The markets of the Little Mekong neighborhood along University Avenue have anything and everything on their shelves: They have the things that Minnesota’s Scandinavian, Irish, and Eastern European base will recognize, and then everything else brought from the far Eastern Asian countries along the Mekong River: Salted duck eggs, fresh quail eggs, pickled chicken eggs, Thai basil, live clams and frogs. Noodles – a wall of noodles. Hot sauces made from red chili. Coffee with condensed milk.
It’s a wonderful thing, especially those who enjoy expanding their knowledge of food and their palate. A resource for everyone.
It was not long ago that a farmer grandfather from Monticello looked at sushi with confused and disapproving eyes. Chinese food was acceptable at his local buffet. Why do we need all these other things?
And he wasn’t necessarily wrong – he wasn’t wrong in the sense that regional authenticities deserve as much attention as all the new things flooding our grocery markets and restaurants. We forgot long ago what the indigenous populations of this land were eating here before Europeans arrived. And now we have all of those foods, plus every single other food that has been added since then. It’s become quite crowded, noisy even, and if you don’t know how to navigate this new and exciting and ever-changing world of food; how to keep up and how to appreciate the beauty of diversity in diet, you’re going to retreat into the things you know – the things on which you were raised. Familiar things. Things that make you happy.
Like my grandfather did.
It is unlikely food will ever be “simple” in that way, in his way, again: Food defined solely/only by region and tradition is something of the past. What we have at our fingertips, on our plates, and on the shelves of our countless grocery stores. We, and our children, and our children’s children, will never not have these things, and will never really know what it’s like to not have them available – to not have bananas, or oranges, or quinoa, avocados, or kale just a walk, drive, Uber ride away.
In fact, it has become the things from our farms, the things produced naturally by our own landscape, that are often drowned out.
The foods we have available, everything in every grocery store across St. Paul, Minneapolis, Minnesota, the rest of the region and country deserve to be celebrated. But not without understanding what it means, and why it is important, and, perhaps most crucially, the impact that it has on our plates, tables, and lives.
Food For All
So this is not about age or exposure – not a condemnation of past generations that grew up in a different landscape and ate different things, and are perfectly content to keep eating those things. Nor is this a pat on the back for those adventurous in their eating – those who pride themselves in the fact that they like the stinkiest, the most complex, and the exotic.
My grandfather liked his coffee dark and bitter. My grandmother’s apples, somehow, were always sweeter than any other apple from anywhere else in the world. They were candy sweet and fresh. Unlike anywhere else in the world. And that’s what I wanted when I went to their home out in the country. Black coffee and sweet apples. She had a garden as well, next to the apple tree out back. And my grandfather raised cows. We were never hungry.
Sometimes, you just want shitty pizza
This is a celebration of food. The things that we love. This is a discussion of why we love the things that we love – though not much of a discussion will really be necessary: It’s simple. We love the things that we love because we do. Because we grew up with them, and all the memories associated with those flavors (nostalgia is powerful). Even simpler than that, it’s because they taste good to us.
No one wants to be told that they can’t, or shouldn’t like something. That they’re wrong when they do.
We here at TiltMN are firm believers that only small minds need to differentiate between highbrow and lowbrow, especially when it comes to food. That yes, pizza from Naples is “better” pizza, the product of hundreds of years of love and attention, but that doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person for craving Dominoes.
That yes, people should be open to new dining experiences, but they don’t have to forget everything that they were raised on.
That redefining the relationship we have with the food has to start with appreciating food, not setting up barriers. Even if you disagree with someones’s love of ________, understand, at least, that it is also food and meant for nothing else than to be eaten. Understand that they love it as much as you love yours.
A friend of mine discussing Chinese food talked about the greasy American takeout now exposed as “inauthentic” and only for those white Americans who would squirm, gasp, blanch at what people were actually eating in China – and those immigrants and their families were eating off of the “secret” menu never shown to the masses.
