The Digest

Barbecue Wars & Other News

26th August 2017

Words: James Hansen

Also in this week’s food media round-up: a chef without a kitchen, the queer history of kombucha and weird food encounters at a Texas State Fair

Kevin Alexander spins the tale of Rocco DiSpirito, chef-artiste turned celebrity, for Thrillist. The pivot is simple: “Rocco DiSpirito, who is just over 50, might be the most talented American chef alive at this very moment. Also: Rocco DiSpirito hasn’t cooked in a restaurant kitchen in 13 years.” Initial, wry, misgivings over the validity of his concerns – “Shouldn’t I, like most consumers of American pop culture, revel in seeing a once-dignified person debased on television?” – dissolve into a captivating biography of a wonderful talent choosing the limelight over hot lights. Alexander questions how success, recognition and fulfilment are measured in a new age of food culture, in which taste in what we eat is as important, as fiercely contested, as what we listen to, or what we watch on television.

Al Jazeera explores where Chinese cuisine and Mississippi river culture intersect (found via Kottke). The second in a three-part documentary series on Chinese cuisine in the USA focuses on the heritage of Southern Chinese food. Embroiled in the racial history of the South (“We were in-between … right in between the blacks and the whites. We’re not black, we’re not white. So that by itself gives you some isolation”) the grocery shops set up by Raymond Wong’s family stocked Southern produce that was integrated into dishes from their youth – familiar dishes made with unfamiliar ingredients. Sweeping shots of the fertile delta and snapshots of the shops’ modern frontage paint a picture of an evolution in understanding.

Danny Chau explores a clash of BBQ titans for The Ringer. The city: Charleston. The meats: hog vs beef. The pitmasters: Rodney Scott and John Lewis. The verdict: “It’s become proof that excellence is not inherently adversarial.” We get an overview of barbeque’s geographical tribes: “Battle lines are set around cities like Memphis, Kansas City, and Lockhart, Texas; these battle lines become hash marks in the Carolinas, where allegiances are split between Lexington and Eastern styles up North, and Midlands and Pee Dee styles down South”. We get 1773 recollections of smoked meats, “their looks not inviting & in taste resembling Saw dust”. Chau engulfs us with the fiery aggression of the smoker, before providing relief in its elegance, troubled history, and innovative future.

Dan Solomon fictionalises the high drama of State Fair food at Texas Monthly. On a summer’s afternoon a traveller comes, unruffled by distraction, seeking but one thing: “He passed the racing swine and the costumed pretenders playing make-believe for the revelers even as the horrors of the world mounted outside the grounds of the fair. And he continued to walk. He was there for the food.” What follows is a witty, cynical, sometimes scathing assessment of the frankenfoods and indecorous indulgence that an eater can expect at the state fair. From the Funnel Cake Bacon Queso Burger to the Gulf Coast Fish Bowl, culinary confusion reigns, reaching its zenith, or nadir, at Deep Fried Chicken Noodle Soup on a Stick:
“There’s been a mistake,” said the man. He hoped it was a mistake.
“What do you mean?”
“Says here this is soup. I don’t see no soup.”

“Baker is an italicized character of a person, a man who sings to his SCOBYs like one would a small child. He warbles through lullabies in English, French, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish, he tells me, to every bowl of kombucha he gets; he’s never missed a bowl.” At Food52Mayukh Sen documents kombucha’s curative popularity among queer communities, and the medical myths attached to the fermented drink: “Kombucha was thought to restore color to ashen gray hair, make psoriasis fade, and, of course, reverse H.I.V. and AIDS.” The aforementioned Baker is Norman, who in partnership with Betsy Pryor founded Laurel Farms – the national SCOBY for the US kombucha market. While Pryor shied away from spurious claims, Baker wholeheartedly embraced them, which later led to their little empire crashing down. The mantle was taken up by Sandor Katz – fermentation expert, queer, living through AIDS, walking the tightrope created by Baker and Pryor. Kombucha is, he says, “hysterically vilified as venom, or spoken of with effusive exaggeration: the reality lies somewhere in the middle”.

Image: vxla/Flickr

Posted 26th August 2017

In The Digest


Words: James Hansen

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