. Spike Gjerde has put massive amounts of time and energy into rediscovering and spotlighting the foodways of the Chesapeake region. (Related: Jane Marion's recent profile of him is a great read.)

He's not the only one, either. Winston Blick knows the region's farms and waterways - and the historic flavors that come from them - as well as anybody. Tony Conrad stocks his shop full of fish and crabs and oysters that come straight out of the Bay. And programs like True Blue do what they can to ensure that restaurants and diners stay connected to local products.

Not every restaurant has to be local, local, local, of course. Everybody can't be Woodberry. We also need Bottega and La Cuchara and Charleston and Petit Louis (and everybody else). But the dining community as a whole is better off if it includes places and people devoted to hometown food.


Alexander ends his article on a moderately upbeat note, saying that ultimately, raising the food game in smaller cities is a good thing, even if there's not as much individuality as he'd like to see. But he also does a little self-flagellating, reminding himself and other food writers that over-celebrating one particular type of food culture - even if it's good food! - discourages innovation, especially in smaller markets.

Based on all of this, here in Baltimore, I think we should just keep on doing what we're doing. Maybe  I could do a little less "why doesn't anybody in the national press love us" whining. But in the kitchen, on the farms, and on the water, as far as I can tell, we're doing it right.


Neal P said...

I agree with your points. I think it's really a matter of patience. The foodie phenomenon, for lack of a better term, is still only about a generation old. My parents thought Continental cuisine was the apex of fine dining, with a protein and a choice of two sides. We've come a long way from that in just a few decades. I think Baltimore is still at a stage where they are mimicking other cities rather than setting their own course. Once we become more self-aware of our culinary identity, things may develop organically. Right now, however, it's bound to be a mix of old traditions and new trends.

Kit Pollard said...

Yes, that's true. But part of my takeaway is that maybe we're doing a pretty good job incorporating our past into what's happening now. Mimicking other cities is bound to happen everywhere - with everything. We just shouldn't lose who we are in the process.


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