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Culinary Virgins

November 10, 2014

Thanksgiving will be here before you know it. Like almost everyone else, there is turkey on my Thanksgiving table. But for me, the notion that Thanksgiving is about the turkey is ridiculous. The food I’m most looking forward to eating is Pepe’s Pizza.

Granted, it will probably be on Sunday. And granted, my insistence upon a stop will surely inconvenience members of my family. Just as surely, they will fail to understand why this is such an important stop.

And they aren’t the only ones. There are plenty of people who have passed through the doors of this hallowed pizza palace in New Haven who don’t quite get what all the fuss is about. I reject the notion that this is all about the Pizza Cognition Theory. That same disenchantment is shared by visitors to In-N-Out Burger, so one might argue this has something to do with food failing to live up to its hype.

However, my initial lackluster experiences with our region’s significantly less famous mini hot dogs and apple cider donuts has led me to another conclusion entirely.

Your first time almost never provides you with the full pleasures of the thing.

This isn’t about lacking a broad sense of culinary knowledge. You can know a lot about pizza, and still not really “get” Pepe’s after a single visit. In some ways it has to do with variability. Pepe’s pizza is not perfect. I watch the man working the pizza peel and marvel at how he manages the pies charring in that blisteringly hot coal fired oven. Some come out a bit over. Some a bit under. It’s a place that can have a bad day. But on the other end of the spectrum, it’s a place that can bring you a life-changing pie. And I have to admit from personal experience that my love for their crispy and chewy bottom crust has grown greater and greater with each pie I’ve been fortunate enough to eat on premise. Takeout is another issue entirely.

In other ways it has to do with consistency. Take In-N-Out, for example. It’s an oasis in the fast food burger landscape. And one reason to love the regional chain is because you can rely on getting that beautiful slice of beef-fat-soaked melted American cheese in between the patties of a double double wherever you see that big red arrow. I take mine animal style with the grilled onions and grilled mustard. It’s a flavor combination that I have yet to find elsewhere.

For the sake of full disclosure, my relationship with In-N-Out burger started out hot and heavy. There were a few rocky years where I strayed away from anything resembling a fast food burger. But I’m glad to report that I’ve seen the light and can now understand how there’s a place for both In-N-Out and Five Guys in my life.

My first Capital Region mini-dog came from the dear departed Crossgates Mall location of Hot Dog Charlie’s. Thankfully I recorded my impressions of it at the time. I think it’s fair to say that I found it just on this side of edible, which isn’t saying much. Plenty of people would have stopped eating this regional staple then and there, but I persisted. Over time, not only did I begin to appreciate their historical context, but I also saw how people from across all walks of life would gather elbow to elbow to eat these diminutive wieners at the timeworn counter of Famous Lunch in Troy. In all honesty, the first bite of one of these hot dogs isn’t going to blow anyone away. They’re not that different from Michigans or Coneys. But they are special. It’s just unlikely anyone will “get it” until they’ve logged a few hours on one of stools and begins to feel at home in a place that’s part of the fabric of the city.

Hopefully you’re picking up what I’m putting down. I could go on about cider donuts in much the same way, but I’m sure Mr. Dave has written about this food’s role in the rites of fall. Suffice it to say, the more and more you have some kind of food experience, the more and more it finds a way to burrow into your psyche.

There are many storied restaurants put on an altar by the food loving community. It’s true, some of them have become disneyfied versions of themselves, and no longer have the magic of what made them famous in the first place. At many you can simply walk in off the street, sit down, and have a great meal. But you should not expect to enter any of these places and instantly fall in love. It’s still just food. However, it’s food that over the course of time becomes to mean something more.

Not all food can do this, and that is part of what makes these places so very special.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 10, 2014 11:26 am

    “there’s a place for both In-N-Out and Five Guys”. And what place would that be? Las Vegas, actually. And I dare you to eat first at In-N-Out then go to Five Guys. I don’t think you’d be able to choke down that vastly inferior product.

  2. November 10, 2014 2:05 pm

    Pepe’s can definitely be hit or miss. The variation seems to be more common now than it was 20 years ago. But when they are on, that is still some special pizza.

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