Talkin’ ‘Fancy’-In Defense of Midwestern Food’s Dirtiest Word

The video opens to a wide shot of an old cab coming into view against the foggy backdrop of someplace quaint- a barn can be seen, framed by two bare Oak trees. The cabbie, a disembodied voice with a vaguely country accent address his passenger, a woman of a certain age with a physiognomy denoting importance, gravitas. She wears large perl earnings and dark, round glasses, wrapped up tight in fur.

To the cabbie’s surprise, his fare is actually a local, the product of these humble surroundings. There is a quick dissolve into a sepia tableau of a woman holding a bonneted baby on the porch of a ramshackle cabin, looking like Dorothea Lange’s famed protagonist come to life.

As the sound of 90’s ultra-produced pop country music begins to swell, we are shown the life of Fancy Rae Baker, child prostitute turned singer/actress who swore she’d overcome her life of poverty, violence, to become a person of substance.

“I may have been born poor white trash, but a-Fancy was my name!” belts Reba McEntire’s titular character, in her anthem about overcoming the trappings of mediocrity and aspiring for more. As diners and cooks in the midwest, Reba’s ode to what it really means to be fancy can be quite informative.


 

Have you ever learned a new fact, heard an interesting word, or even noticed a strange, never-before-seen (to you, at least) object, only to encounter that new thing over and over again in a seemingly short amount of time?

Know as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, or recency illusion for those who hate whimsy, this is yet another example of the trickery employed by our brains, fooling us into the belief that we are special and unique beings living in a universe of consequence. In reality, its a pretty well understood psychological response for rewarding the acquisition of new environmental information.

Recently, the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, named after a group of far-left German terrorists/Communists, has fomented insurrection in my subconcious. In the melange of daily linguistic interaction, those myriad conversations, texts, and Dank Bernie Sanders’ memes that account for the bulk of my textual intercourses,  one word continually comes into focus, a positive impression on the negative space of my mind: Fancy.


 

The whole thing stared over drinks with a friend. He mentioned that midwesterners have a peculiar relationship with the word. He went on to elaborate that it is beholden to a particular connotation of superfluousness that is at odds with the dominant aesthetic of folksy practicality. Being fancy implies a wanton excess that is anathema to the stark efficiency of agrarian life, the mythologized font of so much of the Midwestern ethos.

You’re normal if you own a hog. Fancy is putting her in a dress.


Since that conversation I notice people using the word fancy with increasing frequency and it is almost always cast in a derogatory hue. And while I’ve heard music, art, one’s dress, and even breeds of dog described as fancy, the most disparaging use of the word is reserved for all things culinary.

“I don’t eat anywhere in German Village. Too fancy.”

“Why would I try something vegetarian? I hate fancy food.”

“Ohh! Look at Mr. Fancy! Using a napkin and a fork to eat his pancakes.”

If midwesterners and food are coming together, you can bet that somebody thinks that something is just “too dang fancy!“. Chipotle? That’s just fancy Taco Bell. Bob Evans? More like fancy Tee Jay’s!

But, here’s the thing: I’ve been operating under the impression that if people are willing to pay for someone else, a professional even, to make their food, they’d desire something a little more elaborate than what can be produced in the kitchen of your average cornhusk-powered homestead.

Moreover, the fanciness paradigm is unjustly punitive for those who attempt to push boundaries and try new things. This inequitable punishment is dolled out because new ideas, at least superficially, don’t have the same utility as the tried-and-true methods that people already know. That leads to safe, derivative “new” food: twists on a classic, (that aren’t really a twists at all), a repackaging of stuff that people already know they like. This, in part, is how we get the endless reiterations of burgers, tacos, and pizzas.


 

The etymological root of the word fancy is fantasy. It originally described something whimsical, something from the imagination, something borne of a desire for that which is not presently available. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the word was given its political connotation of wasteful ornamenoality as a foil for the plain, the common, the popular.

I think this semantic difference, between my inner monologue and the vox populi, helps illustrate my confusion when things I’ve made, or foods that I enjoy, are summarily ruled as fancy. Because it always seems like the word is bandied about in the presence of dishes that I’m most excited about. Dishes that I feel tap into a place of whimsy and imagination. My “fancy” food is an attempt at tapping into a desire for something that isn’t available. My intention is to bring that into the world and share it with people who want for the same.

