Thursday, March 19, 2009

What's Up With That? #73: Eating from the bottom

In the aftermath of my less-than-complimentary — yet entirely accurate — St. Patrick's Day comment regarding the quality (or lack thereof) of Irish cuisine, I got to thinking...

Why is it that the further north of the equator one travels, the lousier the food becomes?

In the so-called Old World, this principle is eminently obvious. The North Africans — the Moroccans, Ethiopians, Eritreans, et al. — have amazing food. (When they have food, which is a whole other issue.)

Their neighbors on the northern seaboard of the Mediterranean — the Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italians, and Greeks (having lived in Greece for two years, I can attest personally to the latter) — are legendary for their culinary prowess.

But then, as you continue up the continent, things start to get dicey. German and Polish food, outside of the occasional sausage? Not all that delectable. Russian cuisine? Unless you're a huge fan of beet soup, nothing to write home about.

English food? Notoriously awful. Dazzling language, superlative literature, a world-changing culture. But you wonder how they came up with those great traditions while stuffing their bellies with boiled beef and mashed peas. Irish cuisine? As previously noted, the less said about that, the better.

By the time you've traveled into Scandinavia, people are eating reindeer innards and fish soaked in lye, for pity's sake. That's not food — that's chemical warfare.

The same phenomenon occurs in the Western Hemisphere.

Anywhere you go in the Caribbean region and Central America, you're going to find spectacular dining — spicy, diverse, and flavorful. Mexico? Well, there's a reason for all those taquerias and faux-Mexican chain restaurants that proliferate north of the border. Our neighbors to the south know how to cook.

Here in the United States? Well, much like our language, our cuisine mostly cobbled together from stuff other people cooked before us. Still, we make do, especially across the nether region of this great country of ours — from the fiery specialties of the Southwest to the manly barbecue of Texas, from the Cajun and Creole delights of Louisiana to the deep-fried comfort food of the Deep South.

But here again, as you move north, the eating gets shaky. The Upper Midwest? They'll sneak some lutefisk on the steam-table smorgasbord as soon as look at you. And have you ever tried to get a decent meal in New England? I've been to Maine, and aside from the lobster, it wasn't pretty.

Canada? Does the phrase "back bacon" ring any bells? How about moose jerky? Yeah, that's what I thought.

Even the Far East — to use that dated and Caucasocentric term — suffers from the same pattern.

A quick whirl across southern Asia reveals one culinary wonderland after another: India, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines — all incredible places to grab a bite, as evidenced by the abundance of eateries featuring delicacies from these locales.

China? Hello? I'll bet you've got some of those little white paper cartons fermenting in your kitchen trash at this very moment.

Then you get up to Japan. Love that sushi, sashimi, and soba... but they're also eating some ghastly stuff. Have you ever smelled natto? Trust me, you don't want to, much less attempt to consume any. And in what other country is eating poisonous blowfish that could kill you with a single nibble someone's idea of a fun date?

You might as well stop at Japan, because progressing any further north into the Asiatic tundra will land you in the realm of yak loin and Lord only knows what else.

So, again, I'll pose the imponderable...

Why does food get so much better as you head south toward the equator, and so much more inedible as you leave it going north?

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7 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Anonymous Sank offered these pearls of wisdom...

Uncle Swan, are you suggesting that Lutefisk and lefsa over mashed potatos and gravy ungood?

Having beein exactly one lutefish dinner since moving here 15 years, and knowing that I will never go to another one, you have my word on that... my theory was, at least for the Scandahoovians which surrond me here, the food needed to match the landscape, which is white 90% of the year. That plate of food at the dinner, excpet for the three peas on the top of the potatos was the whitest food you'd ever seen. (in a couple ways)

Bland is legendary as we say here in Minnestoa, where salt is a spice, would you like that Mild, Extra-mild or Duluth style?

5:48 AM  
Blogger SwanShadow offered these pearls of wisdom...

Sank: I believe you may have hit on something with that "matching the landscape" idea.

Back in my corporate days, I frequently teamed on presentations with a woman from Minnesota who was of Scandinavian heritage. She could tell some lutefisk stories that would curdle your gastric acid.

12:01 PM  
Blogger MetropolisQuartet offered these pearls of wisdom...

Okay, so I can certainly agree with the basic premise - and I don't like Japanese food in general (only a few items from the menu and even those in "no thank you"-size helpings), but they're somewhat Northern, so the idea still stands.

There is an exception to the rule, however: Pizza.

You can't find a decent Pizza anywhere south of New Jersey and that includes where I live in Los Angeles (I don't care what anyone says, asparagus, chicken & avacado have no place on REAL Pizza).

You can find no finer Pizza than in Chicago (Giordano's is my favorite), Ann Arbor (Cottage Inn, now shipped all over the known universe) and Manhattan or Brooklyn (Ray's Pizza - I don't really care which one - 'nuff said, there). All decidedly Northern.

In my travel's I've had a couple of quite good (that's good, not great) Pizzas in the more southern regions. But I'll hold any ONE of the aforementioned Pizzas up to anything that's made South of , say, the 38th parallel!


9:46 AM  
Blogger MetropolisQuartet offered these pearls of wisdom...

Aw, geez - just read over my post and realized I had an apostrophe in "travels". How the heck did that get in there? I must really be getting old...

9:49 AM  
Anonymous FirstTimeLongTime offered these pearls of wisdom...

Canadians eat moose jerky? This is news to this Canadian. Sorry, SS, but this blog entry paints with too wide a brush.

10:38 AM  
Blogger SwanShadow offered these pearls of wisdom...

Metropolis: Pizza being a subject near and dear to my heart, Brian, I'll grant you that exception. :)

We have a local chain here, Mary's Pizza Shack, that makes a terrific (in my estimation, anyway) West Coast-style pizza. Mary's doesn't travel well, though. You're better off eating it at the restaurant than taking it home.

12:22 PM  
Blogger SwanShadow offered these pearls of wisdom...

FTLT: That's how satire paints, mi amigo. I intended no serious offense. You've been here often enough to know when I'm kidding.

Besides which, you know darn well that we Central Americans (from your geographic perspective) learned everything we know about Canada from Doug and Bob McKenzie. :)

Would it help if I said "Alaskans" instead?

12:27 PM  

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