Hello and welcome to Kitchen Catastrophes, where I continue to ramble incessantly about that most fundamental of human experiences, food, and its infinite variations. I recently uploaded a segment of my Culinary Compendium dealing with American Cuisine, and mentioned I had meant to give it a deeper look later. I then ran into the fundamental issue of discussing American cuisine: Size.
Similar to Russia and China, America has the cultural issue of being, well, too big for a shared culture before a certain point. A problem that is definitely noticeable in food choices, at least in China and America. China acknowledges 8 main “culinary cuisines”, of which I only recognize 3 (Hunan, Cantonese, and Sichuan) America has somewhere around 6. Russia, interestingly enough, talks a fair bit about how it’s too broad to have its cuisine summarized by one style, but then does so rather directly.
Then again, claiming to be many cultures while only allowing one is something of a Russian tradition…
This regional separation of cuisines is, of course, natural. For one thing, even a country as physically small as Italy (total area barely larger than the state of Arizona) has over 10 regional variations to its cuisine. The culinary touchstone of France could fit entirely within the borders of Texas. There’s simply too much America to have only one cuisine. And yet, if you asked someone to describe American cuisine, you’d get answers.
We’re the hot dogs guys, despite frankfurters being German. We’re the Hamburger guys, despite Hamburg steaks also being German. French Fries? Ours now. Pizza? We beat Italy in consumption per capita. America uses everyone else’s toys to make what they want. Macaroni and Cheese we stole from England, and was a favorite dish of Thomas Jefferson.
Here we see the same hand that penned the Declaration of Independence, penning a design for a noodle press.
So how can one talk about the thousand variations of American cuisine in just over a thousand words? Easy. You don’t. You eat the Elephant one bite at a time, and tackle each part independently. Because it’s where I’ve lived the majority of my life, I figured I’d start with one region in particular: Washington State.
Washington, Washington, Six Foot Eight, Weighed a Fucking Ton
Now, as I noted earlier, a lot of American cuisine comes from adapting or outright stealing from outside cultures. Thus, when it comes time to discuss a particular region’s cuisines, you’ll often find that the immigrant cultures involved have a noticeable effect. As such, it’s of particular note that Washington state has almost twice as many Asian-Americans as the national average. And it’s a diverse bunch. The second highest percentage of Pacific Islanders in the continental US, the third highest concentration of Cambodians, and one of the oldest Chinese Districts (San Francisco’s Chinatown was established around 1848, ours around the mid 1860s.) To illustrate with a small personal anecdote: my hometown has a population of less than 13,000 people. We have no fewer than 10 Asian restaurants. Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese, all doing steady business, at least some percentage of which comes from my family. (Trust me, my family’s strategy at Chinese restaurants is “Well, I want to eat today, and I don’t want to have to cook something for the next two nights.” It is not uncommon for 7 family platters to hit the table for a party of THREE of us.) The other big cultural impact comes from Hispanic families and cuisines. Hispanic is actually the largest ethnic minority group in Washington, and it’s particularly weird to me whenever I hear people spout racist insults against them, because, in Washington, many work as farmers and industrial workers. Hispanics have never been ‘lazy’, in Washington. They’ve been the reason the gringos get to be.
This stereotype is many things. Lazy is not one of them.
You can see just how pervasive these two demographics by the mental room we afford them: Even in Leavenworth, a town built on maintaining a Bavarian theme for tourists, where every other building sells schnitzel or bratwurst, on the main drag of the town, you’ll still find a Latin Restaurant, and a Mongolian Barbecue place. AND NEITHER OF THEM are the sole purveyor of their cuisine in a town of 2,000.
So you’ll see elements of these cuisines pop up functionally everywhere. From a plethora of Pho joints, seemingly endless dashes of cumin, and coconut popping in every time you think you’ve escaped it; Even the ongoing and ever-present concept of the ‘starch side’. From white rice, to Spanish Rice, to Rice Pilaf, most meals are going to come with a cereal grain. And if they don’t, keep an eye out for beans or potatoes to fill the same slot. Much of it flowing from foreign food fountains.
You Are Where You Eat.
Now, the other big thing people like to talk about when discussing Pacific Northwest cuisine is the locavore movement: only eating foods that come from near where you live. That certainly plays a part in Washington cuisine, but it’s actually a much bigger deal in Oregon. Oregon ranked number 3 nationally, Washington was 16. Certainly no slouch, but not super committed. So if we’re not committed to local foods, what are we committed to? LOCATED foods.
Washington food places like SAY where the food came from. “Made-in-house” is a common restaurant appellation. There’s a reason we have hundreds of local breweries, craft coffee shops, and even creameries. We use Cougar Gold Cheese (made at WSU University), we drink wines from the Walla Walla Valley, and our butchers put up the farms the beef came from. We’re fine eating Vermont Cheddar, or Texas Angus, we just want to hear the place names first. Rainer Cherries? We’re in. Hell, we even like Philly Cheesesteaks (or at least, what we CALL Philly Cheesesteak. Sorry, Philadelphia, but I’ve never had one with the Whiz)
I once had a friend try to eat six of these in one hour. He threw up on my shirt. I wasn’t mad, I was just disappointed.
Of course, everyone knows Washington for Coffee, Salmon, and Apples. And those are big parts of what goes down in the Evergreen State too. But on the street level, focused in, it’s all about the names and places. You gotta have one or the other, and preferably, both.
NEXT TIME: ALAN CONTINUES TO INAPPROPRIATELY STUFF THINGS INTO OTHER THINGS.