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On Food, Culture, and Society

October 7, 2014

Last night I got a sneak peek at Ric Orlando’s new Albany venture. It’s a catering operation on Delaware Avenue in the old Burger Centric building. Previously, his catering gigs were being cooked and loaded out down in his Saugerties restaurant. But it’s totally insane to try and cook for three different events while cooking for 200 people in the dining room.

Chef Ric would do it. But he’s clearly much happier about the new production space.

Of all the little bites that were being passed around and sampled, my favorite was the Korean chicken bites with gochujang and kimchi. Ric does know how to bring the heat.

Really, I should have been eating more so that I could report back on the food, but I often find that conversation gets the better of me. This is especially true when surrounded by passionate food lovers who never tire of talking about the subject.

There’s one topic that came up last night I want to share and spend some more time discussing. And that’s what seems to be a meta trend across restaurant food over the decades. We are stealing food from the poor.

Well, maybe not literally.

Think of some fancy things that you can get in a modern restaurant. Lobster? That used to be what the people on the docks would eat because nobody would buy it. Oysters? They were so famous for being accessible to the disadvantaged, in New Orleans a fried oyster sandwich was unironically dubbed the Po’ Boy.

Now lobsters are on the more decadent end of the dining spectrum, listed on menus without the price. The prevailing wisdom there is, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” I understand from a former colleague that there are no price tags on the silk scarves at Hermes either.

The list of items is a lot longer than that. Let’s look at meat cuts that were once so marginalized that they only were sold to the lower and working classes. And as I list them, think about how many of these you’ve seen on restaurant menus lately: hanger steak, short ribs, lamb neck, beef cheeks, pork belly, lamb shank, pork shoulder, flat iron steak, oxtail, and lamb shoulder. And the list goes on. Plus now it seems almost every fancy restaurant has a signature hamburger, which was almost unthinkable not that long ago.

Country French and regional Italian are two great examples of this phenomenon. Dishes like coq au vin, pot-au-feu, polenta, and risotto all sound luxurious today. But they have humble origins as attempts to make cheap tough meat palatable and softening coarse grains.

The optimist may attribute some of this to upward mobility. Those who grew up eating frozen Stouffer’s frozen dinners are now doing well enough to eat out at white tablecloth restaurants. Their comfort food is a taste of their childhood, and thus we have an abundance of gourmet macaroni and cheese dishes, including variations studded with lobster.

The pessimist may note that the price of these lesser cuts of meat are awfully steep when served in upscale restaurants, and perhaps the economic prosperity of the upper middle class isn’t quite what it seems.

My concern isn’t for today, but for tomorrow. If this is an ongoing trend, and our nicer restaurants are currently serving macaroni and cheese, marrow bones, hot dogs and hamburgers, where are chefs going to go next?

The humble tortilla is now available with single origin corn. Deli meat has been elevated to high end charcuterie. Even dried beans now come in rare and pricey varietals. You can buy a $20 burrito, a $12 banh mi, or a $24 plate of ropa vieja.

Would we have the ramen burger if it weren’t for KFC’s Double Down, which changed the face of sandwiches forever? The cupcake craze has to fit into here somewhere, as well as the rise of gourmet donuts.

Even the farm-to-table movement has its roots in economically depressed rural communities where people had to eat what they or their neighbors could grow. Backyard eggs were a country thing long before they were a hip urban phenomenon.

All I can think of that hasn’t been gussied up are some of the more highly processed foods. And still, one could argue that molecular gastronomy has made inroads into that realm.

Mark my words, one day soon we’re going to see hand-formed gourmet chicken nuggets. You know, just like the kind that Jamie Oliver made for those kids on TV. Except with a much higher price tag. And people are going to eat them up, because they will be the fancified version of what they ate as children.

None of this is to say that I’m looking for a return of old line classic high French cuisine. It’s just that I’m concerned we’re racing to the bottom as food becomes more and more expensive, and that as a result we’re failing to witness our own economic decline.

Man, that’s a downer. Sorry about that. Tomorrow I’ll try to bring a sunnier disposition.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. MikeH permalink
    October 7, 2014 10:25 am

    I have seen this phenomenon of “cheap cuts” that aren’t cheap any more carries over into the supermarkets as well. I was shocked the other day when I saw oxtail in the packaged meat case at PChopper for $7.99/lb – I don’t see that as being very cheap for a cut of meat that is mostly bone. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard TV cooking shows describe flank and skirt steak as “cheap”. The $9.99-$10.99/lb that I typically see it in the stores for isn’t cheap in my book. But I guess the fact that these cuts have become en vogue with the proliferation of TV cooking shows and internet food blogs and embraced by restaurants drives up the demand and therefore the price.

  2. buffsoulja permalink
    October 7, 2014 12:10 pm

    Man that was a depressing read.

  3. October 8, 2014 4:41 pm

    “hand-formed gourmet chicken nuggets”
    We’re already seeing something like this.
    Wasn’t it you excited about fish sticks from fin.?

  4. October 8, 2014 5:11 pm

    Yeahbut, we have to face the issues. If we don’t bring them up and talk about them then there’s really no chance for change that goes in a better direction. I’m glad you stuck your neck out to bring up things that aren’t so comfortable. The cheap prices of our foods have come at extremely high costs in terms of soil and water pollution and depletion, topsoil loss and basically poisonous pesticides – not to mention the health costs that can go along with highly processed foods. If we never look at that, we deserve even worse than what we’re going to have to inevitably experience. The opportunity in all of it is to gently keep making wise changes, and even if it looks like we are economically in decline, we can choose to learn our lessons well.

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