Chow Tour Redux (or, Lots and Lots of Millet)

Queens, New York

I’ve been back home for a while now, steaming millet, leeks, and organic Swiss chard, and generally recovering. It’s time to wrap up nine weeks on the road, and to account for nearly 8,000 miles driven (plus many more flown) and several hundred restaurants, bakeries, and noshes sampled in 16 states and three Canadian provinces. To quote Johnny Cash, I been everwhere, man. I been everywhere. (Except, that is, for the Midwest, Southwest, Pacific Northwest, etc. ... future trips all!)

What I’ve Learned

1. You can go surprisingly far, surprisingly fast, by driving just two or three hours per day.

2. Vietnamese food is just about everywhere, something I hadn’t realized. When did pho become so ubiquitous?

3. Rooibos tea, a noncaffeinated herbal product from South Africa, is great. I first tried it in Lunenberg, and while I didn’t love it right away, I found it to be one of those things you must learn to appreciate. And it’s well worth the effort. Once you “get” this stuff, you notice subtle flavor undulations. Rooibos comes at you in waves. The brand to get seems to be the Gathering Place Trading Company. I recommend straight rooibos, though vanilla and other flavored variants are popular.

4. Tips for chowhounding in the South:

• Don’t be lured in by “creamed” potatoes (a mesmerizing name for regular old mashed potatoes, invariably instant).

• No nukes! (don’t let them microwave your dessert!).

• If you’re from New York City, one possible reply to those who ask, “Where are y’all from?” (a question carrying more baggage than carousel six at O’Hare), is that you’re from Seattle. I tried this just once, with good results. Seattle, I think, is the new Canada. Utterly neutral.

5. GPS units are a great chowhounding aid. This tour, like any true chowhounding adventure, was all about seat-of-pants whims and on-the-fly compulsions. Eartha, my GPS, made it vastly easier to range around freely without getting bogged down in plans, maps, and agendas.

As a bonus, Eartha could list, on command, all restaurants near the present location. This feature was used in two ways: I’d pick out a likely sounding restaurant (“Bubba’s Barbecue” good, “Ye Olde Rib Shack, LLC” bad), or I’d simply find a cluster of venues. That is, if I was in the middle of nowhere and hoping to find a commercial strip to hunt around in, I’d key in on nexuses. Even if all the listed choices seemed lame, I’d at least be in an area with possibilities.

The Big Conclusion

As I look back on some of the best—and most surprising—of the more upscale places I visited—for example, Canyon Grill, Damariscotta River Grill, Magnolia’s Grill, L’Orcio, Bianca’s, Au Pied de Cochon, and even, sort of, 12 Bones—I notice a common thread. They seem to exemplify a new style, which could be called “New Regional Cuisine.”

They share a deep respect for local foodways melded with unusually high standards in ingredient sourcing and preparation. The result isn’t brashly clever updates on local favorites (Au Pied de Cochon’s flashy foie gras poutine notwithstanding). Rather than straining for “inventive new takes on tired classics,” these kitchens perform a feat of culinary archaeology: reversing decades of shortcuts and bastardizations to rediscover the living soul of traditional preparations.

You won’t find such restaurants in New York or Los Angeles. They appear further from the trends and groupthink, where tradition runs deeper. These bicultural chefs are deeply steeped in tradition, yet are as hip, urbane, and skilled as their big-city counterparts. Their touch is deft and smart. And they are revitalizating, rather than reinventing, regional cooking.

The chowder, fried chicken, barbecue, fish cakes, catfish, gnocchi, caribou, and maple pudding I had at these places were more than crowd pleasers well done. Despite the seeming contradiction, these chefs manage cooking that’s both authentic and personal. Sophistication serves only the end result; pretentious touches are unthinkable.

Finally, whereas most upscale restaurants feel obliged to justify premium prices via overt gestures of status, these places do it via quality alone. Status buttons are never pressed; deliciousness is both means and end. As a result, you are pleasantly surprised by experiences that are better than you’d expected. The luster of this overachievement is irresistible.

The Even Bigger Conclusion

Every few years the Food Gods recalculate the value of various cuisines. When I was a child, raw fish was a disgusting, barbarian thing to eat, German food was deemed fancy, and Italians, who melted cheese over everything, were not to be taken seriously for anything more than a colorful “ethnic” experience.

