I saw an interesting article in the Washington Post recently titled “How Americans Pretend to Love Ethnic Food.”
The question Roberto Ferdman raises is whether our actions say we really do love food from other cultures, or essentially, if we love the inexpensive imitations of those foods that are prevalent in so many eateries in America.
In an interview with Krishnendu Ray, author of “The Ethnic Restaurateur”, the two touch on subjects as diverse as what qualifies as ethnic food and what the term authentic means as it relates to food.
But perhaps my interest was most solidly grabbed by the discussion of price and spice.
Ray spoke of how Indian fare here in the states has been funneled down to mean extra spicy curry, sold for ten bucks. I can relate. Think about the last time you went for Mexican food. Chances are if you are like a great many Americans, you ordered some type of enchilada/taco/tamale combo that included rice and beans. It probably cost about $12.00.
I’m guessing the sauce came from a can, the tortilla from a plastic bag and the cheese was pre-grated at the factory before the restaurant placed their supply order. And you can be sure not one employee in the place had any idea how the tamarindo water or horchata is made without that cool machine they used to dispense the stuff.
The last time I was in Austin, I had the chance to eat at El Naranjo, where Iliana de la Vega is the chef. After dinner I spent a few minutes picking her brain about Mexican food in the culinary world. One of the things I ask every chef is whether Mexican food can support the price necessary to produce great, traditional foods, made one by one, plate by plate.
She shared that is indeed hard, but that she’s making it happen in Austin. But then she said something else that has stayed with me. She said if someone comes in without a reservation, she shows them the menu first before giving them a seat. That way the guest can make a decision about whether they are willing to pay for a truly special dinner, or if they really just want a Number 9 Combo.
Next month I’ll be cooking with Chef Pilar Cabrera of La Olla Restaurant in Oaxaca. She’s doing a class for a small group of folks I am showing around that great Mexican city. We’ll be making, among other things, rabbit with molé amarillo. If you are not aware, molé amarillo has about 5000 ingredients. It is a labor intensive meal that requires a skillful hand to make it all work.
Traditional flavors come at a price. The question is whether Americans will pay for authentic, traditional ethnicity when it comes to really great Mexican food. Or, if we are going to insist on that Number 9 Combo platter at 12 bucks.
And that is one of the points raised very clearly in the WAPO article. Give it a read, and make sure to take some time on the comments.