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 barbeque. 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.