Declaring that dish to be fancy, in the Midwestern sense, relegates it to the purgatory of the unnecessary. It implies that the my effort, physical and mental, was wasteful. Fancy food is cheap golden tinsel on a jewel toned christmas tree. Its kale garnish.

“Don’t eat that! They just put it on your plate to be fancy.” 

Kid Gloves: Is this the end of “niceness” in the Columbus dining scene?

A couple of years ago a local journalist wrote a very complimentary piece about some food that I made. He was gracious and generous with his praise while making keen observations about the subtle nuances of my flavors. He even made some very flattering comparisons between myself and a chef in Chicago that I looked up to greatly. As a young cook, receiving his first real write up in a city-wide publication his words were about as good as anything I could have hoped for. When I was feeling most exposed and vulnerable,  insecure about my ability to make food that people would like, it was exactly what I needed to hear. I was ten feet tall.

The only problem? The review was total bullshit.

 


 

I came to this recollection thanks to Facebook’s “Memories” feature, that little gem seemingly designed to only show you old pictures of your cat that your ex got to keep in the break-up. Recently, Memories reached back into the mists of Internets past, and like some digital Doc Brown, came back with that old article. Looking back on that which I was once so proud, to this thing that inspired such confidence building validation, imagine my horror in finding the description of a meal that a more honest critic would have called “a nice try”.

As I looked back through some of my other old clippings (Yes, I save all of my old clippings. And I keep a back-up on my Mom’s refrigerator.), I noticed a similar phenomenon: reviewers were throwing me a lot of softballs.

So, what was going on? Were Columbus food reviews so inept as to not be able to, and I’ll use one of my new favorite phrases, “taste a fart in the wind”? Did they confuse my food with another, higher quality meal they had eaten earlier? Was I just being hard on myself? (One of the articles featured a picture of a lifeless, pale panini sandwich served on a paper plate. It looked like sandwich night at the Veal household. )

ann veal egg

“Will’s sandwiches are the perfect compliment to a mayonegg.” – Ann Veal, Columbus food critic

I’ve continued to think about it and I don’t think it was any of those things. I think that these midwestern writers were doing what midwesterners do so well: they were being nice.


 

After a recent Columbus Knife Fight, the local Chef-vs-Chef cooking competition hosted by The Commissary, a bit of a foodie fracas broke out between some of our city’s most vaulted cooks. A comment, one that could be interpreted as either heavy-handed snark or benign curiosity devolved (or evolved?) into a a scathing indictment of one of the areas most notorious and divisive chefs. (It should be noted that the principal participants in the actual competition, Chef Seth “Water Crackers” Lassak and Chef Marcus “Whipping C.R.E.A.M.” Meacham were both absent from the online altercation, presumably too tired from actually cooking to be folded into the trolling.)

After much airing of grievances, hot dog related and otherwise, the fight appeared to be all but won, the accused trolls had be hammered into submission by a newly formed “fraternity” of culinary justice- think N.W.O. but in chef coats. When, all of a sudden, a mysterious figure, hereto unaffiliated with the brawl, burst onto the scene to assist the battered villain, lashing out at his assailants with a metal folding chair of on-the-nose insults.

And there I sat, watching it all unfold from the safety of my couch, robotically shoveling dry handfuls of Special K Chocolatey Delight into my mouth, eyes locked on my phone screen. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh…


 

I grew up on the internet. And not the good “country club” part of the internet. I was raised at the corner of Rotten.com & 4Chan. I seen trolling.

And we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing people we know fighting online. Sometimes its your Pittsburgh Steelers crazed friend telling literally EVERYONE from the city of Cincinnati to perform a sex act on themselves that I wouldn’t use in my ISIS-meets-Yall’queda erotic fan fiction.  Sometimes its a academic arguing with a community organizer about the complex moral issues surrounding the force-feeding of Baconators to even the most militant of vegans. Donald Trump AND Bernie Sanders are running for president AT THE SAME TIME. People fight on the internet. It usually annoys me that we are wasting precious bandwith on arguments that would otherwise be spent on cat videos and wild speculation about Steven Avery.

No, my fascination this time was about something different. This, or at least part of it, was connected to niceness. All parties involved, the so-called trolls and the subjects of that trolling, were all operating and reacting to the self-imposed niceness of the city’s food scene.

When crappy food gets a good review the chefs grumble,

They never actually critique anybody. All these shitty cooks get a pass.

