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.”