Since then, the list of anointed cuisines has shuffled as frequently as the list of good-for-you foods. This fickle inanity has eroded the notion that any given group cooks better or worse than any other. Diners who’ve experienced standout meals in less-respected genres learn to pay less attention to cuisine and more to individual rendition.

The Gods decided some time ago that Cantonese banquet food is as sophisticated as French, and that we needn’t deduct points for all the lousy Chinese takeout places. The lesson should be this: Bad doesn’t detract from good. Cuisines are deliciousness-neutral; quality is in the rendition. This once seemed like outrageous rhetoric, but diners are catching on to the fact that deliciousness is deliciousness, period.

But though we’re getting hipper about other people’s food, we still harbor prejudices about our own. The Midwest is bland and drab, Canada east of Montreal is a wasteland, everything in the South is fried, and New York City is awash with great delis. We take these truisms—all wrong, by the way—as gospel, dismissing vast realms of potential deliciousness. Great renditions dispute generalizations everywhere you go.

If I didn’t fully believe that before, I sure do now. After something like 600 meals in mostly unlikely locales, I can confirm that deliciousness can be found most everywhere, and that anything can be great if cooked by the right hands. Treasure is ripe and low on the trees, easily discovered if one ignores conventional wisdom and plunges in with openness and passion.

The End?

When I was assigned this project, my employer confirmed that I’d be entitled to weekends off, which helped the assignment seem more viable.

What was I thinking? Here’s how it really went: I’d wake up on the morning of my supposed “day off.” Before long, I’d grow hungry and head out to rustle up a bite. What do you suppose I was going to do, grab some Wendy’s? No, I went out and chowhounded, of course. And, because I’d hate to miss good material, I’d grab camera, notebook, and recorder. And you know how the rest went. Off I’d go on adventures, tantalized by the hunt.

So … no days off!

But what is a day off from chowhounding? Eating poorly? This question haunted me throughout the trip. Even at the airport in Montreal with my stupid fajitas at a waiting-room bar, feeling as off-duty as I could possibly be, it was all still fodder for an unholy amalgam of work/play/life. There’s a fine line (OK, no line whatsoever) between “the tour” and 1. other reporting I do, 2. the general chowconnaissance necessary to keep my knowledge up to date, and 3. my own personal life, given that we humans not only live to eat, but must, several times per day, eat to live … and I strongly resist doing so undeliciously.

All this troubled me in a way it never had before. The sheer intensity and staggering length of the assignment held a lens up to the chowhound’s existential abyss. My friends keep asking me when the CHOW Tour will be over. I just stare glassily into space. I don’t know how to explain to them that the CHOW Tour is never over.

Physical Toll

As noted in report #8, for the first few weeks I actually lost weight. At home, every day is Ramadan; I tend to forget to eat until dinner. The tour forced me to have small bites throughout the day, which is healthier—that’s what, like, models do!—so long as the bites stayed small.

And they did stay small for many weeks. My discipline was strong; no matter how delicious things got, I managed to sample rather than devour. The prototypical moment came at the Farmer’s Market Restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I brought to my mouth an achingly beautiful leg of fried chicken, took a bite, numbly pronounced it the best I’d ever had, sighed, and asked for the check.

But then came Maine, where strawberry shortcake is everywhere. You’ve got to understand—I’d been in a state of strawberry shortcake frustration for decades. I always want it, and can never get it (at least not a good version). So I can’t resist it. And one can easily appreciate how, darting as I did into a dozen or so venues per day, most of them serving sensational strawberry shortcake, I’d find myself ingesting several helpings per day.

Even then, it was just a few bites per shortcake. But still, it added up. And as time rolled by, discipline slackened. It started getting bad in report #50, where I found myself too full to order anything of substance in a particularly great restaurant. At the end of that report you can hear a wailing, raving podcast recorded in the parking lot of a diner where, later that same evening, I’d gorged on walnut pie.

After that, it’s all a blur, culiminating in a full-out bacchanal in Newfoundland, several days of giddy delirium in Montreal, and finally, two weeks spent lost in a malarial blaze in various hotels California.

Even at my overconsumptive peak, I wasn’t doing, like, competitive eating. Overconsumption in this context means finishing a cup of chowder, eating several bites of shortcake, and clearing the occasional whole plate of cod tongues. But when you’re hitting several restaurants per day, even that is going too far.