And the trolls? They subvert the rule of nice, they reject niceness, and get a rise out of those who follow the rules- ya’ know, like trolls do. And this time, and this is what may be unique, the established chefs, who have so far kept their shit talking to themselves, are pulling back the curtain and publicly “calling out” those chefs who, in a less “nice” town, might be ridden out on a rail.


 

Are we entering into a new era of honesty? If that honesty and criticism results in a better food scene at the expense of people’s feelings, is it all worth it? Is the price we pay for elevated food culture our relationships with each other?

And what happens to that young, nervous cook who really just needs a kind, if-not-totally honest review to inspire him onto something better?

As I’m writing this a new flame war seems to be developing over on the Instagram. If the catalyst to answering any of these questions is found in digital smack talking, if there is some kernel of truth that is exposed when our amity is gone, and if that truth, once released, precipitates change, we may have answers to these questions sooner than we think.

Manifesto for the New Nordic Cuisine – A Primer

Identity is crucial in this era of globalisation. An awareness of who we are and where we come from is essential to our self-image and our sense of belonging. An appreciation of local culinary tradition is just one aspect of this, and is now more important than ever. – Einar Risvik, Chairman of the New Nordic Food program

New Nordic Cuisine, or Modern Nordic Cuisine, or whatever we are calling it these days, has dominated the global culinary landscape for nigh on a decade.  Rene Redzepi, and his famed Copenhagen restaurant NOMA, along with a troupe of lesser known yet equally respected Nordic chefs, have brought the region’s cuisine sharply into focus in the 2st century. Nordic ideas about local sourcing and sustainability, once fringe notions, are now a prerequisite to be considered one of the best restaurants in the world. In just under a decade Nordic chefs have successfully created a new cuisine, grounded in a rich culinary tradition and supported by a multitude of microclimates and a unique biodiversity. Theirs is a cuisine to rival any in the world.

My question is: How did they do it?


In 2004, Rene Redzepi and Claus Meyer, his NOMA cohort and Danish culinary icon, held a symposium in which they invited some of the region’s best chefs, food writers, and culinary culturalists to Copenhagen, the topic:  How to nurture the then infantile food movement grounded in their local cuisine.  The result of that meeting was the ten-point Manifesto for the New Nordic Cuisine, an outline of the principles and philosophies of their fledgling food revolution. The Manifesto, grounded in Nordic notions of sustainability, food purity, and ethics, reflected the values of the region’s citizens. The Manifesto was an attempt at expressing Nordic culture through Nordic food.  Much like the instructions for a new piece of slick Scandinavian furniture, the Manifesto clearly explained the tenets for this new way of cooking in a language that was concise and easy to understand.

It reads:

The aims of The New Nordic Cuisine are:

1) To express the purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics we wish to associate to our region.

2) To reflect the changes of the seasons in the meals we make.

3) To base our cooking on ingredients and produce whose characteristics are particularly in our climates, landscapes and waters.

4) To combine the demand for good taste with modern knowledge of health and well-being.

5) To promote Nordic products and the variety of Nordic producers – and to spread the word about their underlying cultures.

6) To promote animal welfare and a sound production process in our seas, on our farmland and in the wild.

7) To develop potentially new applications of traditional Nordic food products.

8) To combine the best in Nordic cookery and culinary traditions with impulses from abroad.

9) To combine local self-sufficiency with regional sharing of high-quality products.

10) To join forces with consumer representatives, other cooking craftsmen, agriculture, fishing, food, retail and wholesales industries, researchers, teachers, politicians and authorities on this project for the benefit and advantage of everyone in the Nordic countries.

And here’s the thing. They did it. These values and philosophies have shaped the restaurants of Scandinavia and helped them be counted among the best in the world. More importantly, they have exported these values to restaurants around the world, creating the foundation from which to erect ever more equitable and sustainable kitchens and communities.


After the Fresh Street pop-up, I had the chance to shoot the shit with some of Columbus’ best young chefs and cooks. Being a rather dour bunch,added to the fact that it was early on a Sunday, at least by food service standards, we eventually got to bitching. In their turn the usual complaints came up: not being able to find good help, a lack of mentors for young cooks, long hours, a lack of public enthusiasm for anything new, pretty run-of-the-mill griping for our lot. Then, we got on the big one, the one that always seems to come up:

What, exactly, is Columbus food? How can we make food that accurately represents our community and its values and traditions? How do our kitchens and restaurants contribute to what makes Columbus a great place to live and a memorable place to eat?

