With the opening of Empellón and Empellón Cocina in New York City by Alex Stupak, there has been a lot of chatter lately about Mexican cuisine’s “proper place” in the hierarchy of world cuisines.
Wait. What hierarchy?
There’s a rather myopic perception, at least in America, that ethnic cookery has a relatively low ceiling, limited to formica and fluorescence.* It’s what you take-out, or get delivered. It’s cheap, and it’s casual, a workaday filler not to be considered seriously.
Well, that’s just silly. Haven’t these cuisines fed the kings and emperors of great empires? Haven’t stacks of tablets and miles of scrolls been devoted to their study, millenia of research and development spent on their case, and refinement and perfection pursued in their every corner? Extravagance isn’t just found in unnecessary excess, it’s a way of thinking.
With incomparable history and tradition, three major cuisines have earned a place on UNESCO’s precious list of “intangible” world heritages: French, Mexican, and Chinese. Mediterranean and Turkish are also on the list. Japanese cuisine has been offered for consideration.
Where’s American cuisine on that list? Well, if chefs like Sean Brock, professors like John T. Edge, and farmers like Emile DeFelice and Glenn Roberts keep digging, preserving, and preaching, the UNESCO may soon be citing fried chicken, Carolina gold rice, bourbon, and barbecue as reasons why American cuisine is a world heritage.
But, until then, who are we, the country of Dorito taco shells (derived from Mexican cuisine, grossly bastardized) and crab rangoons (thanks, Trader Vic’s, for introducing cream cheese to the Chinese) to look down upon the cuisines of others, to consider them cheap?
I’m not thrilled about paying more for anything, ethnic food or otherwise. But I am thrilled for the imagination and ingenuity of modern cooks, who have access to more information and better ingredients than ever. And with those luxuries, they are restoring glory and bringing meaning beyond flavor to some of the oldest and wisest cuisines of the world. Good for them.
Why do only the French, Spanish, Scandinavian, British, and Italians get to revise their cuisines in hushed refinement?
If one of the greatest pastry chefs of our time wants to make excellent Mexican food, where is the loss in dignity? Wherefore the criticism? Wherefore the questioning?
It’s 2012, folks. It’s time to look beyond.
* Just in case you need me to clarify, by “ethnic” I refer, generally, to cuisines of countries not located in Western Europe. The United States and Canada are excepted as well.