03 May, 2011

Moles, SPAM, and Authenticity: Jonathan Gold in Madison

L.A. Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold was in Madison last week and he gave a lecture at the Chazen on Thursday called "Authenticity, Culture, and the Korean Taco". I suppose it wasn't really a lecture in as much as it was Gold proffering toothsome tales of Mexican cuisine in Los Angeles but address the topic he did.

Before he took to the podium I was chatting with some folks and one of them asked, "Did you read Samara Kalk Derby's review of Ichiban?" Indeed I had. It felt good to not be the only person in Madison who is incredulous of the fact that she gets paid to write restaurant reviews.

Soon enough a woman with the Center for the Humanities – I think it was Sara Guyer – approached the podium and gave an introduction. As part of it she said that Los Angeles was America's most global city. Now, the Global Cities Index from 2010 lists L.A. below Chicago and New York so I guess it depends on how you define "global". I point this out merely to say that her comment was a bit of hyperbole that I found unnecessary.

I'd never heard of Gold prior to finding out last fall that he was making a trek here to flyover country. If the admonition to never trust a thin cook were ported to the realm of the food writer, Gold would be very trustworthy indeed. This along with his avuncular countenance and congeniality made me feel comfortable. Perhaps "comfortable" isn't the right word but the atmosphere was very different than that of Anthony Bourdain's appearance here last autumn. With Bourdain there was a sense of celebrity worship in the air with everyone waiting with bated breath to hear him insult Rachel Ray and tell stories of life in front of a TV camera. On the other hand, there was nothing sacerdotal about Gold. He was rather unassuming and humble with a Midwestern demeanor instead of a big city attitude.

Gold began by rummaging through the detritus in his coat pockets until he found what he was looking for – a menu from Graze. (Graze is an offshoot of L'Etoile which was started by Gold's friend Odessa Piper.) He mentioned cheese curds which are apparently unavailable in California "for love or for money" and then told his famous story about them. I quote from 77 Square:

“The first time I was in Madison, I was hanging out in the kitchen at L’Etoile,” Gold said. “I’d gone to the farmers’ market, and they had cheese curds, which I’d never had before.

“And I was like, ‘Wow, these are great!’ And I went back to the kitchen and was sharing with people, and I said, ‘I wonder if anyone’s ever thought of deep-frying these?’

“Everybody looks at me with this weird expression. It wasn’t until later that I figured out that’s like walking into a kitchen in Napa Valley and saying, ‘You know, they grow a lot of grapes around here. You think anybody’s decided to make wine with these?’”

Graze, he said, was authentic - but of what? To his mind, it was expressive of a time and place. It draws on various traditions but also incorporates local/indigenous foods. He then talked about a particular kind of ravioli native to Genoa which has cow udder and offal as ingredients. So, if you as an American go through the hassle of obtaining udder and lung and make the ravioli, would it be authentic? Gold said that, while the taste would be so, the intent of the dish wouldn't. This type of ravioli is poor people's food assembled with perhaps the least appetizing parts of the cow but parts that the originators of the dish used so that they wouldn't go to waste. Gold asked, "Do you want to reflect the standards of where the dish came from or where you are?"

He described authenticity as a nebulous concept that's always moving. In L.A.'s Koreatown you can get food identical to that served in Seoul. Is that authentic? Or would true L.A. authenticity be some kind of corn mash that Native Americans ate before Europeans arrived? Perhaps it would be the cuisine of the Spanish settlers?

Starting at about this point in the talk, I began to salivate. When I moved to Madison over 20 years ago, I think Pedro's and Chi-Chi's were the height of Mexican dining. Today things are much better with Mexicans creating menus instead of former Green Bay Packer players. While it's been a sea change here in Madison with respect to Mexican food, L.A. is in a class of its own. Gold described how his city has restaurants that serve regional cuisine from 23 Mexican states. Then he bragged about the moles out west and then I moved from puckish to famished. There was also the story of one cook who dried beef on the laundry line in his backyard as well as the warning that Oaxacan(?) cooks tend to be pretty grumpy.

This feeling was tempered by the final part of his talk which described a multi-course all-SPAM dinner. The idea of SPAM Wellington just didn't do it for me.

