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The Comment Too Hot for MHA

August 23, 2013

Well, that went better than expected. Given what I perceived as Michelle Hines Abram‘s relative position in the community, I had been steeling myself for a hefty amount of blowback from my stance against her local boosterism.

But that never happened. Instead, the story got passed around on Facebook and Twitter. There were a significant amount of comments in support of my argument on multiple platforms. And plenty of them included sentiments from people (and even chefs) who felt the same way. Plus an astounding number of folks went over to check out MHA Innovations for themselves.

But it’s not all roses. Michelle has since defriended me on Facebook and deleted all of her tweets from our exchange yesterday afternoon. Before shutting me out, she wrote on her facebook page that her post had nothing to do with me or the FLB.

You can read over what I wrote yesterday and judge for yourself, but I give no credence to her claim. Actually, I find it insulting.

On top of it all Michelle still never published the comment I left on her blog in the first place (nor do I expect her to in the future). She claims she was busy, yet other comments still went through. Holding back comments is a dangerous game for bloggers. Perhaps she should stick to events and leave the writing to the writers.

Anyway, I thought you all would be interested in seeing what set off this tempest in a teapot.

Submitted Tuesday, August 20 (approximately 11:30 pm)

Hi. I read all the blogs too.

At the top of yours it says that the Capital Region to have “a tremendous culinary scene” and I’ve always felt that’s a bit too far reaching. However, I completely agree with the thrust of today’s post that we have an *emerging* food scene in Albany. For what it’s worth, I don’t expect us to be New York, LA, or Chicago. But we’re not even Providence or Austin.

There is a difference between a food scene and a food culture. The scene is what’s happening now, but the culture runs deeper than that. While the emerging food scene is starting to put restaurant quality ingredients on the menu, the food culture of the region is based squarely on Italian-American red sauce joints and our marvelous taverns. They aren’t marvelous because the food they serve is top notch. They are marvelous because in todays age of homogenization, they have withstood the test of time.

What you describe as our emerging food scene isn’t unique to Albany. We’re actually a bit behind the curve in adopting to these modern tropes of fine dining. However our mozzarella sticks, fish fry, and mini hot dogs can’t be found anywhere else. They may not be part of the food scene, but they are must eats for anyone who celebrates the regional foodstuffs of American gastronomy.

Perhaps you will agree that a town’s food scene can only rise as high as its eaters are willing to take it. And our local chefs are keenly aware of some of the restrictions this places on them. What is truly exciting is seeing people swim against the current, like the sheer madness of opening a wine bar in Troy.

My hope is that successes like this will encourage others to do the same.

Shocking, I know. You could see why something like the comment above could get hung up for days while you think of an appropriate response to someone who mostly agrees with you.

Now while the majority of my comment was about parsing the differences between a food scene and a food culture, I don’t think that was the most interesting part. I’m pretty certain that Albany eaters deserve more blame than they get for the state of the Capital Region’s culinary scene.

When Brian Bowden was at Creo and he brought in that whole cow, he made pho. He made a broth from the bones. And sliced up the one tongue into fewer than 10 portions. I was in Pennsylvania at the time, but had I been in town, I would have gathered up a posse and eaten all that soup

Except as it happened, they didn’t come close to selling out.

Albany eaters have a strange set of demands. Large menus, large portions, and familiar dishes are important to them. Our best chefs know this. And I think it causes them to pull back. Too many ventures are too large, and owners feel the need to play it safe by having something for everyone.

That may be a model for economic success, but it’s also a model for culinary mediocrity.

There aren’t very many iconoclasts who are willing to go against conventional wisdom and shape the tastes of their community. Instead most restaurants try to simply give people what they say they want. But remember this:

– Before they were made and marketed, nobody knew they wanted an iPod.
– People are terrible at identifying what will make them happy.
– Focus groups can only tell you so much.
– Tastes and desires can be shaped.

The answer to improving food in the Capital Region isn’t easy. I see it as a multi pronged effort. The media needs to provide reliable unbiased critical information about what is truly great (not just great for Albany) and what just meets expectations. Chefs need to be encouraged to take risks and push the envelope (which doesn’t mean hamfistedly trying molecular gastronomy). Eaters need to take a chance and go a bit beyond their comfort zone (put your faith into a chef you trust).

The good news is that we’re getting there. I just wish I were around more this year to help.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. llcwine permalink
    August 23, 2013 7:48 am

    MHA needs to grow up and be able to start taking criticism if she wants to continue to blog…if you boo hooed every time someone gave you negative feedback or kicked them off your blog…..well…you would have a lot less commentors. Keep up the good work Daniel, and have a good shabbos this evening and tmrw

  2. August 23, 2013 9:06 am

    1. I read MHA’s post. All opinions on the content aside, for someone that works in marketing, she needs to learn how to write. I’m not saying this to be mean, but as an observation, and I suppose being a former journalist married to an English professor, my standards are a bit high in this arena. What she wrote was a rant, and it showed not only from the lack of a good copyeditor (No, no, not everyone can have a Mrs. Fussy, can they?), but from the stream of consciousness in the writing. She clearly hit submit before re-reading the post.

    2. C and I were talking about food tastes last night. Not specific to the Capital Region, but just people in general who are conditioned to a Walmart America palate. He noted a couple of women he overheard at the dog park talking about a party they were invited to that would serve traditional Jamaican food, specifically oxtail stew. “Yeah,” she said. “They’re kind of elitists.” Jamaican food – especially oxtail! – is the OPPOSITE of elite. People are unwilling to step out of their comfort zone and try something new, and if you try to encourage it, you’re, apparently, an “elitist.”