We draw our inspirations from the great cuisines of the world, and in our time in culinary history, much of that inspiration has been drawn from the chefs and restaurants of Scandinavia. I’m proposing that we don’t stop with what those chefs serve, but look deeper, examining how they serve.

The desire is here. The desire to be great. The desire to show the rest of the world what we already know:

Columbus, Ohio is a world class food city.

Now we just need a map to get us there. Luckily, much like our Northern counterparts across the ocean, we can chart our own course, draw our own map. A map that leads to a better understanding of our identity and our place in the wider world of food. All we need to do is the work.

Something is happening here. Momentum is building and a ground swell is rising on a new era in Columbus food. And I’m goddamn excited, and your should be to! It doesn’t have a name yet, and honestly, I’m a little afraid to even talk about it, for fear that, like some culinary Schrodinger’s cat, these just manifested notions should be swept away like crumbs from a tablecloth.

Nevertheless, I propose that we put some meat on these bones! Lets give these feelings a name. Let’s mark our territory and define our values. Let’s discover and celebrate our food history, its techniques, dishes, and ingredients. Let’s revel in our air, soil, and water and their bounty.  The time is now to stake our claim on the culinary landscape!

I’m ready. Who the hell is with me?

Valar Ipradas : Game of Thrones Menu Preview

Tonight The Commissary will play host to Chef Aaron Mercier, of Rook’s Rustic Tavern, as he serves up a menu inspired by the hit HBO show Game of Thrones. This is the third installment of his Parliament of Rooks pop-up dinner series.

Chef Mercier’s menu is designed to showcase his “inner nerd” and will feature “seven novel-inspired dishes in honor of the Seven Gods of Westeros”. (It is the opinion of this author that The Seven are but a balm for a pox that has spread across the once mighty face of Westeros, and that real relief will only be obtained in the cleansing  fire of the Red God. Praise be to R’hollor!)

We were granted a sneak peak at the menu, and its got us hungrier than Hot Pie after his daring escape from Harrenhal! Here is what Chef Aaron has in store:

  • Kingslander’s Summer Salad – Mixed herbs, foraged mixed greens, ground cherries, flowers, vinaigrette
  • Treacherous Leek Soup- Mushrooms and warm spices
  • Dornish-style Stuffed Cherry Chiles – Queso fresco, machaca con carne seca, thyme bechamel, shallot chips
  • Rillette a la Tyrion – Rillette of bacon and smoked fish, pumpernickel toast points, Chef’s whole-grain mustard, blackberry compote
  • Braised Oxtails with Herbed Rice- Chili jus, cattail pollen, green onion
  • Pigeon Pie – Pigeon, peas, gravy
  • Samwell’s Blueberry Tart- Saffron creme batard, candied herbs

This menu is sure to satisfy all diners, from the most noble and discerning families of venerable Meereen to a ravenous Dothraki bloodrider. (If you are getting even half of these references than this really is the dinner for you!) Dinner starts at 7, with libations available for purchase from Actual Brewing Company. Tickets for the dinner are $60 and can be purchased here. And, as an added bonus, the first five readers to purchase tickets and enter the code “Wanderlunch” at check-out will receive a 15% discount. John Snow may know nothing, but even he knows a great deal like this when he sees one!

Inspiration Album: Peru

In my humble, and generally uniformed opinion, I’m going to state what I believe to be an unequivocal fact:

In 2015, the chefs of Peru are making the most exciting food on the planet.

In the spirit of being out of the proverbial Peruvian closet, and in an attempt to persuade any non-believers, I present an album of pictorial evidence, proof-positive of my claim. Inspiration for the neophyte, unaware of his southern culinary brethren, as well as the woefully uninspired chefs among you, the poor wretches who can’t bear the thought of another pot of Idaho mashed potatoes or plate of Parmesan chicken.


Before we dive in,we’ve got to understand a few things about what’s happening in Peru:

1- First, I am Columbus-ing the shit out of an entire culture and regional cuisine. Peru, and Central America in general, have always had an amazing and vibrant cuisine, but, like a lot of other things that fall under the umbreala of fashion and pop-culture (and cooking is both of these things), they don’t become popular until white folks “discover” them. Hate me if you want, but at least I’m up front about it.

