Cafe Society

Only in America

Americans like to take credit for things -- but culinarily, we're screwed.

Almost everything we eat, good or bad, comes from somewhere else. What's worse, most of the great things we eat come from the Europeans (the French, in particular) and we'd much rather blame the Europeans (and the French, in particular) for something than give them credit for anything. Runway couture, soccer, international fascism, Gérard Depardieu -- all that can be blamed on Europe and the Europeans. But to be fair, if it weren't for the long and (mostly) civilized history of dining across the pond, we wouldn't have cream sauces, $300 degustation menus, gnocchi, bangers and mash, blue-footed Bresse chickens, duck confit or wine without screw-tops, either. And foie gras. If it weren't for the French, geese would have overrun the planet by now and would be well on their way to figuring out how to hold pistols so they could usurp us as the dominant species, force us into confinement pens, and stuff us with Whoppers and milkshakes until our livers became all fat and glossy and perfect for eating with a little sour cherry glaze and a nice glass of port.

There's just not much we shove in our pie holes that we Americans can claim a clear title to. Sandwiches? British and, concurrently, Russian. French fries? Belgian (but see how tricky those Frogs are?). Meatloaf? French, though they'd call it something like le galantine de boeuf and probably wouldn't have a problem ceding that one to Betty Crocker, anyhow. Even breakfast cereal comes from somewhere else -- probably Scotland -- although it did take an American to come up with frosted SpongeBob Squarepants fortified oat cereal with Plankton-shaped mini-marshmallows.

And thank God for that.

So what does that leave us? There's the so-called New American cuisine, a logical and intellectualized deconstruction of those dishes native to American culture that covers everything from restaurants that serve 1950s-style TV dinners to customers sitting in thrift-store recliners to $15 grilled cheese cocktail sandwiches served with tomato foam. There's California cuisine -- granola and cocaine. And there's now a movement toward the glorification of American regional cuisine, but no one outside Buffalo seems all that interested in eating beef-on-weck sandwiches, and scrapple hasn't yet become a staple outside of Pennsylvania, where it was invented.

Still, we Americans do have one food that's all ours, which crosses all socioeconomic boundaries and is eaten everywhere: Barbecue. When done properly, it's stamped with the true mark of obsessive American ingenuity we're so proud of. And it's done properly in the most modest and unlikely places, like the garage space at 2856 Fairfax Street, which happens to be the address of Ronald and Louella Brooks and their restaurant, Brooks Smokehouse Bar-B-Que.

"Hey, how y'all doin'?"

That was Ronald, coming out to greet us when Laura and I arrived for our first taste of Brooks barbecue. We'd parked on the street and approached tentatively, not sure whether the place was open. We knew we were in the right spot, because there was a big sign out front and a colorful gators-and-crawdads mural painted along one side of the building, but walking right into someone's yard in search of barbecue and cornbread felt a little strange. Like a very foodie Halloween, when our our plastic pumpkins would be filled with pork sandwiches and ribs, rather than candy corn and Mallomars.

"You comin' in to sit?" Ronald asked, and I looked at Laura, and Laura looked at me. We weren't sure if we were there for takeout or lunch or dinner or what; we only knew that there was barbecue inside and that we were hungry. We could smell the food from the sidewalk.

"Well, come on into the dining room," Ronald said, helping us make up our minds. "Come on and have a look."

So we did. Brooks's setup starts with a narrow hallway -- clean and tidy, with a register off to one side and a sign that says CASH ONLY -- leading to a left-hand turn. We made the turn, and suddenly it seemed like we were in a very nicely appointed Baptist church basement just in time for the weekly potluck. Which was weird, because we knew there was no church there -- from the outside, we'd seen a building that looked like a large detached garage. Yet inside, there was this open, windowless space filled with mismatched chairs, tables covered in maroon floral-print cloths, eclectic silverware combinations, a large flat-screen TV (off when we arrived, but later turned on so Ronald could watch football while he cleaned up), and a dozen beautifully dressed black ladies working their way through the tail end of a big buffet lunch and complimenting each other on their hats.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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