The Q&A had some good discussion. Someone asked him about the term "foodie" to which he replied that it has become derogatory, though it's still a useful bit of shorthand. He prefers "foodist". His self-described worst meal was "Northern Special Beef" in L.A.'s Little Saigon. It was a brown-black gruel that he theorized was made of pureed spleens. Oh, and there was a piece of cowhide in it that had not been depilated.

Gold was cautious in his use of "authentic". In fact, he seemed ambivalent about it. On the one hand it is a mercurial concept but on the other I think he felt it had at least a modicum of utility. While I agree with him that the concept is always in a state of flux, I tend to lean more towards the latter. It can be a helpful idea but one must use care and be specific. If you're going to describe a dish as being authentic, you should say of where and/or when. If I were to make the ravioli Gold described, I would certainly be experiencing its authenticity on a diminished or incomplete level with respect to intent but I don't think that is an excuse to downplay or discard the authenticity on the level of taste. My ravioli would be authentic to at least a certain extent.

Another idea that was implicit in Gold's talk was that we Americans tend to homogenize the cuisines of other cultures. (And no doubt people around the world do this.) We can think of regions of the United States as having their own foods – e.g. – gumbo in Louisiana, BBQ in the South, tacos in the Southwest, bratwurst in Wisconsin, and so on – but we tend not to recognize that the cultures of other countries operate in the same way. My guess is that most people here think of Mexican food in broad outline. You've got tacos, burritos, etc. But, for someone like Gold, it's a much finer situation where restaurants in L.A. represent almost two dozen Mexican states with their own differences and variations. To make the point closer to home, think of German cuisine. Here in Madison we have The Essen Haus and, I'd argue, the idea that German cuisine consists of wurst, sauerbraten, schnitzel, and the other foods served there. While true in one sense, it also obscures a closer, more nuanced look at things. If we were to apply the magnifying lens that we use on American cuisine, then we'd probably say it's more accurate to label The Essen Haus' menu as being Bavarian. You don't find much there that is traditionally thought of as being Northern German cuisine. Unsurprisingly, northern parts of Germany eat a lot of fish – have you ever seen pike or eel at The Essen Haus? Then there's regional dishes like Labskaus, and wurst cooked with kale which, again, I don't think have ever been served at The Essen Haus.

My notes indicate that Gold didn't talk about why anyone should care about authenticity yet many people do. For me personally I value authenticity in its various guises. There's nothing wrong with eating foods that are "inauthentic" if you enjoy them but I think that food can be a tiny window into a culture that is not my own but of which I'd like to gain some understanding. Nothing profound here, just simple personal edification. If I go to what is ostensibly a Chinese restaurant and get a dish with enough sweet in the sweet and sour sauce to instantly give me diabetes, then I feel like I'm getting less of a glimpse of anything Chinese than I am American and our propensity to fill everything up with corn syrup because it's cheap.

Having said all this, macaroni & cheese "pizza" still ain't pizza.

Let me end with a bit of gossip. Afterwards I was outside with my companions and the topic of smelt came up. One of them, who is normally as mild-mannered and polite as can be, laid into the smelt at Sardine with all the zeal of a junkie with a fresh needle. I was genuinely surprised. Not ever having tasted their smelt, I cannot comment but, Madison area smelt fans, you have been warned.


nichole said...

Thank you for being discreet. I really shouldn't be so cowardly. It was me with the anti-Sardine smelt sentiment and I stand by it.

I could have found a more considered and less blue way to say it, especially since there's some interesting stuff going on there with my own perception of authenticity...

Skip said...

You're welcome. However, I will say to readers that Nichole was not the one critical of Samara Kalk Derby.

Let the Smelt Wars begin!

Jesse said...

I love that he went to Graze! Fantastic. One of my biggest qualms with Anthony Bourdain is that he didn't schedule enough time in Madison to visit one of our delightful new restaurants. His only experience was the dreadful Overture catering during the VIP book signing. Ugh, that food was embarrassing.

Skip said...

What was wrong with the Overture food? I've never experienced their catering.

Stefani Quane said...

What if the local food is notoriously bad? Is part of authenticity continuing along that poor direction?

Skip said...

Stefani - I don't understand your question. To my mind, "authenticity" doesn't have anything to do with food being good or not.

Skip said...

I check out that site occasionally.