Food trends always say something about the cultural moment in which they burst onto our collective consciousness, and Nashville’s beloved hot chicken is no exception. At The Ringer, Danny Chau recounts three days enjoying the addictive pain of cayenne-coated fried chicken, while also exploring a history of racial tension and the changing vibe of the neighborhoods that gave America its Bourdain-approved, spicy food of the moment.
Hot chicken has become one of the biggest national food trends of the last few years, but I didn’t come to Nashville to Columbus a dish that has existed for nearly a century. I did come to see, from the source, why America’s fascination with hot chicken is exploding at this particular moment. As recently as 10 years ago, hot chicken wasn’t a universally acknowledged dish, even in its birthplace. For the majority of its existence, it was largely contained within the predominantly black East Nashville neighborhoods that created it, kept out of view under the shroud of lawful segregation.
Prince’s old location was close to the Ryman Auditorium, where the Grand Ole Opry performed for more than three decades. Its late-night hours were perfect for performers, and early adopters like Country Music Hall of Famer George Morgan helped build a devout following. But in the segregation era, to get their fix, they had to walk through a side door. Prince’s was operated like a white establishment in reverse: blacks order in front, whites out back.
Even after desegregation, hot chicken remained hidden in plain sight for much of Nashville, due to what Purcell described as “comfort” on both sides of the racial divide.
I’m notoriously grumpy while grocery shopping. Once, my partner and I got into a fight in the Aldi parking lot because one of the eggs in our carton broke. He does his best to keep us supplied in soups and noodles–simple things I can heat up when I’m anxious and depressed — but I find myself yearning for expensive, fresh produce. As much as cooking intimidates me, I eat constantly — popcorn, apples, Toblerone, peanut butter and crackers — whatever I can find. I scry for news of the downtown market that was promised two years ago. I grow hungry and impatient. The world of food seems impenetrable, a place for people with money and time, and I never feel as though I have either. Read more…
“Food has become entertainment,” Meehan said. As David Kamp showed in The United States of Arugula, a chef like Alice Waters can be a product of 1970s counterculture just like any musician. And Waters is much more likely to be available to talk about her motivations.
“Those of us who have pursued this course are on the pleasure beat,” Gordinier told me. “It doesn’t mean we partake of the pleasure the entire time. It means we’re interested in the way culture engages with pleasure, and what the pursuit of pleasure says about us. The defining pleasure of the ’60s was music. To some extent, the defining pleasure of the ’70s was film. The defining pursuit of our time now is food.”
At The Ringer, editor Bryan Curtis examines the rise of modern food writing and the confounding popularity of writing about food. Everyone’s doing it. Why is everyone doing it? Food writing is the new Applebees but at Lonchero prices, and something smells fishy. See? It’s harder than you think.
“He wanted to know if there was such a thing as a ‘Fart Chart’ of different kinds of beans,” McGee said. “And if he used a different kind of beans, could he maybe eat a couple more servings? He also wondered if there was something he could do to the beans ahead of time.”
The next day, McGee went looking for answers. At the Yale biology library, he discovered that plenty of food-science research had been published by and for the food manufacturing and packaging industries, but little of it had been shared with chefs or home cooks.
“I spent hours in that library because I had never seen anything like it,” McGee told me. “Poultry science and agricultural and food chemistry. I would just flip through random volumes and see microscopic studies of things I eat every day. It seemed so cool and unexpected. It took more than a day to home in on the right sources about beans, but not only did I find out what’s in them and what you can do about it, but there is a fart chart and there are things you can do to lessen your suffering. Most of the research in the field of flatulence was funded by NASA. If you think about it, it makes good sense — these were still the days of capsules.”
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that Rudisill, crotchety patron saint of the fruitcake, is related to one of the most famous American queer men of all time. She was an aunt of Truman Capote. Capote, effeminate and limp-wristed, could be considered the ideal target for the word fruitcake in its other, equally noxious meaning.
The expression “nutty as a fruitcake” has been sewn into common American parlance since as early as 1935. Fruitcake is something like the word faggot’s first cousin. To be nuts was to be mentally ill, after all, and queerness was, for a time, a flavor of mental illness. The common history of the moniker goes as follows: A fruit, susceptible to the whims of nature, tends to grow tender and soft. For a man to embody these very traits, a sensitivity to the elements that is typically coded female, goes against the imaginings of masculinity our culture worships.
This word association is quite fun; it’s like rummaging through an old thesaurus from a blazingly shittier America. Recently, I began trying to trace the precise pathways through which this food became a pejorative, motivated by intense personal curiosity: I had grown up eating fruitcake and considering it a delicacy. My family is from the Indian state of West Bengal, where fruitcake is widely considered a food to cherish rather than to trash. The architecturally stodgy, pre-packaged variety that so many Americans seem to abhor was a food my family and I would eat with tea. Other families could have stuff from Entenmann’s or Carvel; we preferred these tutti frutti cakes that came in rectangular aluminum packaging. We’d even eat it for breakfast. It was aseasonal, dislodged from Christmas. If doing so were nutritionally sound or socially permissible, we’d eat it every meal.
I would read anything by Kathryn Schulz, and this story makes a perfect case why. Ostensibly it’s the story of a man named Zarif Khan, who in 1909 found his way to Wyoming from the Khyber Pass, and made a name for himself selling tamales (the name: “Hot Tamale Louie”). Khan was a recognizably curmudgeonly chef (God forbid you put ketchup on his burgers!) of the sort writers reliably profile today. But “profile” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what this goosebump-inducing story is. Woven into this tale are captivating tangents—about Wyoming’s inclusive beginnings, the various histories of naturalization (and denaturalization), tamales, and Muslims in this country (a history that goes back so much further than Trump would have you believe)—that turn out not to be tangents at all: the heart of this story about tamales and burgers is a story about America, and the immigrants that make it. In Schulz’s hands it’s skilled and quietly hilarious. The story felt fitting when it was published in June; it feels even more essential now.
