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Fifth Street

June 17, 2021

In this issue: What Makes American Food American? | I Did Nothing Remotely Productive During the Pandemic and I’m Fine With It | Media Sommelier

WHAT MAKES American food American food? This is the question David Page sets out to answer in his recent book, Food Americana: The Remarkable People and Incredible Stories behind America’s Favorite Dishes, a dazzling blend of anecdotes, interviews, and recipes. With decades of food journalism under his belt, Page is particularly well-suited to explore this question — one with particular relevance to Las Vegas, where the food scene both on and off the Strip is a key piece of our civic identity. Even if you don’t know him by name, you’re likely familiar with Page’s work. Page is the creator of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, the hit show that helped launch Las Vegas’s favorite son, Guy Fieri, into television superstardom.

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A man you’re just as likely to see at a South Philly taco truck or a Michelin-star restaurant, Page sat down with Fifth Street to talk his favorite Vegas restaurants, culinary cultural appropriation, and the mysterious origins of fried chicken.    

Was there anything in your research for Food Americana that surprised you?
It’s bits and pieces. It's the fact that my people back in Europe, before my ancestors got smart enough to escape before Hitler, did not eat bagels and lox. Bagels and lox did not exist in Europe.

Or fried chicken, for example. While there is a strong case to be made that the initial influences on fried chicken were West African, there's also a compelling case to be made that they had fried chicken back in Scotland that played a part in the institution of American fried chicken. I have come to believe it's probably both and probably, in terms of taste, more African American than Scottish. But the fact is, it’s clear there was a Scottish influence on American fried chicken.

I also find the whole barbecue story to be fascinating — and frankly, to get political for a moment, these days, kind of depressing racially, because here’s an art form that was, for the most part, shaped by enslaved Africans at the time, that is now enjoying a renaissance, but publicly it’s almost entirely presented as white. It's very hard for Black pitmasters to get the kind of celebrity coverage that white guys get.

Is there a line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation when it comes to America's food scene and restaurant scene?
Theoretically, yes, there comes a point where you can't just take someone else’s food and claim you invented it. But I don't have a problem with an Anglo appreciating Mexican food and interpreting it his or her own way with due respect to its source. I'm a First Amendment purist. Either you have it or you don't. I'm real concerned about telling the food story in absolutes that say, “You can't have anything to do with this.” I just think you have to be respectful, knowledgeable, and understanding, and generous with credit.

What’s your relationship to Las Vegas’s food and restaurant scene?
Two of the best restaurants I've ever gotten to in my life happened to be in Vegas. We were out there, pitching kind of a food fair on steroids to one of the hotels, and we were there with our agent, and this agent in particular was very free with his agency's money. So after what seemed like a good pitch, we didn't get the gig but it seemed like we'd had a good day, we said, “Let's go to dinner.” We went to Guy Savoy.

Guy Savoy in my mind is one of the finest restaurants in the world. I mean, obviously Michelin thinks so. They gave the Vegas one two stars. They gave his restaurant in Paris three stars. Boy, it was astonishing in that, A. I'm not a big fan of tasting menus because you don't get to eat anything. Here you did. B. Each of the dishes was remarkable. Usually at a tasting menu, you’ve got your ups and downs. C. They somehow managed to create a non-stuffy atmosphere, which is hard to do when you’re spending two thousand bucks on this meal. You know, so many restaurants’ approach is for the waiter to have his nose in the air. Now the waiter didn't say, “Hi, my name is Todd, and I'll be serving you today.” But it was a very comfortable experience.

Additionally, their cheese cart is something amazing. I happen to like cheese, but this was just astonishing. I don't know the term for that is — it's not cheesemonger — but there must be a name similar to sommelier for the cheese guy other than Green Bay Packers fan. But he knows stuff. He just knew what he was talking about. One of the things I really advocate is don't pretend you know more than you do when you go to a restaurant. I often say, “I've never had this. I know nothing about it. Explain it to me, what does it go with?”

That meal was worth $2,000. Now that sounds insane because that's an insane amount of money. I do believe if you can afford it, there is a place in your life for that kind of a meal once every four or five years.

