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Crashing the Party

January 6, 2010

I love that this blog is a giant evolving conversation about food.  And I love that you all are participating in it.  Mrs. Fussy once broke up with me well over a decade ago because all I did was talk about food.  Very little has changed, except that now she doesn’t mind as much.  But I digress.

Yesterday I wrote about being an interloper in small-town restaurants. And a curious reader had a question. Sarah M. asked, “Do you really feel like other patrons (or the ownership) sees you as an interloper? If yes, do you think it has to do with the photo-snapping or something else?”

And it made me think of a few specific examples where I absolutely knew I was an interloper.  Although these examples are a bit different than the ones I detailed yesterday.

Allow me to explain.  It is my contention that the most authentic ethnic food (in my eyes the best ethnic food) is cooked by people of that ethnic tradition for people who grew up eating the food.  I am sure in this great big world of ours there are some notable exceptions.

In these restaurants if you are not a member of the community they serve it can be painfully obvious.  I think of it as crashing the party.  And thus, I take no umbrage in the comments, stares, and lack of service.  I am just happy to be eating the wonderful food.

I told one such story in my first post about dim sum several months ago.  But there are others.

My favorite started with a business lunch with the publisher of a magazine.  It was over ten years ago, yet I still remember some details of the meal (the escolar was great, the banana dessert was a flop).  At lunch, we got to talking about food.

The publisher, who came in from out of town, was born in India.  And he mentioned that whenever he was in San Francisco, there was one restaurant he always brought his family to for a taste of home.

Every time I asked him about it, he would demur.

“You probably wouldn’t like it, it’s a bit dirty.”
“Oh, it’s in a really bad neighborhood. If I’m with my wife I like to leave before dark.”

The food conversation lingered on Indian cuisine for a while.  I don’t know what it was that I ultimately said, but at one point the publisher remarked, “You really do know about Indian food.”  Only at that point did he write down the name of the restaurant on the back of his business card, and slide it to me across the table.

So I went. And he was right. The place was dirty. It was in a terrible neighborhood. And the food was extraordinary. But as the only white faces in the place, my friends and I were also clearly interlopers.

I suspect the man working at the counter glowers at everyone.  Some people are just not that friendly.  What clued me in was that despite ordering the simple fare that we saw on the tables around us, every single person in the restaurant got their food before we got ours.  Including several tables that came in and ordered after us.

For food that good, I’m fine with it.  Seriously, I am.

So sit me in the back of the restaurant.  Call me names that you think I don’t understand.  Glower at me all you like.  If your food is delicious, I can take it.  I feel lucky to have found a bastion of authenticity in an inauthentic world.  Thank you for serving me.  Maybe in time I will gain your trust and respect.  But until then I will be on my best behavior.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarah M. permalink
    January 6, 2010 12:05 pm

    I think this explanation is interesting because it’s all about the social dynamics of public life (in this case eating), which are sometimes brought up in the best restaurant reviews but generally aren’t. I’m struck by our differing experiences– while I understand the kind of restaurant you’re describing here, I’ve never had (or at least noticed) that pointed service (or lack of service). It very well might have to do with the fact that when I eat in those places, I’m a fairly young woman eating alone, which automatically places me far down the social hierarchy.

    Thinking about this more, I’m even interested in your use of the word “interloper” as the descriptor– my uncomfortable restaurant experiences haven’t made me feel as if I’m intruding, but instead as if I’m out of place, unwelcome in a different way. (These have uniformly been “upscale”/fine dining experiences, except for one particularly bad day at the Bennington Taco Bell.) That class tension is unresolvable even with my normal MO (shared with you) of being consistently polite and good-humored. I guess these experiences go both ways.

  2. brownie permalink
    January 6, 2010 6:31 pm

    I suppose being an Anglo-Saxon mutt makes me an interloper everywhere except gastropubs and potato farms. And here I just thought people didn’t like my face.

  3. January 6, 2010 7:41 pm

    See, part of me agrees, and the other part just thinks sometimes it’s not worth is to put up with stink eyes, etc. Then again, I’m assuming I’ve never had food this good.

    I think with food’s popularity and dining out overall, I’m hoping that issues like these will soon be moot – I’ve definitely noticed much more friendliness in a lot of places.
    As an example – before CCK came under Ocean Palace’s ownership, I kept getting pushed to the Americanized menu (beef and broccoli, etc), even though I was trying to get some of the more interesting stuff (which was almost always out). Once they realized I was Chinese I got way less push back from them. Stereotyping like that really annoys me and really makes me wary of service/quality other folks would have received.
    And then blessedly Chef Peter from Ocean Palace took over the space, kept the awesome waitresses and now it’s all “Hey, what do you want? Oh, that’s good!”.

  4. Ellen Whitby permalink
    January 7, 2010 12:13 am

    I wonder how much of the problem is that “interlopers” or “outsiders” think they know Chinese or Indian or some other cuisine because they ate some quasi-authentic meal at a mediocre restaurant. When they eat the “real” version at one of those places, they critique based on what limited knowledge they have without being aware of how limited that knowledge that is.

    If the “interloper” patrons were more respectful and didn’t ooze with arrogance in these places, maybe there would be less glowering and less disrespect towards the one who looks out of place. As I wondered in a comment about a previous post, does this kind of thing exist in other countries? For example, are native British folks made to feel welcome in authentic Indian restaurants in England? Or is it unique to our great big US melting-pot society that when we blend together, we snub our noses at the original character from whence we came until we become “the interloper”?

  5. October 18, 2010 4:14 pm

    I will start out by saying I am ritually not allowed to fast on Yom Kippur, as a nursing mom, and continue with the truism that if you’re singing for essentially 9 hrs straight, you will be in need of sustenance.

    Anyway, the best place to eat in Troy (in my humble opinion) is Ali Babas. I think it’s Turkish, though I’m not 100% certain. Leave it to say that the cantorial soloist of the Reform Synagogue in Troy sat and ate lunch on Yom Kippur surrounded by women in hijab and voices speaking Arabic. The lamajun was phenomenal, the humus tasted like Tel Aviv, and it was a surprisingly healing place to be. B’seder.

  6. October 19, 2010 6:22 pm

    The problem is that when places are that off-putting to begin with, a lot of us won’t ever get to try the yummy food, ’cause we can’t get past being treated with suspicion and scorn just to eat their food. I mean, it’s enough of a challenge for us when we don’t necessarily understand the menu or know what we should order — it’s downright intimidating when that’s combined with the “what’s this white person doing here?” glower. You’d think they’d be happy that more people want to try their food.

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