And he said, “Yes, I enjoyed my food more than any other, and I had no interest in the fried rice and orange chicken that my white American friends were eating. But I knew, for one, that they were enjoying their food as much as I was enjoying mine, and, two, that they were keeping us in businesses by ordering as much of it as they were.”
“And,” he said, “then in college, up studying at three in the morning, I discovered how much I love American Chinese food, too.”
So why not both?
The “fusion” restaurant trend was overdone to the point of parody/caricature – without the pan-cultural realization that most of the food we eat in America, and much of the rest of the world, is already a product of “fusion.” And not even that which is done consciously, the idea of mixing things together simply because they’re all now available to us, but the idea that the Italians wouldn’t have pasta if Marco Polo hadn’t traveled east, that there wouldn’t be Dos Equis or Corona if the Germans and Czechs hadn’t arrived hundreds of years ago in Mexico, that we wouldn’t have so many of the things that we take for granted if it hadn’t been for the crossing of cultures, the exploration and the travel, earlier in human existence.
That the pilgrims would never have survived without the things that were growing here, and the contact with the people who were growing them. And that we still eat the things they brought with. That we can do both, now with the proper acknowledgment of, and respect for, the past.
This is precisely why the rigid barriers of “authentic” and the “right” way to do something are, on some level, silly. Why pretense has no place in food. Something is authentic because it is done in the place it has always been done, for the people who live there, with the things that are available. If we talk about “authentic” in Italy, and two villages 100 miles apart do the same dish in their own way – slightly, but just enough different, then which one is authentic when its remade here in America?
America’s Relationship With Food
What my grandfather ate growing up, that was authentic Minnesota food for him. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. What we use to make dinner, on any/all budgets, that’s real food, too, even as I get excited (so excited) about foie gras, beef tartare, the perfect pastas and pizzas, Szechuan-style dining and dim sum, pho, injera and lamb wot, hot dish, hamburgers, vegan protein bowls and popcorn at the movies.
We should certainly address the health concerns that come from eating too much processed foods and understand why not everything we eat in excess is going to be the best thing for our bodies. We should know how much butter and salt goes into the food we get at restaurants and how inhumanely animals are treated before they arrive at restaurants and grocery stores. We should certainly remember what we have here, in front of us, as much as we love it, isn’t necessarily perfect, respect the fact that by 2050 it is estimated that 1/3 of the American population will have diabetes. It is important, necessary, to acknowledge the role of food in this.
But we can’t do so by saying that what people can afford, have always eaten, and only have available, is wrong and everything must be thrown out the window and start of from scratch – like the cartoonish Gordon Ramsay is yelling in your ear about RUBBISH! It is with knowledge of all food, and why it is eaten, and by whom, that we will bridge that gap, a gap that remains ever between us even as we sit at the same table. It is remembering, in the United States, that being vegetarian or vegan is a luxury only afforded to those who can turn down foods they don’t (want to) eat. We need to understand that looking down on people who eat differently than you do is not only inherently selfish, privileged, and elitist, belying an inherent, classist prejudice, but also, simply, stupid.
When what was once “peasant” food becomes fine dining – the cassoulets of France, cheese curds here, bayou cooking in New Orleans, burgers and fries that have found their way onto nose-in-the-air upscale restaurant menus, when Rene Redzepi does tacos at Noma – the irony that is lost on those now spending their money to enjoy it without realization or care that this, this is exactly what at once point was being shunned, looked down upon, laughed at in favor of whatever other dish du jour.
If there is one thing we all have in common, it is that we all need to eat. That food will always be, and always should be, an important part of our lives. That we all have our stories and our memories, our wants and our needs on the plate, our favorite flavors and meals and everything that comes with them.
If we finally want to tackle the strange relationship we have with food in this country – the extremes of both obesity/diabetes and eating disorders, the inequalities and the food deserts, we need to start here. We need to remember, and honor, each and every one of us, our own stories filled with apples that are sweet and coffee dark and bitter.