2- The “rise” is Peruvian popularity is due to two factors:

  • An incredible biodeversity provides Peruvian chefs with a seemingly endless supply of unique fruits and vegetables, creating an arch of taste rivlled by only a few places on Earth
  • An influx of classicly trained and worldly Peruvian chefs has wielded that flavor palette artfully, resulting in a vibrancy and vitality that is palpable. Peruvian cuisine is vivacious;  a testament to its biome, a place literally teeming with life!
Credit: www.theworlds50best.com

Chef Virgilio Martinez’s stand-out Octopus at Lima’s Central resturant . Image credit theworlds50best.com

Another octopus, this time served charred and in infused broth, from famed Astrid y Gaston, a Lima institution for almost 20 years. Image credit : http://www.chefgeeta.wordpress.com

A pioneer of “Neikki” cuisine, a fusion of Peruvian and Japanese, Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura of Maido, again, of Lima, is making some of the world’s most innovative sushi. Image credit, http://www.internationaltravellermag.com

Another forerunner of Peruvian-Amazonia cuisine is Chef José Ragazzi Cifuentes, of Lima’s Malabar. This dessert features ingredients unique to the Amazon. Image Credit http://www.malabar.com

This dish comes from La Mar, a cebicheria, a restaurant specializing in all things ceviche. The Peruvian contribution to the art of ceviche is one of the most exciting things about Peruvian food. Image credit: Flicker

Recipe : Foraged Wild Spinach and Green Bean Salad

Have you ever had the urge to venture into the woods, backyard, or highway median and eat the stuff you find growing there?

No? Just me?

Well, if there are any curious would-be foragers out there I’ve put together a quick and easy recipe featuring a really common foraged green, wild spinach, aka lambs quarter. It also features some quick pickled red onions, pickled brussels sprout leaves, charred green beans, and broccoli sprouts. This one is really pretty and light and would make a nice start to your next dinner with friends and it pairs really well with sauvignon blanc.

IMG_4965

> Green Beans, .25#, ends trimmed, blanched and shocked

> Red Onion, .25 EA., thinly sliced

> Brussels Sprouts, .125#, blanched and shocked, leaves removed

> Wild Spinach (lambs quarter), .5#, washed and dried in even layers

> Broccoli Sprouts, .125#, cleaned and dried

> Apple Melon, .25 EA., oblique cut

> Pistachios, 5 EA., shells removed and meat crushed

> White Vinegar, .25 C.

> Sugar, 1 T.

> Safflower, to garnish

> Sea Salt , TT

> Lime, 1 EA., juiced

> Champagne Vinegar, 1 t.

> Honey, 1 t.

> Olive Oil

> Sweet Cicely Root, .25″ piece, washed

 Wash your damn hands! Combine the white vinegar and sugar in a small pan until just about to boil. Pour the sugar-vinegar mixture over the red onions and brussels sprout leaves. Let them sit at least 20 minutes up to 3 hours. Drain the liquid and reserve the onions and brussels.

Next, char the green beans. Heat a cast iron skillet over high heat. Add the green beans and let them char for a couple of minutes, tossing every minute or so. Because we blanched the beans before we aren’t really cooking them, just getting them nice and dark. Remove the beans from the pan and season them with sea salt.

To make the dressing, combine lime juice, honey, grated sweet cicely root, and champagne vinegar in a glass bowl. Slowly whisk in the olive oil to emulsify. Season with kosher salt to taste. Set the dressing aside.

To plate, toss the apple melon, green beans, and pistachios together with some of the dressing. Place the wild spinach around the plate, then add the green beans, melon, and nuts. Arrange the pickled vegetables and sprouts next. Finally, garnish with the safflower. Serve right away.

* A note on some of the ingredients in this recipe, specifically the apple melon and the sweet cicely. The apple melon can be substituted for any easier to find apple.  The melon has a more mild, more-melon-like flavor.The sweet cicely is another foraged ingredient and has a flavor like really mild anise or black licorice. You can substitute anise or just exclude if that flavor isn’t your thing. The safflower is just a pretty garnish and doesn’t change the flavor at all. 

Lastly, if your really want to try the salad exactly as you see it, and you live in Columbus, Ohio, you can find all of the ingredients at the Clintonville Farmer’s Market. The sweet cicely and the wild spinach are available from our friend Kate at Foraged & Sown, a produce vendor who specializes in foraged greens, roots, and flowers found all across central Ohio. 


As always, if you make this or any other Wanderlünch recipe, let us know how you liked it in the comments section.