Among my many interests are food and culture, and as a result I often follow blogs and online discussion forums with culinary themes, sites like Good Stuff Northwest, Portland Food & Drink, and Chowhound. In so doing, however, I’ve detected a rather odd trend amongst food lovers, the elevation of excellence over cultural significance.
By no means am I going to argue that wanting the highest quality ingredients prepared in the best possible manner is a bad thing. I believe that using excellence as the only measure of quality, however, is short sighted.
Food is cultural, in that it links us to place. When I think of experiences (like eating a meal) I am often reminded of places. The reverse, then, also becomes true; when I think of certain place I think of the foods that remind me of there. For example, I cannot think of Cincinnati without thinking of the Christmas-cookie spiced Cincy Chili or bottles of Ale8one from across the river in Kentucky. North Carolina? True barbecue pork, Cheerwine, and biscuits in the morning. Canada? The gravy-smothered pile of fried potatoes called poutine.
Are any of these “excellent?” Are any of them “gourmet?” Sure, they could all be made with quality, but for the most part none of these dishes or products would end up on a white-clothed dinner table.
A more local example: in the pages of MIX, the Portland-based food magazine produced by the Oregonian, the idea of the city’s “best burger” was explored. The results? Kobe beef this, mushroom demi-glace that. All of them looked beautiful, and no doubt were spectacular. None of them, however, were memorable. They were just one more expensive gourmet burger in restaurants that, in my view, you shouldn’t be ordering burgers at anyway. (Seriously, you’e going to go to Biwa to pick up a burger rather than a bowl of Ramen?)
What got ignored? Authentic experience, and authenticity is an integral part of culture. If I am going to go out for a burger, it’s not going to be for excellence. I can make a burger at home that will be far cheaper and far better than even the most top-notch burgers from the finest restaurants in town. No, if I am going out for a burger, I’m going out for the experience of the burger, not the ingredients of it. I’m going to go someplace like, say, the Skyline. The burger will be average, the milkshake will be very good, but the experience of getting there and being there in an authentic Mid-Century burger joint tucked deep into the woods of the West Hills will be unparalleled.
And this brings us to the Voodoo Donut. VooDoo has become a local institution, helped in large part by the media (and especially by being featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations in 2007). Some, however, have questioned its status as a must-eat in Portland. The charges are usually that the donuts are either not that spectacular, or that they are not that unique.
But the cultural role of food goes beyond excellence or even uniqueness. Voodoo’s signature bacon maple bar, for example, isn’t the best donut on the world, it certainly isn’t made from gourmet ingredients, and it’s certainly not endemic only to Portland. (Their bacon maple bar, in fact, is also made by at least a half dozen other donut companies in a half dozen other cities.) But the bacon maple bar and all the donuts made by VooDoo — and VooDoo itself with its funky, hole-in-the-wall, slightly punk atmosphere — is an authentic reflection of Portland’s eclectic, off-beat culture. And for that, it deserves a place in our hearts, and our stomachs.