The food we use at the restaurant comes from several different sources, most of which are local. Our oysters and mussels come right out of Cape Cod Bay. Our pasta provider makes it all just a few miles from us. Our produce company, though local, picks up the fruit and vegetables from the market in Boston, so, unfortunately, some of it is well traveled by the time it ends up in our walk in refrigerator. This past week, our tomatoes were Canadian and our spinach Californian. Most of our dry goods and some other hard to find things are brought by a huge national food distributor whose trucks, I’m sure, crowd the streets where you live as well. They bring everything from pizza boxes to tomato paste to anything else we ask for. For a price, of course.
Once or twice a year, the distributor has a food show where the merchants they represent set up tasting tables and work hard to show how they can make our lives easier. For the most part, the displays are piled with pre-made things designed to cut labor time and make us “look good” to the customer. With the right kind of budget, you could open a restaurant and only have to have a microwave, a warming oven, and a Fry-o-lator to get the food out. The clam strips are already breaded, the turtle cheesecakes are pre-sliced, the soups need only to be reheated, shrink-wrapped salmon filets, each one identical to the other, are ready to hit the pan and then topped with a pre-mixed sauce.
The experience was the foodservice equivalent of a shopping mall: once I stepped inside there was no identifying context. Regardless of where you live, once you walk into the mall and stroll between the Gap, Abercrombie, and Linens-N-Things, you are nowhere and everywhere at the same time. The shirts on the shelves in Seattle are the same as those in St. Louis. Send it to your cousin in Albuquerque and, if he doesn’t like it he can exchange it at the same store in the mall in his town.
The restaurant business these days, at most any level, is fascinated with “mini” or “baby” anything. Today I saw (and tasted) mini-éclairs, mini-quesadillas (rolled up in little cones), mini-hamburgers (one inch across), baby ravioli, and chicken cordon bleu bites. The buzz on the bite-sized products was they made good bar food. I suppose the vendors were right on some level: some of the stuff tasted pretty good and the convenience is not for nothing. But it wouldn’t be any fun to make or interesting to serve. What would I say: “Here, I warmed this up for you?”
Food has to have a soul. It is flavored by relationships and stories, not by convenience or ubiquity. Not that I haven’t eaten my fair share of drive-through (excuse me – drive thru). The people I met in the room were nice and appeared to care about what they were selling, and somehow it didn’t feel like food to me.
A number of years ago, a friend was taking a class on Shakespeare. The professor entered the room and wrote in large letters across the board, “Who benefits?” He went on to say the question was at the heart of every action and every character in the Bard’s plays. If you wanted to see where things were headed, ask the question of what is happening at the time. The question came to mind as I was approached with pre-packaged everything. When the discussion about the viability of a menu item centers on speed, price, and fashion, who benefits?
Speed, as a promise of progress, is deceptive. Faster, when it comes to food, is rarely an improvement. Instant anything pales in comparison to the real deal. Price finds its way into most any discussion. Perhaps cost is a better word. Prepared foods may be more cost-effective from a money standpoint, but what is the price of including phenodexelwhamalamadingdongzephedrine in my diet for no apparent reason other than convenience? Fashion, in any arena, usually has all the staying power of Dexy’s Midnight Runners. It’s one thing for a chef (or a person who likes to cook) to discover a dish or an ingredient and learn how to use it; it’s another thing for most every restaurant to add chipotle-something to their menu because we were all at the same food show.
When we were in Greece and Turkey last year we ate some amazing food. I bought cookbooks and learned how to make Pastitsio (Ginger’s favorite) and Imam Bayildi (my fave). I’m not sure how authentic my versions of these dishes have become, but they are full of memory and meaning for us and I’m really glad I can find it in the frozen food section at our supermarket. For most of the years we have lived in the Boston area, we have lamented the lack of good Mexican food. The reason for its absence was simple: there were very few Mexicans in the area. Over time that changed and we have a wonderful place that opened not far from where we live. The owner, Ezekiel, works hard to make good food and his staff – also Mexican, for the most part – greet everyone with a big “Hola, amigos” and a smile. I didn’t see him at the food show shopping for the “Santa Fe Quesadilla Bites.” I’m not sure he would have recognized them.
Then again, if he’d had a table of his homemade Pork Carnitas, he could have brought the whole show to a standstill.