There's this nugget of dubious wisdom espoused by a certain breed of foodies that holds that if it weren't for the French (with Saint Julia as their envoy), the vast majority of Americans would still be eating canned corn, sliced ham steaks topped with pineapple rings and Dolly Madison fruit pies seven days a week.
What they're saying is that without French cooking, we'd still be eating today the way nearly all Americans did fifty years ago, and that it was only the influence of the past masters of Continental cuisine -- those blood-stained, goose-strangling, wine-drunk French chefs of the old school who sent their commis, plongeurs and junior sauciers across the pond in the years following World War II -- that saved us from such a fate. If it weren't for the influx of young French talent coming onto the American scene, they say, we Americans would've had nothing to eat but American food.
And what a tragedy that would be.
Now, I love Frog cuisine -- escargot and mother sauces and truffles and things done en croûte and anything with lardons (French for bacon bits). I appreciate the rigidity of the French canon, love those crazy, beret-wearing freaks for their insistence that there is one way, and one way only, to do things right -- that it's their way or merde, as it were. And to a point, I agree that the French invasion of the American culinary scene (like the French invasion of the Vietnamese, Japanese and North African traditions, and their tenuous stalemate with the Germans and northern Italians) was beneficial to all concerned. But I have a problem with the corollary that this foodie wisdom presupposes: That the French influence somehow saved us from ourselves.
When they sneer at canned corn, sliced ham steaks topped with pineapple rings and Dolly Madison fruit pies, they're really condemning all American cuisine as a wasteland of junk and trash; the ham with pineapple rings could just as easily be barbecue or fried chicken or peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches. In essence, they're saying that there was nothing extant in American gastronomy that could possibly have stood up to the explosion of haute cuisine brought on by the French.
And that's bullshit.
Brooks Smokehouse Bar-B-Que (see review) is the latest in a generations-long line of great barbecue shacks, offering food that's both wonderfully delicious and insanely cheap. Dinner at Brooks is a pure hit of ageless Americana, serving up the kind of grub that these foodies would've seen wiped clean off the map by a wave of truffles and foie gras: Barbecue was too plain, too simple, and eaten too regularly by those who would've been unwelcome in Manhattan's posh and tottering white-tablecloth bastions because of the color of their skin and the fit of their overalls. The fact that American barbecue is just as obsessive and no less vital a culinary achievement than a composed salad, perfect béchamel or a lovely lobe of foie gras didn't matter to these snobs. Barbecue was cuisine basse, and therefore below notice, worthy of only a slightly pitying contempt.
(Yes, I know that Brooks's Cajun food wouldn't have existed without France, but French Cajun came out of the port of New Orleans long before this time and was prepared mostly as peasant fare, anyhow. Where do you think the name po'boy came from?)
The foodies would have also condemned the sort of sublime cooking being done at Joseph's Southern Food, a converted house right next door to Brooks at 2868 Fairfax Street. For the past eighteen months, partners Joe Johnson and Rick Bousman have been serving up the best of the deep South from this cramped, mostly carryout space -- grill-fired burgers, catfish sandwiches, root beer floats, fried shrimp, coleslaw, collard greens, golden-brown and crispy fried-chicken dinners, and cold peach cobbler that would be fantastic if someone hadn't gone a little crazy with the nutmeg.
Joseph's looks a lot like the old roadside soda fountains you can still find in small towns along the blue routes in West Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia. It's small and crowded with stuff -- soda machines, ice cream coolers, barstool seats and displays of candy, desserts and glass bottles of Orange Crush. It does a brisk business that's kept almost exclusively in the neighborhood and has a menu that's both short (no more than a dozen items on any given day, including sides) and cheap: a three-piece fried-chicken dinner with chunky mashed potatoes, mac-and-cheese, and a cup of sweet tea on ice will run you $8.49, plus tax. And Joseph's even has a drive-thru. Okay, not so much a drive-thru as an open window at the side of the house that you can shout your order through, but Joseph's calls it a drive-thru, and that's good enough for me.
Because Joseph's is so small, there can often be a bit of a wait for your order. Even at those rare moments when you're the only customer, it takes at least twenty minutes (often more like thirty) to put together the fried-chicken dinner, because everything is assembled fresh and cooked to order. And that's perfect, because Ronald and Louella Brooks next door will need about fifteen minutes to bag up an order of ribs-and-sides, plus a po'boy sandwich for the road. This means you can easily order at Joseph's, pay, step outside to wait and then -- when no one's looking -- dart off next door to put in a second to-go order at Brooks, maybe even enjoy some of Louella's fresh fruit punch and still make it back to Joseph's as your chicken is coming out of the fryer.
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It's a perfect system. I know because I've already tried it -- several times.
Jargon watch: It's come to my attention that I'm not the only one in the food world who has a problem with the term "foodie" and all the top-hatted, lock-jawed, snooty connotations it carries. Personally, I hate the word, am deeply suspicious of anyone who refers to himself as such, and find it discomfiting that "foodie" has in many ways become synonymous with uptight, white-bread culinary adventuring of the sort where going crazy and ordering the $40 Spanish cava rather than the $800 Chateauneuf de Pape is considered risqué.
I've used the term "grubnik" when referring to my own comrades-in-eats -- those who are straight-up Marxist in the spending of their dining dollars at both the high end and the low, eating from each according to his ability and giving to each according to his need. Unfortunately, "grubnik" never really caught on, so now we have a new term: "gastronaut," meaning those who will boldly go anywhere in search of good eats and adventures of the palate.
I kind of like that word, and in keeping with my habit of compulsively overdoing a good thing until I tire of its charms, I plan to use "gastronaut" at every possible opportunity until it, too, becomes just another annoying buzzword fit only for the pages of Gourmet and the New York Times food section.