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Upstate New York & Beyond

December 1, 2015

When it comes to food, place is important. Cognac is a place. Champagne is also a place.

Holding onto the wine example for just a little while longer, two different wines made of Merlot grapes in Bordeaux will taste more similar to each other than an equivalently priced Merlot from Napa. And why is that? Well, the French will tell you it’s something called terroir, which roughly translates into something like “a taste of the place.”

It’s a romantic notion to be sure. But think about visiting your local apple orchard in the fall, and see if you can remember the crispness of the air and the smell of the earth. If you are mindfully eating, then when enjoying foods from that farm, you’ll open yourself back up to those sensations of being there.

For example, a sip of Navarro wine totally brings me back to their tasting room in the Anderson Valley.

Geographies can be defined very narrowly, especially in the world of high end wine. But when thinking about regional cuisines, they are often much broader. We think about Southern food, California Cuisine, or the food of the Pacific Northwest.

If you think this has something to do with the Upstate New York Regional Dinner, you’re right.

All told, we’ve seen eight menus on this theme so far. There were four on All Over Albany, three in a story on this blog, and the dinner that actually happened up in Saratoga Springs (of which you can see pictures here).

Some people have argued that the menus missed the mark and landed on a New England or Northeastern palette of ingredients, and not one representative of Upstate New York. I respectfully disagree, and would like to lay out my case with a visual aid.

In passing I’ve mentioned The Northeast Appalachians. Now, I wasn’t familiar with it either until I found this map on Wikipedia. I’m no geologist, so this could be a complete work of fiction for all I know. But it looks legit enough, so I’m going with it for now.

NortheastAppalachiansMap

To my eye, the intersection of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers is pretty much in the middle of this map. The river valley is surrounded by the Adirondack Mountains to the north, the Taconic Mountains to the east, and the Alleghany Plateau on the west. That’s upstate New York. But those geological features extend into Vermont, Western Mass, Northern New Jersey, and Northeastern Pennsylvania.

The Green Mountains and the White Mountains are also part of this range, and that carries us into New Hampshire and Western Maine.

And it’s really this wider region where one can find all the ingredients our local chefs put together in their Upstate New York Dinner menus.

But this is fundamentally different than New England or simply the Northeastern United States, as both of those contain the coast and its bounty of seafood. All we’ve got are what’s in our lakes and streams. Plus, the closer you get to the coasts, the less wild the landscape becomes. Many of these menus involved foraging and other woodland ingredients.

In some ways Northern California Cuisine had it easier, because that task wasn’t complicated by political boundaries that cross over geologic ones. The growing areas are surrounded by deserts to the east and water to the west.

Our region may be a bit more amorphous. And I think that creates more of a marketing problem than anything else. Calling the cuisine of the area “Upstate New York” is clearly ignoring some of the other states who also have hometown pride in their ingredients. And Northeast Appalachian Cuisine just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

So maybe those detractors can hang tight while we use the term “Upstate New York Cuisine” for the moment. It’s very possible that over time, some of those dishes will get fine tuned and hone in on something that is more distinctly of Upstate New York. That is what happened at Chez Panisse too, as the restaurant’s iconic baked goat cheese salad would take a while to appear on the menu.

Time will tell. When it will happen is anyone’s guess. But where? Well, that’s going to be within spitting distance of the Hudson and Mohawk river basin.

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 1, 2015 2:45 pm

    I think that defining “Upstate NY” and defining an Upstate NY “cuisine”, are two very different exercises. Growing up in New York, everything north of Yonkers was “upstate”. We are still fighting over the definition, and everyone’s opinion depends on their frame of reference. Everything is relative (in all things.) Identifying certain dishes as a New York “cuisine” is quite another matter, and I think inaccurate.
    The terroir that you mention encompasses much more than longitude and latitude – soil composition, slope, weather, area ghosts perhaps. You can try as you might, but a Northwest Pinot Noir will never match a Burgundy made from exactly the same grapes. (DocSconz will dispute this statement, I’m sure). California cuisine was in large part a rejection of the classic (east coast) European methods – and sauces. It was less about the specific garden ingredients, as it was moving those ingredients from the “salads and sides” portion of the menu to the main stage – with west coast Asian fusion techniques, and without the east coast’s European sauces.
    An upstate New York cuisine must be defined by more than the ingredients, especially the ingredients on the menus cited in the post(s). There is nothing uniquely upstate New York about rabbit, or mushrooms, or certainly the venison we find on New York menus – almost always European red or fallow deer.
    I can think of a few “dishes” that are arguably “Upstate NY” dishes. Buffalo chicken wings is probably the most well known. One dish even more engrained in local upstate New York culture is made and prepared with distinctively NY ingredients and was popularized in Plattsburg. (No arguing here, Plattsburg is upstate.) They are made with Glaser hot dogs, and hot sauce – but named, unfortunately, for another state – Michigans. One (disputed) version of the Michigan’s history attributes the sauce recipe to a Michigan kitchen. While these are certainly upstate NY dishes, no one will collectively refer to them as a cuisine.
    Then again, maybe cider donuts would count as a cuisine :-)

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