As we take a drive through the culinary highways and byways of West Tennessee, there seems to be some prevailing attitudes and behaviors that might perhaps 'stifle' the growth of the food culture. It becomes apparent as I watch the closing of locally owned restaurants and the opening of cookie cutter chain establishments. It also can be seen in what I like to call the 'syncretism' of foods among local establishments where foods like 'meatloaf' are found paired with ethnic foods like 'lo mein' or where an order of Mole Poblano at a Mexican restaurant comes with a 'side of fries'....As Buffalo Springfield said " There's something happenin here, what it is ain't exactly clear..."
In looking at the West Tennessee region it becomes apparent that there is a 'hot list' of foods and restaurants that are popular among patrons. Some of these include:
- Places that claim to serve 'homemade country cooking' but are truly serving fast food, canned sugar coated vegetables and deep fried meats. The traditional 'Meat and Three' typically ranges from dishes like meatloaf, fried chicken, poppy seed chicken (how country is that?) and country fried steak.
- Chains that are known for their glitzy advertisements that sell '2 Dinners for 20.00' complete with plastic tasting deep fried cheese sticks and chicken wings. Most of these offer variations of the same four dishes: faux fajitas; chicken covered in cheese and bacon; horrible cuts of meat called 'steak' with some sort of seasoning on top and fettuccine covered in some sort of mystery sauce. Guilty suspects names begin with 'TGI', 'Apple' or 'Chili', nonetheless they are all the same.
- Mexican or Chinese restaurants that carry few dishes that have little resemblance to authentic dishes. Burritos, Fajitas and Nachos served with french fries or Chinese buffets covered in frozen pizza or deep fried corn nuggets. Both of these would bring tears to a Rick Bayless or a Ming Tsai in a heartbeat...
The common denominator in these trends seems to be to 'play it safe'. Why go to a place that serves low quality dishes in fifty different forms? Because it's safe, because it is familiar. Why do we have twenty Mexican restaurants in a town but less than three of them serve authentic dishes like Chilaquiles or Posole? Why do we have numerous Chinese restaurants but not one serves Dim Sum? Is it because the owners and cooks don't want to share these traditional dishes with us or is it that we are more comfortable eating grilled cheese tacos and hamburger helper?
There's a great scene in the 1996 movie 'Big Night'. The story focuses on an Italian family that seeks to bring real Italian food to the United States. Offended by the 'watering down' of Italian dishes by Americanized Italian restaurants, the family opens a restaurant to introduce the local community to 'authentic' Italian foods.
One evening a couple enters the restaurant and orders risotto and a pasta dish. The waiter brings the food out to the couple and when seeing a leaf of fresh basil on her husband's dish, the woman exclaims " That looks good. Oh look you got leaves with yours". The wife is then presented with a serving of authentic risotto. The woman begins to ask about 'a side of spaghetti' that typically comes with main dishes at the Americanized restaurants. The waiter explains to the woman that risotto is a starch and that it would be redundant to serve up a starch with a starch. Her husband then demands an order of spaghetti and meatballs. The waiter explains that spaghetti does not come with meatballs. Eventually the chef is told to cook what the customers want NOT what is authentic.
Are we wanting the chef to cook 'what we want' versus something wonderful that could be 'authentic'? Are we finding ourselves at a cultural crossroads in West Tennessee? Will our palates refuse to grow up as long as we are bound to 'safe' sounding foods that do not demand that we open our minds and hearts to trying? Unfortunately some of the refusal is based not necessarily on 'taste' but on fear and ignorance.
For example, if I had a dollar for everytime that someone says (Insert your best Toby Keith accent here ) " I wouldn't eat in those foreign restaurants, ain't no telling what they put in their food!" I would be a rich man. Wanna know what they put in their food? REAL vegetables not canned mutated vegetables preserved in mortuary grease to keep them safe for years beyond the apocalypse. They also use REAL herbs and spices, not powdered pre-packaged seasonings. Shards of real fresh cut garlic NOT garlic powder. And most importantly. REAL cooking takes place instead of a pre-rehearsed cadence of a twenty year old kid dropping a piece of mystery meat into a deep fryer. This is what they put in their food. Furthermore, incredible food usually takes longer to prepare because it is not sitting in a warmer on standby. It is prepared when you order it. Lastly, cleanliness and sanitary health conditions are one of the biggest 'mirages' that exist in the food culture. Think that your local Happy Hour chain restaurant is clean while the local Taqueria is a dive behind the kitchen door? THINK AGAIN. Talk to health code inspectors and they will give you an earful on your local favorite 'safe' places to eat. Plus the fact that all restaurants including 'scary ones' that don't serve tater tots or 'mamas country fried mess' have to undergo inspections as well.
So while it may sound harsh and before you accuse me of being a 'food snob' just understand that a palate's expectation of a 'good tasting' dish will only rise or fall according to what it has been exposed to. Think of a time when you took a chance and tried a food you had never tried before. Think of how you would feel if you never tried this dish. We must understand that the local food culture will not grow and expand if we do not try new things. There are literally tens of thousands of foods that this region may never know unless we are willing to try them and support them once they are here. I think of the only restaurant in Jackson Tennessee where one could get authentic Honduran pupusas now sits abandoned and boarded up. Sadly enough, hardly anyone would venture out and try them.
As you sit back and watch the Food Network and wonder if you'll ever get to try Korean short ribs or wonder why you have to drive to Nashville to get real Caribbean cuisine, just remember that in order to get a diverse food community locally there must be a demand and a steady customer base for it. Try something new. I promise, it won't bite...