I am going to just come out and say it, I love food. There it is. I love to eat good food, I love to cook. I am an obsessive viewer of Food Network and The Cooking Channel. I enjoy the science involved in cooking. If you were not paying attention in class, cooking is science. I enjoy the art of plating and presentation. I am intrigued by the history of food and how dishes evolved or became associated with a culture or a city. But, I am not really sure of what to call myself these days. I could be a foodie, gastronome, epicurean, gourmand, bon vivant, or even a connoisseur.
The term foodie is thrown about but I don’t associate myself with the crowd that is currently coupled with the word. I will make a point to seek out a restaurant or cuisine while traveling. However, I have never traveled for the food as foodies will. I have never pulled out my cell phone, snapped a picture of my untouched meal and immediately launched it into cyberspace so anyone who knows me can see that I am enjoying something they are not. I will not thumb my nose at someone else’s dining experience. What I like may not be to your taste so I will not tell you what you should, or worse, should not like. I am not above food because eating something pedestrian may damage my reputation as a foodie. No, I no longer think I am a foodie and have distanced myself from the word.
Gastronome and the others, while dedicated to the food and not the circus around it, are routinely associated with fine dining. I am no stranger to Lobster Newburg, rack of lamb, or Cornish game hen. But at the same time, I have a deep appreciation for what would be considered common food. I love a big plate of pasta and meatballs. Chiles rellenos has become a favorite of mine. Nothing can beat a well-made beautiful lump crab cake. Foodies and gastronomes alike will find these appetizing if the presentation is right, the name on the door is one worth repeating, or the Chef preparing it has the right cache. But these terms still elude me because I relish the opportunity to dive into a plate of wings, I have tried slices from more pizza shops than I can remember and Lord knows I have polished off more than one human’s share of cheese steaks. No, these terms don’t fit me either.
Do I like sharing my food experiences? Yes. I do talk with a few people at work who know I cook and discuss meals occasionally. They always ask about holiday meals. Since I only cook for my wife and myself, we have always gone the non-traditional route on holidays. For instance, this Thanksgiving, I made fettucine with Cajun shrimp, Brussels sprouts and bacon, and a spinach tort. Gasp all you want, we enjoyed it. We do not miss the turkey and the cleanup is so much easier. We also had no leftovers. I love a turkey sandwich the day after Thanksgiving as much as the next person, but not for weeks. It is only two of us.
Yes, I have a Yelp account but I use it almost exclusively for places that I enjoy. I have only given poor reviews to a small handful of eateries or coffee shops. Those were places that appalled me and I felt compelled to share more as a warning than mudslinging. None of my reviews contain a photo of the perfectly molded rice pilaf, the grill marks on my fillet, or the foam on my latte. In my review of the place I always remark about the staff and service. I comment about the atmosphere and mention what I had. I will give basic descriptions but I do not feel compelled to detail the number of flecks of freshly ground black pepper appearing on my carrots. I want to praise the experience, not dwell on what some do. “My tomato slice was askew on top of my burger, ruining my experience.” Yes, this is a real review I happened upon while looking for a good burger.
Let me stop and break that down for a moment. I am eating at a burger joint. I am so caught up in my foodie experience that I consider my experiences ruined because a slice of fruit was off center when presented to me at the table. (Yes, a tomato is botanically a fruit, not a vegetable.) In the words of one of my favorite literary characters, and apropos for the season, “Bah humbug”. Enjoy the damn burger. If it was anything like mine, it was cooked perfectly. Just another reason why I am searching for another term for myself.
Anyway, back to the subject at hand. What to call myself.
I do consider myself an adventurous eater. Not in the way we consider Andrew Zimmern adventurous though. I love to try new cuisines. In my lifetime, I have been fortunate not only to know a widely diverse cross section of people, but to consider them friends enough to become exposed to their culture. Through these great people, I was able to sample the home version of their cuisine. I do like to try new restaurants, but keep in mind, they cater to the customers and can stray from their roots. More on that later. Tasting the home version, you get the real deal. I have tried and loved Korean, Tanzanian, Indian, Brazilian, Greek, Filipino, Italian, Puerto Rican, French, Mexican and in my own household Polish and Ukrainian. I cannot begin to tell you how great each of these experiences were and how each opened my eyes wider to the world. There is also nothing like a meal cooked by someone who puts their heart into it because they want you to experience their soul, not just eat dinner.
