The Real Thing

On December 28, 2005, in Food and Drink, by psu

The search for the true and authentic culinary experience occupies the mind of all of the food obsessed people of the world. Real Chinese. Real cheese. Real barbecue. Real sushi. The list goes on and on. Entire magazines and cookbooks dedicated to the objectively correct or best way to cook this or that. There is even a world-wide semi-political movement whose solitary goal is to preserve the traditional food culture of Europe and beyond against the attack of the faceless corporations.

But Real Food is hard to pin down. People disagree about basic facts. In Eastern North Carolina, Real BBQ sauce is tomato-free. In Western North Carolina, it has tomatoes. Northern Chinese food uses a lot of bread and baked goods. Southern Chinese food is spicier, and has more rice and noodles. Many people claim, incorrectly, that it is proper to put ketchup on a hot dog. Others would have you believe that when constructing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you should put the peanut butter and jelly on different slices of bread. This is, of course, stupid.

On the other hand, Real Food is certainly not some completely subjective relativistic construction. There are things which are just wrong. Vegan fake meat tofu roast “turkey” dinners are wrong. Experiments in “fusion” cuisine usually come out wrong. You know the sort of thing I mean. You look at the menu and see Spring rolls Alaska (smoked Scottish nova lox, served with neufchatel cheese and Australasian capers, on a sesame-infused roll) with a hominy polenta remoulade. Your heart sinks.

Outside of certain areas of the country, barbecue is almost always wrong. Most of what is served as “barbecue” in Pittsburgh, for example, is actually just braised meat that has been chopped up and then simmered in some kind of gravy for days on end. What then ends up in the sandwich has no real relationship to meat much less slow smoked pork shoulder.

Finally, who can forget the endless parade of single-brown-sauce “Chinese” takeout joints that cover almost every mile of our great country. It may be hard to pin down Real Food, but it’s certainly easy to find the fake stuff.

I rambled earlier about how the search for new food experiences was at the core of my relationship with food and eating. I also think that this is the core of the answer to the question “Where does Real Food come from?”. For me, Real Food comes from that experience of discovering that there is this whole other group of people who have been getting the good stuff for their whole lives and you’ve been missing out. Real Food experiences change you in ways that normal food experiences do not.

One time we had some friends and their family over for pot stickers. The family is from Italy, and did not have broad experience with Chinese food. So I did the best I could to replicate my mother’s dumplings. I have gotten pretty good at it, but mine really still aren’t close. Anyway, I remember that their young son was not all that impressed by the pot stickers. But then, a few weeks later, we ran into our friends, and they had gone out to a local Chinese joint of ill-repute and ordered the dumplings. At that point, the young son was much more impressed with mine. I can only imagine that if he actually had the Real stuff over at my mom’s place, he’d be even happier.

I can remember dozens of food experiences like this one from my adult life. There was that first hit of a perfect cappuccino. The first time I got real smokey slow-cooked pork down in Carolina. Soft Shell crabs cooked just right. The bread pudding soufflé at the Commander’s Palace. Real raw milk cheese. Fresh oysters on the San Juan islands. Steamed live shrimp in L.A. I could go on all night. In each case, my view of the food world was completely changed by taking one bite of the dish. I would say that outside of music, this is the closest thing to the sort of transformative experience that brings people to religion that I have had.

The only reason I bring up religion is a great scene in a great food movie called Big Night that actually makes the point for me. The Chef at a restaurant is hoping to obtain the affections of the woman who delivers the flowers. So he is cooking something simple back in the kitchen, a sauté of vegetables and tomatoes, I think. He tosses the stuff in the pan with some oil and seasoning, stirs it around and then gives her a taste, and all she can say is: “Oh my God. OH MY GOD.”

His reply is something like: ‘God is right, because to eat good food is to be close to God. ”

This, I think, is where Real Food comes from. It is when you take that first bite of something new, and you are changed forever. It is the moment that separates the you that has not yet eaten the Real Thing from the you that has. It is the moment that you realize that while you might have missed out on the good stuff until now, next time you’ll know where to find it, so you won’t have to miss out any more.

If that is what it means to be close to God, then I’ll take it.