I’ve given myself a nasty case of high blood pressure, and my blood sugar fleetingly edges toward the danger zone. I’ve gained 10 or 15 pounds, and thus we’ve opened this report with an image of me with my millet and organic Swiss chard. The millet, sans salt or sauce, tastes great to me, though. Baseline, sweet baseline!

My Dream

In my dream, I discard camera, notebook, and recorder, and do the trip all over again … but only hitting the best spots. And instead of darting in and out like an appetite-less mercenary gripped by looming deadlines, I’m fully hungry for each and every meal. I take my time. I linger. I indulge in more than a single bite of each item. And rather than sniff around for interesting stories, I simply enjoy the experiences.

Chowconnaissance is rigorous advance work that one does in order to suavely say, at some future point, “Oh, I know just the place …” Pleasure is deferred in the interest of compiling knowledge and finding finds. But at this point I’ve got more deferred assets than Warren Buffet’s 401(k).

If I were to live out this dream, however, I have no doubt that I’d soon fly off the map, chasing leads and gleefully trying to top my own finds. And, hey, where’s my camera?

Letters from Detox

Here’s an instant-message conference I had with my friends Pat and Chris (both of whom you met during the tour) as I launched my detox:

Jim:
It’s a historic night! I actually cooked my own dinner!

Pat:
Tell us.

Jim:
Millet. Swiss chard. Broccoli. And carrots.

Chris:
Yea for you!

Jim: Now here’s the thing
As this lite cuisine filters through my digestive tract,
the question is:
will I be able to go to sleep without running out for tacos?

Chris:
Make popcorn

Pat:
Drink water

Jim:
I thought you guys might want to get a betting pool going.

Chris:
hmm

Pat:
You’re not going anywhere.

Jim:
You must wager amongst yourselves

Pat:
Well, I bet no

Jim:
No salt
Just freakin’ millet
Do I know how to live or what?

Pat:
Never had millet

Jim:
It’s what the Chinese ate before they found rice

Pat:
Any good?

Jim:
It’s like couscous only heavier and mealier. It’s quite literally birdseed.

Pat:
Oh

Jim:
But it’s not all grim. I have dessert awaiting me whenever I’m ready.
It’s…
an ORANGE

Pat:
Don’t go overboard, Jim.

Jim:
I feel like I’ve stepped onto this strange planet
It’s all very trippy
Like the final scene of 2001
Low gravity…
Scary music…
Tall unfathomable monoliths hulking in the distance…

Pat:
Maybe you’re hallucinating

Jim:
Might well be.

Recap

Here is a slide show of nearly everything I ate, in chronological order. Warning:
This is for die-hard chowhounds only! It goes on … and on … and on …

Acknowledgments

Muito obrigado: Jan Albert, Stella Amar, Jennifer and Lucy Bain, Officer Bill Barrett (of the Mount Vernon, Kentucky, Police Department), Les Blank, Elizabeth Bougerol, Jim Cianiolo, Dick Demenus, Eartha, Bob Feinn, April Furey, Leo Gaev, Bob Garner, Peter Genovese, Costas Halavrezos (and the gang at CBC Halifax), Bob and Cindy Hamburger, Pat Hammond, Jack and Thelma Hewitt, Joel Hirsch, David Hoffman and Bea, David Kahn, Jon and Pam Kalish, Michael Krall, Renee Krimsier, JB Leibovitch, Limster, Fred Manny (and Fred’s dentist), Yuri Meyrowitz, Robert Mitchell (and Natasha), Thi Nguyen, David Normann, Kristie Perry, Jacques Poitras, Tom Philpott, Jeff Pinney, Wesley Reid, Shuji Sakai, Jacquilynne Schlesier, Dave Sit, Barry Strugatz, Elisa Sunshine (who sings the Chowhound jingle in the podcasts), Steve Sutherland, Keith Underwood, Chris Vander Rhodes, Claire Yannacone, Robert and Minnie (of Minnie’s Restaurant in Bardstown, Kentucky), Daniel and Jonathan (the parking guys), the staff of Davies CPM emergency room, and the girl in the Methodist pancake tent who taught me how to use my camera.

And at CNET/CHOW: Emily Hobson, Elissa Rabellino, Davina Baum, Eric Slatkin, Douglas H. Crawford, and, of course, Jane Goldman and Mike Tatum.

Thanks, most of all, to everyone who cooks with heart and soul and aims for more than maximal profit from minimal effort. And to all my fellow chowhounds who, in refusing to settle, help keep those holdouts, geniuses, and kooks going.