Note: this essay originally appeared in the DINFONTAY e-newsletter. Sign up here.
The thing about working really hard on something is that time passes. I remember the minor-league ballgame in Rochester as though it was played last night; it was played in August. It feels like yesterday I was on the rice lakes of upper Minnesota, but that was September. The lakes are frozen now, their muddy bottoms rock-solid under the ice. When I visited Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide looked unstoppable. But that was in October, and if you follow college football at all… well, you know how the Iron Bowl shook out.
Now it’s December, and Season 2 of Food/Groups (the show I host, produce, and co-created for Thrillist) is over. Over the course of Fall 2017, my team and I traveled the country to film with (and share meals with) distinctive local communities, from teriyaki loyalists in Seattle, to independent crab fishermen on the upper Chesapeake Bay, to African-Americans in Chicago who go all-in for the “mild sauce” served in chicken shacks on the south & west sides of town. No matter where we went, the food was always superb, but we were usually working so hard on-location that we rarely had time to savor it. All the better, then, that Food/Groups is only partly about how the food tastes.
The thesis of the show is, and has been since the beginning, that communities define themselves by their cuisines. Food is culture, politics, protest, fashion, and everything in between. Food is a building block of identity, and given the national moment, it seems imperative to explore the relationship between the two. To find, like, “common ground”, and “shared values”, and so forth. You know: the Good Shit™.
“But Dave,” you mutter vexedly at your computer screen, “food is just food. People need food to live. I think you’re wrong, and furthermore, the idea that these food-identity semantics are going to extinguish the raging dumpster fire that has consumed this country is mawkish and reductive.”
Harsh, but fair! Still, I really think there’s something to this. Yes, people have to eat to live, but the choices people make about how and what they eat are contours in their identities. What people eat, in other words, is part of how to understand them.
Consider Tampa. Most Tampans will insist that a proper cubano is made with Genoa salami, but without mayonnaise. Why? There are three main reasons.
First, Tampa has a robust immigration history thanks to its one-time status as a cigar manufacturing hub. Amongst the influx from western European were Italian-Americans who settled in the Ybor City neighborhood. Their salami habit caught on. Second, the Cuban sandwich was invented before refrigerators, as a hand food for cigar rollers on the factory lines. Mayonnaise would have gone very bad, very quickly. Those stogie-makers never would’ve had a chance.
Most telling is the third reason. I suspect that Tampans say cubanos are made with salami, but without mayonnaise, at least partly because Miami’s version of the sandwich is usually made without salami, and sometimes even — gasp — with mayonnaise. See, Tampa has always resented the national assumption that Miami, with its iconic Little Havana neighborhood and hop-skip-and-a-boat proximity to Cuba itself, invented the Cuban sandwich. It did not; Tampa predates Miami both as a city, and as a sandwich inventor. (Technically, the Taíno in pre-colonial Cuba did a sort of proto-cubano with fish and fowl, but the modern sandwich you know and love was engineered in Tampa.)
And so, a century of stolen sandwich valor has made a simple Gulf Coast lunch order into a complex cultural expression of interstate competition, civic frustration, and a shared value of what it means to be a Tampan.
That’s just one story, in one city, about one sandwich. Like our Tampa video (“keep it cubano”), each of the other eight episodes from this season of Food/Groups explores a different corner of American culinary existentialism. I still genuinely feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface. So, sure: sometimes food is just food. But often, it’s much more than that.
I hope you’ll watch an episode — or all nine! — of our second season. It was a terrific challenge to report, produce, and film these pieces, and I’d be tickled to hear what you think of them. If you like a video, share it on your social media channels, or email it to your parents! Or hell, just watch and enjoy. (You can find all the episodes from Season 2 by clicking here, in case you didn’t want to deal with the in-line linking above.)
As for me: the work was fun, but exhausting, so I took some time off to finish out the year. After months of travel, it’s been nice to spend time in my own community. I’m trying to make the most of the vacation while it lasts. Time may pass when you’re working hard, but tragically, time spent not working passes a whole lot faster.