The other place that was extraordinary is Lotus of Siam. I went there years ago after either Gourmet or Bon Appétit named it the finest Thai restaurant in North America. It was unbelievable. Years later, my wife and I were in Las Vegas and we went back. It was extraordinary. It's Northern Thai, which most people are unfamiliar with, but they certainly turned me on to just the taste of the food. The quality of it was unbelievable. Those wings that they do, that’s a death row meal, that’s, “Kill me tomorrow.”

I will tell you, prior to talking with you, I did a little reading about what’s in Vegas now. It seems to me that beyond the celebrity chefs of the Strip, a pretty exciting food scene has grown up in restaurants from like 35 to 100 seats, and I was comparing availability to the items I covered in the book, and you've got everything. It's funny. When I looked at bagels and lox, I was instantly disappointed to see that public reaction had put Einstein Bagels at the top of the list. But when I went down the list, I found Sadelle’s, that avant-garde Jewish deli restaurant in New York, which is really doing, I would say, upscaled because it's expensive, but more creative takes on traditional Jewish food. And you've got a Sadelle’s in Vegas now, so you're certainly covered in that respect. You got 800 kinds of hamburgers. You're big on sushi. I think the one thing I would say without necessarily knowing what I'm talking about is that you tend to take things and then put them on steroids.

Exactly. When people think food and Vegas, you think buffet, which is such a Vegas thing to do, taking something to the nth degree.
Look, I'm 66 years old and I remember the buffet before it was taken to the nth degree. When I was out there with my parents as a child, the buffet cost a buck three eighty because food in Vegas at that time was simply intended to attract gamblers. It wasn't towers of shrimp; it was just buffet food. It was like a Golden Corral.

Of course, COVID has affected the food and restaurant industry in so many ways, but especially buffets. Have your own eating habits changed during the pandemic?
My shopping habits changed because I started paying more to have someone deliver my groceries, and I stopped going to my butcher and specialty store for a while. So my own food habits, I don't think they’ve changed. In fact, the country’s, I don't think, changed that much because the foods we like the most are in essence comfort foods, and when it hits the fan, that's what you fall back on.

Now, the restaurant experience has changed forever. Restaurants that would never consider takeout or delivery had to do that to survive. I spoke with Daniel Boulud for the book about hamburgers because he pretty much invented the gourmet hamburger quote unquote, and his restaurants were closed and he was doing outside dining at one of them and I guess takeout.

The experts I speak with — David Portalatin primarily, who is probably the leading food analyst in America — tell me that there were some things that the pandemic has brought forward that will not fall back to their pre-pandemic levels, though they will fall back. That’s any kind of getting restaurant food without going into the restaurant, that drive-throughs will continue to expand, delivery and takeout will remain at elevated levels compared to pre-pandemic, because we found it convenient and because I think, subconsciously, among some people, there remains a fear of eating in the dining room now.

It's interesting to think of comfort food as a trend of the past year. What do you see as a current trend in American cuisine that’s just a trend, and not here to stay?
I don't know that I have the guts to predict that. I will tell you what I think is trending and may or may not stay, which is regional Mexican, food of the sort that is not the food of the Norteños, the part of Mexico that we, I guess I'll politely say, annexed. The trend is food from other regions of Mexico. There’s one particular dish, birria de res, which is a spicy beef stew. Birria originally was made in central Mexico out of goat, then the beef variety came along. Somehow in recent years, birria de res, the beef version, migrated to Tijuana, where it became a hip thing to make birria tacos, where you put a taco on the grill and you pour some of the cooking liquid on it. When you serve it ,you serve it with a cup of the cooking liquid, which in this phase of its life is called consomé. And then like a French dip sandwich, you dip the taco in the consomé. I gotta tell you, I drive 90 miles to South Philly for a particular truck that does birria. Will it live past the moment and become part of the routine menu of Mexican American food? I don't know.

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THE GREAT WAR, your 8th grade social studies teacher would like to remind you, ended at 11 a.m., Nov. 11, 1918 — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. What old Mr. Malatesta failed to mention, though, was that the actual armistice was signed five hours earlier and a bunch of guys kept getting killed right up until the end of the show for reasons that ranged from merely dumb to impossibly suicidal. 

