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The History and Purpose of Tours

August 10, 2016

My hope from the beginning was that I would not simply be preaching to the choir. So it always fills me with great joy to have readers who question what I’m doing here.

On Monday, I announced the slate of businesses Saturday’s Tour de Italian Deli Sub 2.0 will visit. My biggest concern about the tour is its incredibly long name. Sure, it’s a mouthful, but so are the subs we’ll be evaluating that day. So perhaps it makes some kind of cosmic sense.

However, EPT had other concerns. I have to believe that if he’s raising these issues, there are other people in the wings who have similar questions. And I really can’t remember if I’ve ever talked about the purpose of doing these tours. But even if I have, I’m happy to spend some time diving into it further, because there is more going on this Saturday than simply stuffing my face with Italian meats and cheeses.

First, let’s repost EPTs comment in its entirety.

I guess I have to ask what the purpose of these tours really are. Certainly this one is sort of Schenectady centered. What we don’t have great subs from Andy’s, Pellagrino’s? Oh so you have covered these in the past but then what’s the point? Getting together and munching down is a good experience but is it really getting down to what is best or great, NO. FLB tours just seem to be a way to promote FLB without considering what a food professional would see as a fair assessment of a particular kind/preparation of food. I’m ready to bet flared…

Let’s get this out of the way first. The tours have never been about self promotion.

The original idea came from a reader. That reader was Stanford Steph. And she thought it would be interesting to try a bunch of cider donuts side by side. Why? Because everyone seemed to have a favorite, but those favorites appeared to be largely dictated by childhood memories and family allegiances to one orchard or another.

There was also another camp that insisted all apple cider donuts were identical. Their point, which is a good one, is that they all use the same industrial donut mix and the same donut making robot. With identical inputs, you should get identical outputs.

So, I led a group out into the wilderness to taste a bunch of these donuts back to back.

In preparation for that maiden voyage, I thought long and hard about how many stops we could make on the tour. And the ultimate answer was five. And this decision was informed by many factors, not least of which is the ideal number of cheeses on a composed cheese plate. But fatigue and travel time also came into play. As did the task for amatuer tasters to order a set of similar food items.

Three was far too few. Four is typically my preferred number of items for tastings. But five felt a bit more substantial, while manageable. Six, I thought, would be more taxing than most could bear.

Tours are also different than tastings. Years ago, I conducted a blind tasting of cupcakes. And for that, I brought a crapton of cupcakes to a central location. Stanford Steph also helped with this project. And in this case, we kept the tasting to four bakeries, although we did taste three different flavors from each shop. These were tasted in flights: vanilla, chocolate, and peanut butter cup.

Some might argue that the findings of that tasting were a bit more “scientific” since the evaluation was done blindly.

However, there are some foods that either can’t or shouldn’t be removed from their appropriate context. And cider donuts are one of them. Mr. Dave warned against the folly of removing an apple cider donut from the orchard that produced it. Eating the donut is part of the experience of visiting the place. Plus, the very best ones are often those that are still warm from the frier. And your only chance of snagging those is to eat them on the spot.

There is certainly an argument that can be made that Italian deli subs are meant for off-site consumption, and should be part of a tasting. And I’ll readily admit that I absolutely see the value in doing that.

But there’s another benefit to these Fussy Little Tours.

One thing I’ve found about living in the Capital Region is how difficult it is to get people to drive beyond their village. And here, I’m using “village” in a more metaphorical sense. Sure, people from Niskayuna will visit downtown and maybe cross the river in Scotia. But getting them down to Delaware Avenue can seem as daunting as a transatlantic journey.

So these excursions offer a chance for people to step beyond their comfort zones and visit some of the beloved local businesses outside the places that are part of their everyday lives.

And that’s important.

That’s not important for promoting the FLB. That’s important for promoting local businesses. That’s important for creating a broader sense of the food culture that exists in the Capital Region. And that’s important when actually tasting the food, so that we have a better sense of place.

Right. So let’s talk about place.

Some people see the Capital Region as small. I get that. Certainly, socially it is. However, geographically it’s not. We’re spread out. A lot. From Albany, I’d argue that the region goes 25 miles in each direction. You may argue differently.

So we’ve got Albany, Schenectady, Troy, Saratoga Springs, and Hudson. Plus, we’ve got the adjoining suburbs and farmlands that connect them all. And each of these cities, towns, hamlets, and villages have something special.

Really, what I’d love to do is put my arms around the whole region, give it a hug, and squeeze it all into a city the size of Albany. In all seriousness, that would be a pretty kickass town. Especially if you found a way to make it walkable and improved the public transit.

Are the places different? You bet. Each has its own character. Now how does that affect the food? I don’t quite know. But there are some notable differences place to place. Mini hot dogs are widely available around Albany and Troy, but Schenectady favors full sized weiners. The soft serve was noticeably better east of the Hudson than it was up in Saratoga Springs. Of all the cider donut tours, the one that ventured west of Schenectady had the highest quality donuts to date.

Will the Italian deli subs be noticeably different in Schenectady?
I’ll be able to tell you after the tour on Saturday.

My hope is that we’ll have a few more editions of the Tour de Italian Deli Subs. We need to cover the northern suburbs, Saratoga, and east of the Hudson. That’s five. And then ideally, we will conclude with a “Tournament of Champions” which would take a group to the five best subs we’ve identified in the region, and find the best of the best.

It’s a long slow process. But all of these places have been around for forever. And if there’s one thing I’ve got, it’s patience. Plus I’m not afraid to take the long view.

Man, that’s a long answer to a simple question. I do hope it was helpful. And I would love to see EPT come with his wife and join us on the tour. Everyone who experiences these events finds them to be an eye-opening learning experience. For the most part, there is a broad consensus of which place is the best of the day. But occasionally there are minority opinions, which are interesting and just as valid. It’s my challenge to reflect all of that in the post-tour write ups.

Oh yeah, and I almost forgot to mention, the tours end up being a lot of fun to boot. If they weren’t I’d stop doing them. But it’s great to meet blog readers live and in person. And I’ve learned a ton about some of the classic foods of the region through these events.

I blame Stanford Steph. Little did she know that she was creating a monster.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2016 10:12 am

    Glad you posted this. I was going to comment on EPT’s comment the other day but was confused with the statement about “get flared” and thought maybe I didn’t understand.

    As a participant in several of these tours, I can tell that we try to be even handed in our judging but it’s very subjective. The experience is definitely not the same as a guided tasting at the Fancy Food Show or some such, and it’s also not designed for food professionals. The participants are typically everyday folk looking for a good time.

    By tasting the foods at their source we’re getting them at their presumed best, but also having an overall experience that goes beyond the tasting. I would hope EPT would join us and have a good time.

  2. stanfordsteph permalink
    August 10, 2016 4:14 pm

    My legend lives on!

  3. August 10, 2016 10:30 pm

    Daniel as you know, there is much to experience in terms of culinary delights within the Capital Region, but the challenge is getting locals to take the trip. It is a far shorter distance and reduced travel costs, to eat great Vietnamese, Thai, Moroccan, Indian, Italian, nouvelle cuisine etc here in the Capital Region then to go to the source. We are so lucky to have some great offerings right within a 20 mile radius.
    When I started my food tours in Troy this summer, I was hoping to entice people over to the East side of the Hudson and see all the amazing food experiences that are emerging on a regular basis.
    One day, when not in conflict with one of my tours, I would love to try one of yours.

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