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[whitespace] Plate, fork and knife Food of Place

Blurring the borders of regional food. Or just what the heck is wine country cuisine?

By Marina Wolf


CERTAIN regional-based food fads have come and gone--from blackened Cajun everything to red-hot Southwest machismo--yet the hyper-awareness of American regional food is reaching an all-time high. Regional showcases, symposiums, and culinary tours--including the Fine Cooking tour hosted recently in Sonoma County--are sprouting up around the country. Saveur magazine ("A World of Authentic Cuisine") is running stories about Baltimore crab soup, East Hampton fish bakes, and St. Louis's Little Italy. Upscale restaurants in Nashville serve pork marinated in balsamic vinegar with bourbon gravy, and chefs in New England are talking seriously about "New Maine Cooking." Meanwhile, the old-but-new California cuisine is queen of kitchens up and down the Gold Coast, and a strange newcomer called "wine-country cuisine" is creeping into the parlance.

Forget melting pot. The metaphor for our contemporary culinary culture is a varied buffet with several hundred little platters.

Observers ascribe the increased interest in regional-based fare to an overall heightened interest in foods.

"People aren't just interested in recipes anymore," says food historian Sandra Oliver. "They want the story behind the story. Once you start looking at the history of your food, you're bound to run into regionalism."

Louis Osteen, chef-owner of Louis's in Charleston and a leading proponent of deep-South cooking, agrees. "People are catching up to European interest in good food," he says. "And when you talk about really good food, you have to talk about regional food."

The question is, how much of the talk about regionalism is an authentic interest in the expression of place and how much is restaurant hype?

And how much further can it go?

Hype or Help?

IN GENERAL, chefs and restaurateurs have been fairly upfront about the value they place on regional cuisine as a marketing hook in an ever-competitive and sophisticated business.

In the February 1993 issue of Nation's Restaurant News, Osteen says of his cooking, "Low-Country cooking [of the coastal Deep South] is geographical, traditional, cultural . . . and it's a real good marketing aid, too."

John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the Center for Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, is another proponent of Southern food traditions, combining an academic point of view with the enthusiast's appetite. He has little patience with the faux Southern specialties that have ended up on the menus of national restaurant chains.

Yet even he is able to look upon the p.r. buzz about regional cuisine in a fairly calm manner. "I think right now there's a good mixture of both [marketing and authentic cuisine]," he says. "The thing is, if you can sell people Low Country or Mississippi Delta or some subregional variant, then they're going to feel like they're having a special dining experience.

"I think it's very smart marketing."

The South, of course, is struggling with particular culinary stereotypes--"grits, greens, and grease," as Edge so eloquently puts it. But other regions have found equally compelling reasons to establish their own regional style. In Hawaii, for example, local chefs and promoters began organizing such chef events as "The Great Hawaiian Cook-Off" and "A Taste of Paradise: Dining with the Great Chefs of Hawaii" to spiff up resort-town offerings for a new wave of food-savvy tourists.

"Now we're more concerned with not hiding the flavors of the natural ingredients, whether it's the fish or the produce. That notion comes from mainlanders. The locals, they don't really care," says Keith Cevoli, executive chef with Celebrations Catering and creative partner with Beverly Gannon, one of the leading promoters of what is now called "Hawaiian regional cuisine."

Even "California cuisine" has emerged as an eminently marketable catch phrase, used both inside and outside of California's geopolitical boundaries to sell a certain concept. Its use has become an issue for even the most seriously committed California-style chefs, some of whom are beginning to be a little leery of the phrase's overuse. "It doesn't mean that much anymore," says John Ash, culinary director at Fetzer Vineyards in Hopland, whose John Ash & Co. restaurant helped define the term.

"It's just a phrase. The term California, anything California, has this special cachet to it. It's the golden land, the beautiful people. Its value for a lot of people, as much as anything, is its marketing cachet."

Indeed, for every region whose gastronomic identity has recently emerged to public recognition, you can find a chef from that region who refuses to be pigeonholed. Caprial Pence, for example, is an acknowledged pioneer in what is called "Pacific Northwest cuisine," which generally means an elegant and satisfying blend of local products with an Asiatic flair on the plate and/or palate. But Pence is quick to dismiss the very field that she leads. "I think it's just somebody wanting to put a name on it, I really do," she says. "I did some work with a woman who's doing her thesis on Northwest food, and she kept asking me if there was a Northwest cuisine. I said no. I think a cuisine is dictated by specific dishes that have been made for years and years, and there just aren't dishes like that here."

California Dreaming

BY PENCE'S strict definition of cuisine, few regions in the United States would have their own cuisine. Certainly not California, a state that has existed for just 151 years. There are vinegars in Italian attics that are twice as old. But many chefs will testify that California cuisine is an established tradition. "To me, California cuisine describes something very specific," says Mary Evely, executive chef at Simi Winery in Healdsburg.

"It means fresh, seasonal foodstuffs, quick cooking, and bright, fresh sauces and seasonings."

California cuisine is widely considered to be the child of chef Alice Waters and her groundbreaking food at Chez Panisse in Berkeley in the early '70s. Her showcasing of absolutely fresh seasonal foods in simple preparations was a masterful amalgamation of then current trends such as vegetarianism and nouvelle cuisine.

But in some ways, she was simply continuing and magnifying an already existing style of California cooking, says Janet Fletcher, a Napa-based food writer and author of a book on California cuisine forthcoming from the Williams-Sonoma publishing company. "They didn't call it California cuisine, but there was already an identifiable Cal way of entertaining [in the '40s and '50s]," says Fletcher.

"A lot of it was outdoors. There was grilling even then. There were Asian influences on the food, and there was much greater use of fresh vegetables than in other parts of the country."

