Going out to a restaurant for breakfast, lunch or dinner, is not only about the food on the plate in front of us: It’s a culinary experience designed to create sensations we do not have, and can not get, at home.
We have long had a dynamic restaurant scene in the Twin Cities. This is absolutely considered a good thing for a dense urban area to have – it it one of the benefits of living in the city.
The pros: Many new restaurants doing many new things, changing the landscape, creating a diverse and dynamic fabric of cultures from around the world, every day, and always. It allows us to share culture through food. It’s exciting, and represents the artistry of amazing artisans and chefs, as well as the servers, bartenders, dishwashers, etc. who keep the wheels of the restaurant turning.
The cons: When we come to expect all things from all places all the time, too do we often lose our connection to the land; our focus on the things that are local and special to this landscape specifically.
And, far-too-often as well, the discussions surrounding those left out in the cold, those unrepresented and underrepresented in the restaurant industry, and what needs to change both within and without the restaurants themselves, gets lost in the shuffle as well.
When We Are Hungry
A friend was recently very hungry for Chinese food. We gave him a long list of the Chinese restaurants in the Twin Cities: Takeout? No. Something fried or something fresh? To sit down for dim sum? Noodles or does he want rice?
No – none of these things would do.
What he wanted, he told us, was something he had never had before. We looked at each other and shrugged. What he wanted was a trip to China, deep into the heart of the country’s largest cities to find foods that hadn’t yet made it across the ocean and most-likely never will. He wanted to go deep into grain fields and pastoral settings where a meal is something to be cherished and respected. The flavors that can only be found where they come from; the things that can only be had where they grow and have grown for thousands and thousands of years.
Global cuisine has allowed us to have so many things at our fingertips – countless dishes and plates, a melting pot of cultures recreating their homelands for us in the United States. Should we celebrate eating a Cuban breakfast of beans and rice and plantains? then a Brazilian lunch of feijoada? a Mediterranean dinner of olives and lemon chicken? All in the same day?
Celebrate, yes. But in the midst of our celebrating we often take these things for granted: That just because we can have bananas in Minnesota doesn’t mean our bananas are the best bananas. That just because we have dozens (or more, hundreds) of Chinese restaurants doesn’t mean we know and understand anything Chinese culture and what their food is all about.
We are not an island unto ourselves. This is a beautiful thing – that the United States is a melting pot of flavors and foods is what makes the food in this country so special; the mixing of cultures, the evolution of tastes, the incorporation of one thing and then another. Yes. But we have to reach further into the world to understand that they did not start here, and if we want something new we still have to search for it, and should. We are not paralyzed by choice. Our choices have come as a result of hardship, in many cases, a shifting landscape, and a fight for acceptance in a land that was long dominated by a half-formed cultural majority that never truly agreed on one thing, except that they did not, do not need to change themselves.
This is the paradox – realizing the difference between that which was grown here and that which was brought in by the endless power of our food systems and suppliers; celebrate the variety, while understanding how truly unnatural it is – celebrate your bananas and avocados and walnuts while understanding where they came from, what it took to bring them here, and why.
We often forget, as we wait (impatiently) for the new restaurant serving authentic Japanese to open right down the street from our favorite bar and flock to it once it does, or did-you-hear-about-empanadas-on-5th-Street. They’re better than anywhere you’ve had in the world, and you’ve traveled all around the world…
But doesn’t your grandma still makes the best food, and nothing will ever quite compare to that?
So we flock to new restaurant after new restaurant and forget about the ones that were already there. In our eagerness to have something we haven’t had before we forget about the things that made us love food in the first place. When another restaurant opens and, like lemmings we rush to that one, the last new restaurant, the last “it” place, still swooning from their 6 months to one year-long influx of hungry patrons that read about them in the the latest review/article/blog post suddenly finds themselves empty, offering longer happy hours, cutting hours, staff, lunch…
Are the diners to blame for this?
The restaurant industry is a volatile one. This is obvious, and no real secret. And if diners, those paying money, are no longer excited and the restaurant does not know how to keep their interest, it cannot be the diner that is to blame. And yet this current culture of wanting more, wanting new, and to see-and-be-seen has certainly thrown many tried-and-true eateries and fresh ideas alike a curve ball.
They’ve done everything right, they maintain high standards of product and service. They try so hard. So where does everyone go?
This is seen even more with the new places that open: Local institutions have a bit more insurance (at least until their loyal customers die off or move away) with people already familiar; places from childhood and prom, places that have a name for themselves promising something familiar every time. These places, the low percentage the restaurants that survive the one, five, 10, 50 year mark (and who helped to created this culture in first place), still struggle to survive the whims and fickle needs of diners.
No restaurant, no matter its culinary pedigree, is safe.
When we could be happy with what our region has to offer, when we could learn what bounty the land has to offer and focus on what grows and has always grown here, we instead keep reaching further and further out for that latest new thing. And we’re often disappointed when it’s not what we thought it would be.
And that is the fault of the diner.
Minnesota food – i.e. the things that grow locally – is exciting. Even in winter. Minnesota is large gardens and animals on farms. Minnesota is root vegetables and indigenous cuisine from vast fields and green, growing landscapes. Minnesota is urban farming and year-round aquaponics. Minnesota has the opportunity to be one of the most interesting culinary states in the country.
What makes someplace exciting is that, it can be innovative, fresh, unprecedented, and still represent the place where it was made and from which it came. It is still the land on which it stands that ends up in front of us.
What is Minnesota cuisine?
We haven’t quite developed it yet. But we will. Take the places that celebrate our heritage, the chefs that spotlight Indigenous cuisine, the immigrants from everywhere that have brought their traditions to snowy Minnesota, planted it in the ground, and watched it grow. If we focus on this, instead of national, international trends that exists, frankly, because they are trends; if we take a look inward instead of outward, if we reach into our own bread basket for the items that grace our tables, beautiful things will certainly come from Minnesota as well.
Read this next: When I Think of Food