12 Responses to “The Real Thing”

  1. Paul says:

    The search for “real” food or “authentic” food always irks me, for a reason I’ve never put my finger down till until reading your article. Lets say you are on a quest for “authentic” food from some culture or another. Going way back when, most cultures formed through a rather turbulent evolution, consisting of inheriting cultural ideas from neighbours, either through conquering, or through trade etc. So Say what you think is “authentic” is what they make right now in that culture. Go back 100 years, and what you are eating may be totally different. Go back 400 years, different again. All from the same region, the culture has the same name, but the food is different. Which is the “real” and “authentic”? How are they more “real” and “authentic” than what you get down the road from where you live? Why can’t what you get down the road just be an evolution of the “authentic” style, which itself ahs evolved over the centuries.

    Its fine to prefer one thing over another, but not fine to claim its because its more “authentic”, its a hard thing to back up.

  2. psu says:

    I did not mean to use “authentic” in this manner. I meant to use it more to mean an experience which was relatively free of mass production. Non-manufactured if you will.

  3. Meredith says:

    Huh. I generally lurk, but I was feeling talkative tonight, so I was going to say something about ‘Slow Food,’ holding foodways static and the desire to share common experiences. Then, I reread your post, and decided there was nothing to add.

    Now, I shall click the Google links in a desire to bribe ya’ll to keep writing Tea Leaves.

  4. Paul says:

    Why does mass production always equal bad? Do you let the mass production decide what you like? I don’t think all food mass produced is inherantly bad, or maybe I should say I try not to let the fact that something is mass produced affect the decision I make about that food.

    This is similar to an argument I had about music recently, where a friend had already formed an opinion on a band based on the fact they were popular. Hadn’t heard their stuff. Didn’t know which genre they belonged to. Just dismissed them as they were popular – its probably a tried and tested method for selecting music, but in my mind its the same as loving something just because it is popular – you are letting the popularity decide what you like and don’t like.

    But hey, you say vine-ripened-plucked-by-Italian-virgin-Tomatoes, I say hydro-grown-mass-scale-farmed-never-seen-natural-light-Tomatoes.

  5. Paul says:

    I should say that, despite the tone of my comments, I don’t disagree with you, I’m more being Devils Advocaat (boom boom) than anything else.

    I do wonder how people will be recreating “authentic 2005″ culinary experiences in the future, and whether what we frown on now (McDonalds, Frozen dinners etc) will be very hoity toity in 100 years, with highly trainedspecialised chefs paid fortunes in zorkmids to recreate the experience.

  6. psu says:

    FWIW, I don’t agree with the entire Slow Food agenda, and I don’t really fall in with the Cook’s Magazine style empirical study of the recipe as the source of all good and light either.

    I don’t mean to dump on mass produced foods, except to say that by their very nature they are the same everywhere and lacking in a certain amount of character … and I like character.

    Anyway, your comment makes me remember a long piece in the NYT magazine a couple of months ago about high end chefs figuring out how to package their dishes in what are essentially “boil-in-bag” type packages. I think this was to facilitate high end airline service and perhaps franchising…

  7. TsuDhoNimh says:

    My biggest annoyance with “real food” is when people create regional food when there is none, and then claim it’s special. St. Louis Style Ribs are the most common example of this phenomenon. I grew up in St. Louis, and I had never heard of St. Louis Style Ribs until I left the state.

    Unfortunately, no one else has picked up on many of the real regional treats, such as St. Louis Style Pizza (that is, Imo’s Pizza). All toppings. Paper-thin crust. Mmmmmm.

  8. april says:

    I’ve definitely misused the word “authentic” at times when I actually mean Good. However, most American chain restaurants (or even many small places) are so bad at faking regional stuff (Olive Garden, for instance), that the word seems almost appropriate when making a comparison. My dad thinks Olive Garden is “good”, so in describing, say, DISH, I need to hook his interest on something with more semantic clout. Whether it’s actually effective is another story. ;)

    As for Cook’s, I’ll just say that for baking they can be quite useful, since precision matters much more than in savory dishes. It can be a pain to find a really good pate sucree or plain poundcake recipe, so IMO their efforts pay off best for basics like that.

  9. acetonic says:

    The only way I can eat a hot dog is with a bit of ketchup or else drowned in chili and cheese. And the only place that has real BBQ east of the Mississippi is Memphis, TN.

    I’m such a barbarian!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Just wondering, what is the proper way to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?

  11. psu says:

    To make a PB&J sandwich:

    1. get two pieces of bread
    2. spread peanut butter on one piece
    3. spread jelly ON TOP of the peanut butter, mushing it around.
    4. put second piece of bread on top. squish it together a bit.


  12. peterb says:

    You are dead to me.