Food News a la Plancha

2011.Oct.06 Thursday · 0 comments

in Books & Other Media, Life

“With my griddle of justice, I BASH the enemy in the head, or I burn them like so! I also have some truth syrup, which is low in fat.”

– The Waffler, Mystery Men (1999)

Window sign

Adrian E. Miller is an ex-politico and lawyer turned food historian who has a forthcoming book on the history of soul food in the U.S. As an African-American (is that the currently correct term?) he sees the soul food culture as something to celebrate rather than be embarrassed about, and this week pens a piece entitled When Did Soul Food Get Too Hot to Handle?. Interestingly, the piece (based on the web-page titling as of right now, and the original report that led me to it) appears to have been formerly titled Is Fried Chicken an Insult to African Americans? I guess the editors over at Zester Daily must have thought that just the title, let alone fried chicken, was a risk. The piece reports on a couple of high profile incidents over the last two years where fried chicken was offered up on a menu celebrating one or another event having to do with Black culture, where one or another person objected to the serving of said fried chicken as culturally or racially insensitive or insulting, or was at least worried that it might be perceived that way by folk of color. His take on the matter is that soul food is something that the community ought to be celebrating.

“Some may continue to wield the stereotype to demean African-Americans, but that doesn’t mean that we should continue to give the stereotype power. Let’s take the lessons learned from these incidents and de-fang the fried chicken stereotype once and for all.”

Mine too. My response to the article: “While I understand and appreciate the residual feelings from past stereotypes, at what point do we move past those into celebrating a culturally connected food instead of worrying about those connections? And why single out this particular food and culture? Would these same people have gotten bent out of shape had tacos or rice and beans been offered at a celebration of a Latin American holiday or event (not only with their past negative connotations but the widestroke brush that such foods are assumed to be part of the culture of all Latin Americans), spaghetti and meatballs for Italians, or sauerkraut served at a German event, or matzoh at a Jewish event? All are foods that at some point in our history have had aggressively negative racial/cultural stereotypes – and there are so many more.

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At the Washington Post, domestic policy, energy and environment columnist Brad Plumer decides to play up a “Harvard Business School” paper with the claim How Yelp is killing chain restaurants, noting that the study seems to indicate that chain restaurants have lost ground in revenue to independent restaurants due to Yelp opinions, and quotes the person who submitted the link to the paper (not the author) that this represents an improvement in our standard of living. Whether Plumer ever actually looked at the study, which is linked, is debatable.

First off, it’s not an HBS study, it’s a draft working paper from a college student that happens to be online during its editing/review process. Second, the “study” focused on a single city, Seattle, and notes upfront that the student, Michael Luca, is in essence ignoring other factors that might have had an influence on the data, instead looking to see whether point scores on Yelp correlate to changes in reported revenue by restaurants over a five year period. Sounds to me like someone with a preconceived notion of what the data will yield. Also, is revenue the most reliable indicator – what about number of customers who come through the door, number of restaurant openings and closings, etc., etc.?

Let’s see. Seattle, over the last decade, has become a mecca for foodies and chefs, so we might be able to also assume that the quality and variety overall of independent restaurants has improved, while chain restaurants likely are staying to their tried and true formulas. Because of the economic downturn we’ve faced over that same period, many chains have lowered their prices in order to keep customers coming in, which just might have affected their overall reported revenue, no? While Yelp may be the largest (and I don’t know that, it might not be) online opinion site for restaurants, it’s not the only one – Luca conveniently ignores Zagat’s, Chowhound, Dine, TripAdvisor, and other similar sites – let alone the simple expansion of people sharing information on places like Facebook, Twitter, and the like. In the end, the draft paper reads like a pretty typical graduate school level paper – lots of citations and very little actual “study” – who in college hasn’t written a paper like that? Shame on the WP for reporting it as if it was hard news.

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Over at Esquire, perennial curmudgeon John Mariani (if Ratatouille had been made about NYC rather than Paris, he’d have been the model for the Anton Ego character) takes on the release of the 2012 Michelin guide for NYC, basically calling it a big yawn, and, as usual it is, something that food writers, bloggers, and restaurateurs have been saying since Michelin first showed up in the city in 2006. Still, he makes one very good point in a casual, off-hand remark – the need for Michelin to redefine what their stars mean. Three stars meaning “worth a trip” and two stars meaning “worth a detour” made sense for a guide that was about road travel on the highways of France. In NYC perhaps “worth hopping in a cab to get to” and “worth transferring subway line” make more sense….

And hey, despite the yawns that most folk feel about Michelin in the big apple in contrast to other more local guide options, I can’t not give a shout out (and I already did via Twitter) to friend and fellow Wisconsin native Michael White for his new collection of stars at Marea and Ai Fiori! Especially coming at the same time as top ratings from the new Zagat’s guide!

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