I mentioned more on the restaurant experience. Well, I came to learn as I compared these wonderful meals to their cultural counterpart restaurants that the experience is not always the same. I am not saying this is true for all ethnic based dining establishments, far from it. But most people know that much of what you find on a Chinese menu is either Americanized, or developed here from the start. I will eat many of these non-authentic dishes and enjoy every bite. I just have to realize, when I do make it to a place that serves the real item, that it will be a different and almost always a better experience.
Another example of this is my history with Mexican food. I grew up in the mid-Atlantic and ate many a Mexican meal. No, I am not talking about the fast food shops that call themselves Mexican and barely pass for food. I mean the real restaurants that serve “authentic dishes”. They may be well intentioned and based on a real dish, but they are tamed down or changed to suit the patrons. My wife and I found this out first hand when we moved to the southwest and were able to taste the un-edited versions of dishes and many others that you just do not see in other areas. The flavor profiles are so very different. Plus, heat has a whole new meaning for us now. I am not just referring to slathering ghost chilies on some wings and making it so hot that you are not even given the chance to taste the flavor. I am talking about using any of dozens of chilies to add beautiful depth of flavor. At the same time, they can turn up the heat to a place that will make you sweat, but stop before you lose the burst of flavor.
Yes, you can see I love international flavors. But I also love the regional foods found right here in the United States. I have done a bit of traveling over the years and have tasted many local favorites. I have learned that what is thought to be the local hero, sometimes is not the one the locals go for. Other times, it is most certainly the one. The question becomes, where to get it. If you want to know that, forget social media. Forget what you see on television. Ask a local. If you don’t already know what the local favorite is, they are the ones to ask. They also know where to go to get the best. From my experience, that will not mean the tourist hot spots. It usually means some local neighborhood. These places are also not the ones with the plate photos plastered all over the internet. They are the one who do not waste time with a garnish. Don’t think that means the presentation will not be spectacular. If my senses go into overdrive when the plate hits the table, you’ve got a great presentation. I need the look and smell to get the juices flowing so the taste sends it over the top. That is a meal!
So back to how to classify myself. Foodie has moved away from me. Gastronome, epicure and the like seem to only work for the haute cuisine. I am not a glutton or debauchee, they seem too far in the other direction. I need something in the middle. Something that speaks to who I am. I enjoy an aged porterhouse and a ballpark hot dog. Clam chowder is every bit as delectable as she-crab soup. Haluski, cioppino, lamb tagine, and sushi all make my mouth water. I love the experience but I certainly do not need Cirque-de-Dinner. I am also perfectly content to talking about my meal with only my wife, not all of Instagram and Twitter. No term seems to fit me today.
Maybe I need to invent my own word.
Cuisineist. I looked and it doesn’t appear that anyone has claimed this one yet. It speaks to food. The breadth of cultural possibilities. Neither chichi nor too guttural. I like it. We’ll see if I can make it stick.
While I work on my new cultural revolution, I will keep cooking for my lovely wife. She is a cuisineist like me. She usually loves what I create. I will continue tasting and enjoying new and different dishes from anywhere and everywhere. I will remain faithful to my television favorites: Alton, Sunny, Aaron, Cat, Ann, Alex, Guy, GZ, Marc, Emeril, Jet, Ree, Scott, Chris, Curtis, Susan, Mary Sue, Masaharu, Simon, Ted, Marcus, Mario, Michael, Ingrid, Carla, Andrew, and my first TV cooking favorite Graham along with several more that have slipped my mind. I will also think fondly of my other two early television influences, Julia and Paul. I can’t leave out my first culinary influence, my Mom. She stood and watched me stand on a stool to make my first ever meal, scrambled eggs. She coached me but allowed me to do it myself. From there I was off and running.
Hmm, Cuisineist, I think I like it.