    2a. Ironically, if you go onto the DISBoards food threads, you’ll find a lot of Disney vacationers lauding adventurous dishes and saying, “And I don’t even like X!” Translation: I had never really tried X before, but it sounds icky. BUT! A Disney resort restaurant had it on the menu for double the price I can get it anywhere else, so it MUST be OK. I’ll try it. Talk about elitist, right?

    2b. So, in sum, I think it is in part about having a brand they trust go out on a limb. “Say what you will about [X Chain], but at least you know what you are getting!” (This is a direct quote from someone I know who is very anti-“foodie elitist”, by the way, but it drives home the point.)

    3. I wanted some of that pho from Creo. It sounded amazing. I can’t remember why we couldn’t go that night, but there was a reason. We were sorry to miss that one.

    • Tonia permalink
      August 23, 2013 11:00 am

      Yes! I agree on all points irisira (well except #3 as I do not eat meat, but I’m sure if I did, it would have been delicious.)

      Also, Dan and irisira are correct about the Albany food scene and the the Walmart American palate: boring. I have often been referred to in such a way in my own small circle as an elitist because I enjoy trying new or varied flavors. I am so over mediocrity and homogenization.

      Dan, I think your “controversial” comment is not so controversial and you’ve (accurately) articulated your stance on the Albany food scene (not culture).

  3. August 23, 2013 11:02 am

    I couldn’t possibly post anything better than the comment irisira just left you. The only thing I will say is that I’ve been thinking lately that it might be better to give up on the idea of Albany magically becoming a food mecca, and focus on the great things it has to offer, as you seem to be suggesting. When you get back up here, let’s all go to Famous Lunch and laugh at Ms. Abram’s myopia over mini-dogs. ;)

  4. August 23, 2013 12:24 pm

    I don’t know how appreciation of a region’s particular indigenous street food/cheap food specialties got wrapped into this whole discussion. If you don’t think that the top chefs in NYC are grabbing dirty water dogs on their way home from work then you are probably wrong. Appreciation of this sort of food is utterly unrelated to your level of “culinary sophistication” or whatever else we are all bickering about.

    Being unable to appreciate a dinky dog or a fish fry sandy (I don’t even really like fish fry by the way) means you probably take yourself a little too seriously. You might be the sort of person who is impressed by a 40 plate of gussied up SYSCO food served on a plate with a tablespoon of some god awful gloopy condiment smeared across it with the back of a spoon. You may be the real problem with the “Capital Region food scene.”

    I have babbled on about my love for Stewart’s, mini-dogs, cheap beer, and every other down and dirty, working class, blessedly kitschy aspect of the city I was born and bred in for several years now. I have seen people tsk-tsk at me and write me off as a slope-browed and uncultured goon. But I am not. I am not going to sit here and laud my own level of “culinary sophistication (whatever that means)” because that would be nauseating. Let it suffice to say that I have put more than a little thought into my whole philosophy on food and culture and all of that.

    In any event, that is my only problem with the whole discussion. I have no shame in my delight in petty blog exchanges of this sort. Ignored comments and deleted tweets make me bubble with glee! So thanks for that.

  5. August 23, 2013 1:36 pm

    Goodness – the mildness of your admonition is surprising. I read MHA’s post and thought she over did it too. As much as I’d like to do that kind of boostering for Albany, I don’t want to play that fast and loose with the truth. I admire anyone who is willing to write about what is good in our food scene, and wish more people would do it. I too believe that the more we taste and write about our reactions, the more the food scene will improve.

    I look at who lives here and I see tens of thousands of people who don’t even live here year round, let alone for more than four years. This means developing a deep food culture that goes beyond what Irish and Italian immigrants have established is daunting. But let’s try anyway! Our region’s great farms produce food that’s as good and as esoteric as anywhere. There’s no real reason why great food can’t be made of it.

    And speaking of comfort zones, I don’t see good food as necessarily taking people out of their comfort zones, but taking them more happily and deeply into those zones to discover that, for instance, even home fries and an omelette can be made into a superb experience. All it takes is a good chef, a good service staff and a fairly nice space.

    We don’t do that enough here, and we can if we really want to.

  6. karen opalka permalink
    August 23, 2013 4:44 pm

    honestly, how many of you people who are commenting actually GO to or support ANY events. I never have seen any of these sites, but after today, I will. Extremely negative people. Karma bite em’

  7. PatriciaN permalink
    August 24, 2013 2:09 am

    Going to events and doing good deeds can be mutually exclusive. Why is it that people who contribute quietly, and without the expectation of thanks or any public acknowledgement, are not thought to be active because they (we) do not attend these ridiculous events? Facebook exposes us to at least three EVENTS a day. Choking on events in the burbs. By the way, events are a thin veil for social intercourse, for the socially inept.

  8. August 24, 2013 10:12 pm

    I have a food truck in Pittsfield, a similar food culture. The pressure we get to have something for everyone (ie sell hotdogs and hamburgers) is immense. Everytime I stretch out the menu (Moroccan tagine) we have a hard time selling new weird stuff. I’ve just started making smaller batches of weird stuff and always,always keep the mac & cheese on the menu.

    I live in NOLA for a while and miss having truly good food available to me all the time, but there are a few chefs around here making good things. Baby steps.

    Keep raging against the machine. Thanks.

  9. albanylandlord permalink
    August 25, 2013 1:47 am

    I am really surprised that a comment as mild as yours was not approved.

    I get the MHA blog entries and event invitations emailed to me, and I certainly never signed up for them. I have always found that a bit disturbing

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