I read this story about food fraud slack-jawed. Laura Reiley’s basic premise is this: when you go to a restaurant advertising “local” or “farm to table,” it’s not only possible but highly likely(!) you’re being lied to. Years of working in restaurant criticism made Reiley rightly skeptical of menu claims, and suspicious that more was afoot than frozen cakes passed off as homemade. For her story she systematically investigates restaurants in the Tampa area that make declarations about their ingredients—sometimes embarrassingly high-mindedly—that they don’t exactly see through. A lot impresses me here, like Reiley’s persistence, guts, attentiveness, commitment, and spy moves (she kept ziptop baggies her purse to secrete away fish to lab-test later). The piece’s focus is on restaurants in Tampa, but it makes a broader statement about our convoluted food supply chains, and what it means to be an eater and consumer living in our increasingly weird world. Read more…
One version of my perfect day would consist of nothing but walking from one spicy-noodle stand to another, consuming so much chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns my mouth would no longer feel like it’s connected to my body. At Roads and Kingdoms, Josh Freedman made that dream reality, following Mr. Lamp — Chongqing’s most devoted noodle explorer — around the city, in search of the ultimate bowl of xiaomian.
Lamp steps out to take a call; he returns to tell me it is a reporter for one of China’s national newspapers. The article written about me the day before has been published in the local morning paper, under the headline “American Guy Loves Chongqing Noodles So Much He Flies All the Way to Chongqing to Eat Noodles and Learn About the Ingredients.” Within hours, the article was reposted by the flagship state-run paper, the state newswire, and dozens of aggregators. The article about me writing an article was such a big hit that the national press wanted to redo it for the international edition.
I look around the table, uncomfortable with the attention, thinking about the xiaomian stories that link each person together. Mrs. Lamp and her sister-in-law sit to our right, drinking sugary iced tea and gossiping. Across the simmering hotpot, Ms. Hu and her husband propose a toast to the table. They run a store called Fat Sister’s Noodles, named, they quickly add, after Ms. Hu. They operate the store themselves, with little help, starting before dawn every morning; rarely do they have a free moment to go out and eat with friends. After several rounds of toasting and laughter, Ms. Hu’s cheeks have turned bright red, almost as red as the hotpot broth on the table between us. Brother Lamp sits back, soaking it all in, watching connections borne of noodles grow into friendship and camaraderie. He has started smoking again.
Worth it for the title alone, Emily’s piece wends from 350-year-old pro-pig promotional literature to the interstate tensions at the 1985 Ham & Yam Festival — with a pit stop to visit The Oldest Peanut in the World — in service of a single question: is the ham capital of the U.S. in Virginia, or North Carolina? (And a runner-up question: Why does it matter?)
Canned sardines turn many Americans off to fresh sardines, which is a shame. In Tin House‘s 2009 Appetites Issue, Jeff Koehler shares the little fish’s pleasures, describing how eating canned sardines in his vagabond youth led him to savoring fresh sardines as an adult, which culminated in years of culinary experimentation in his adopted home of Barcelona. Koehler’s essay was reprinted in the Best Food Writing 2010 anthology and is for anyone who’s ever loved something other people find gross.
Sardinas en escabeche became part of my repertoire, and I still enjoy it in autumn when the hues and scents of the dish feel right for the cool, clear days. Eventually, I learned to prepare sardines in many different ways. At home we like them pan-grilled and eaten with plump grapes. Or grilled and crowning a slice of toasted country bread piled with strips of roasted red peppers, eggplant, and onions. Or batter-dipped and fried with slices of acidic apple. These days, my two girls love it when I bury a mess of sardines whole under a mound of coarse sea salt, and then bake the lot in a hot oven for 15 minutes. They enthusiastically take turns breaking open the salt crust with a wooden mallet while my wife and I scramble to dig out the succulent fish—moist and completely cooked in their own juices—before the girls crush them.
But, without a doubt, the most pleasurable way to eat fresh sardines is a la brasa, grilled outside in the open air over hot embers. The flavors are at their robust finest, the flesh sparkling and briny, shaded with smoky oils. Inside, that distinct smell of searing sardines is overpowering, even pungent (and immediately alerts every neighbor as to what’s on the stove), but outside, among green leaves and dusty loam, or on a sandy beach with sea breezes, it’s evocatively, stirringly aromatic.
As a ramen maniakku or enthusiast myself, I reread Lucky Peach‘s debut Ramen Issue once a year. The issue has an essay by chef Ivan Orkin, where he tells what it was like operating a ramen restaurant in Japan, as a gaijin, or outsider. Lucky Peach is a food quarterly started by chef David Chang and writer Peter Meehan in 2011. The Ramen Issue is long out of print and fetches wildly high prices on eBay and Amazon, but Lucky Peach published Orkin’s essay online for the first time, just for us. Here’s an excerpt:
The first big break came at the end of August, when I was asked to make an appearance on one of the big prime-time talk shows. The episode aired on a Sunday night; on Monday, there was a line of thirty people outside a half hour before we opened. After that, the crowds kept up every day without fail. At least ten people waiting to get in every weekday, and at least thirty every weekend. Lines even in the midst of a typhoon, which happened more than once.
Following the fans came the second wave of blog entries, good and bad. My favorites were from the infamous Channel 2 websites, where anonymous writers go after everything and everyone, and where being criticized means you’ve finally arrived. Many of the threads were conspiracy theories: some people believed I was a front for a large Korean corporation, others that I was a front for a Japanese chef. The best theory was that I was actually Japanese, and only pretending to be a foreigner. It was an idea so good I wished I’d made it up myself.