The Problem With the Best, Most Authentic Food
On Tuesday, National Geographic released a list of the 10 Best Burgers in the country. Because, you know, National Geographic is such an expert on ... burgers. But the list got a lot of chatter and Internet play, simply because it's a top-10 list and it named a BEST (L.A.'s Apple Pan, incidentally). We are obsessed with "bests." The Internet loves them. Food obsessives especially love them. What gives?
Courtesy Hagop Kalaidjian / KCET Burger & fries at Apple Pan
Coincidentally, I had a meal at Apple Pan a few weeks back where I was interviewed by KCET's Farley Elliot. We spoke about a lot of things, but the conversation thread that got by far the most attention, on Twitter and in emails from people, was my comment about the words "best" and "authentic." I'm not going to quote myself here, but the gist of what I said was that when your main goal is to find the best, you can often miss the point, which is to see the value in the thing in front of you and experience it in the moment.
I explore the obsession with best a little more in this week's review of Ramen Hayatemaru. With so many ramen shops opening all over L.A., is it at all meaningful to be trying to proclaim that one is the best? Or is it more interesting to look at what makes each one unique? With so many styles and variations, can't we just enjoy the fabulous wealth of noodles we have rather than clamoring for a ranking of sorts?
Of course, we perpetrate the best frenzy in many ways. We run 10-best lists, and like any newspaper or magazine these days, our biggest issue of the year is The Best of L.A. We do it because it's fun and readers love it. But it's spilled over so much into the regular food lover's everyday eating that I find it odd. It's a weird, competitive streak that, if it were to be what I focused on as I eat every day, would take a lot of the joy out of the food in front of me.
The other word that tends to rule food conversations, especially the conversations I've had and heard in L.A., is "authentic." I understand the desire to pursue food that comes from a pure and genuine spot, but I think the word authentic has lost meaning. It, too, has become a competitive term - you think that ramen is good, but because it's not as authentic as the ramen I ate, then my ramen is better.
Take Chinese food, for instance. The Chinese started immigrating to America in the 1800s. Modern Chinese-American cooking is rooted in a history of Chinese cooks catering to American tastes in a variety of settings, including along the railroad routes where Americans and Chinese worked side by side. And yet, despite its 150-year history, people still look down on "Americanized" Chinese food as a lowly embarrassment. At the same time, American chefs gleefully make General Tso's sweetbreads, and everyone lauds them as genius. Why? Because that shit is delicious!! Just like General Tso's chicken!!
I understand how rewarding it can be to sit in a restaurant and feel transported to another country. There's nothing wrong with eating as a form of travel, and being thrilled that your city has options that in that sense can take you all over the globe. I just don't understand the obsession with authentic as opposed to, you know, delicious. In many cases, the argument for authenticity seems like an excuse for the writer to boast about the traveling he's done. I haven't eaten hand-pulled noodles in China or toured the kitchens of Europe eating sauces straight from some grandma's pot, but I will say this: I've had fabulous mole in Mexico coating chicken that didn't taste very good -- gamy, dry, stringy. I'm glad the place up the street has chicken (to go with my super authentic mole) that tastes better than that. That's what's important.
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