What about the new phrase "wine-country cuisine"? That's a little too new, even for these winery chefs. It's true that in most wine-growing regions of the world, the food has developed alongside the wine. But American wine country is still too new for it to be a useful descriptor, says John Ash. "In California we're still very much in the adolescent stage, where we're finding out what works with what wine," he says. "It's complicated by the fact that food styles and wine styles are changing so quickly that there's never been a gestation period for them to kind of perk along together."

But lack of a distinct, dish-based orientation hasn't stopped California cuisine from spreading as an attitude or strategy, asserts Daphne Derven, curator of the American Center for Wine, Food, & the Arts in Napa. "One of the hallmarks of what we call California cuisine is taking a tradition and exploring it," says Derven. "You could almost say it's a metaphor for American cuisines. We take a traditional ingredient or technique or preparation, and modify it to fit the current circumstances."

Other parts of America, though, have had the relative isolation and specific ingredients necessary to establish a cuisine in the traditional sense. In the South, for example, barbecue is a close contender. "Someone observed once that barbecue in the South is the closest America has to the regional cheeses and wines of Europe," says John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance.

"You drive 50 miles and it changes."

In the Northeast, island communities such as East Hampton, the region covered in the September/October 1998 issue of Saveur, have been farmed and fished for nine or 10 generations, with a simple style of cooking that has seen little change over the past 300 years.

Food in the Future

WHERE DOES that leave us? Even when we stipulate that regional cuisines do exist, at least in the homes of the people of the region, and that even though California cuisine isn't 400 years old, it does have some meaning in the collective mind of the food world, we are still left with sorting out the complicated nomenclature and indistinct future of American regional cooking.

The first problem stems primarily from media and restaurant abuse of phraseology, which, it would seem, is a necessary hazard of the business. Mary Evely of Simi Winery recalls visiting a Southwestern restaurant where the food was described as "elemental American cuisine."

She and her dining companion spent a good hour before dinner trying to guess what such a cuisine might entail, and arrived to find it merely the California cuisine concept--fresh, local, seasonal--prepared with Southwestern ingredients.

"The chefs are just trying to define their cooking to the prospective customers," says Evely. "It's hard to intellectualize what is essentially a sensory experience."

And however difficult or pervasive the use of regional cuisine as a hook, it'll never catch up with reality.

California cuisine has spread over the land, even changing itself as its practitioners begin integrating Asian influences more fully into their techniques. Southern food, which many people think of as static since before the Civil War, is evolving as new influences have come in with recent groups of immigrants; some neighborhoods on the Mississippi Delta now boast as many pho noodle shops as fried-chicken shacks, says John T. Edge.

It's the story of food. "Blurring boundaries is inevitable. It's the story of cuisine over millennia," says Janet Fletcher. "People move and ingredients move, and therefore ideas [about food] move, too.

"It would be impossible to stop."

Paradoxically, even while American regional cuisines are shifting in fusion, they are being split into ever smaller and more place-specific parts. Call it the opposite of fusion cuisine: fission cuisine. Chefs, ever on the lookout to spiff up the menu with esoteric ingredients, do the next best thing and elevate simple ingredients--duck, lettuce, peaches--by slapping a geographic label on them, the more specific the better.

Increasingly the word terroir is being used to describe produce and food products. In winemaking, terroir refers to the different climatological, hydrological, and geological influences on a particular patch of land, and the differences those influences make in aroma and flavor of different bottlings of the same varietal of wine. It stands to reason that grapes aren't the only fruit that would vary with changes in the environment.

For other chefs, micro-regional eating is as much a matter of gastrology as it is of gastronomy. Take Ralph Higgins of the award-winning Higgins Restaurant in Portland, Ore., whose devotion to eating locally takes on an almost macrobiotic air. Higgins believes that there are actual physical benefits to be had from eating from the place you're in. "If you eat faithfully what's available in that region at any given time of the year, you'll automatically be getting more nutrition," says Higgins.

"Your body goes through cycles where it adapts to climactic changes, and the plants and animals [in that same area] are following those same cycles."

Home Cooking

NUTRITIONAL analysis aside, it's entirely possible that Higgins' brand of micro-regional cuisine will indeed be the wave of the future in regional cookery in American restaurants. Restaurants have good reasons to foster this attention to detail. It creates a strong unified statement to customers. It supports local producers.

Regional cooking may even be the catalyst of a return to a region's roots. In the south, chefs have dressed up many down-home classics of the Southern kitchen, which has in turn increased appreciation of the food in the general population.

"Rediscovery of Southern food by restaurants has changed Southern culture and Southern cooking more than anything," says Edge. It's turned the Southern-food stereotypes on their ear, and what's more, it's changed the way Southerners see themselves. "In some ways it's emboldened Southerners who may have had a chip on their shoulders about their own food," Edge says. "They've figured out that if cornbread is worthy of a mahogany inlay table, it's worthy of their tables at home."

Clearly, then, the reinterpretation of regional food by restaurants is a powerful act. If we have scorned our food roots, the respect that food gets by being on a white tablecloth bridges the alienation. Scattered by time, tide, and interstate transportation, we can return to our homelands, at least in our minds and in our stomachs, with a single bite.

That is an elemental magic, and essential to feeling at home in the world, according to Daphne Derven.

"In the world today, we have become so global," she says. "To feel like we're really here, we need to celebrate the spot we're in . . . and regional cuisine helps us do that."

But when chefs--and mea culpa, writers--take poetic liberties with the naming of cuisines, we may be stirring up the already murky waters, clouding the regional heritage that is already hard enough to find.

"It seems like such small stuff, but little by little it's being picked away," says Sandra Oliver with a sigh. "If you're not aware what your regional foods are, it's hard to defend them."

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From the November 11-17, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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