With vaccines on the uptake; new cases, hospitalizations and deaths down; and the CDC ruling that whoever so much as claims vaxxed status can traipse around with their filthy mouths and noses hanging out in public exhaling wherever they please, it feels like we’re at about 10 a.m. on the 11th. Not quite done yet, and some of us aren’t going to make it to the finish line from either self-inflicted stupidity or the blundering, gleeful incompetence of others — but hey, we’re closing in fast.

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Which explains why you’ve been bombarded by a spate of “What we learned over the course of the pandemic” stories. Here’s mine. What did I learn?

Nothing. 

Not a damn thing. 

Like a teenage drunk driver with a rich daddy, there were no lessons learned. There were no lessons even attempted. There was no breadmaking. There was no meditating. No yoga classes, no mindfulness, no soul-searching. 

No language learning, no musical instrument uptake, no journaling, no reaching out to old friends, no sad attempts to wear real clothes in a pathetic attempt to feel “normal,” no catching up on the mountain of unread books threatening to envelop my bedroom, no fitness regimen beyond the occasional walk when it wasn’t boiling out. Thankfully, only one sadsack Zoom party, locked in rictus horror for the duration of the call while everyone played social chicken at being the first to quit the thing.

And there was also no giving myself a pass that this was all OK. No excuse that we were all doing our best just to cope with an unprecedented situation. None of this was fine or good or self-care or whatever other therapy culture lies you tell yourself. This was a once-in-three-lifetimes gift of time, squandered completely.

What there was, was more pizza. More booze. Oh lord how there was more booze. More video games. More movies. More beautiful isolation. More unadulterated id-wallowing laziness, baby. And more misanthropy. Just misanthropy oozing from every orifice, none more so than now that things are hanging on the precipice of normal. 

A year as a climate-controlled castaway has made the idea of reinhabiting society sound like a gulag bid coming down from an apparatchik judge. Just look at what you’re doing out there now. No one has any idea anymore how to act. Everyone forgot how to drive. Travelers are beating up stewardesses. Lyft surge pricing is hijacking riders for 90 bucks on an McCarran run. Fantastic. The normalcy we’ve been promised lo these 14 months.

Not that you weren’t all insufferable enough in the middle of the thing. Absolutely exhausting dealing on one hand with the dudes who spent the entire pandemic toddler-raging about strapping on a mask to go get groceries, and on the other, the lot who flag-waved their social distancing, hand-washing, mask-wearing, vax status in their Twitter handles as their entire new identity now that “chick who’s always furious at Trump” was passé. 

I’m dumb, but I’m not so dumb as to elide the legit physical, financial and mental toll this whole ordeal took on some. Anyone who wasn’t LARPing real distress deserves genuine sympathy. Worldwide plague outbreaks are bad, and we should consider maybe, possibly if it’s not too much trouble, having fewer of them. 

But the livewire world-ending vibe of March 2020 was a jolt of high-functioning weirdness that was somehow enervating — and a license to wallow. A trove of newfound time and a mandate to waste it all. If you’re anything like me (and my deepest condolences if you are), you can look back at 2020 as the year you fell to the occasion.

Oh well. There’s always next pandemic.

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1. “You can either be human or a resource,” author Stephen Marche once wrote. “You can’t be both.” Capitalism begs to differ, of course, and as the American workforce begins seeping back into its post(ish)-COVID cube farms, it’s worth wondering about the corner-office’s takeaway from a year or more of remote operation. While WFH has utterly revised many workers’ relationship to the old nine-to-five, will it also prompt companies to rethink the way they treat their newly flexible workers? Or, as journalist Anne Helen Petersen wonders in her newsletter Culture Study, will it be business as usual again? For example, as some employees opt to keep working at home part-time, are they ceding career advancement to those gaudy strivers — usually young white dudes who, unencumbered by domestic responsibilities, will be in the office every day, Very Obviously Working? One hopes Petersen is right in predicting that businesses will lose quality workers if they don’t accommodating flex schedules: “A shitty back-to-the-office plan belies a shitty office culture, full stop.”

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2. The Vegas Golden Knights weren’t the only sports team to uplift a community in the wake of the October 1 massacre: From Literary Hub, a brief story of death, public grief, and girls’ soccer in a small California town.

3. The more Trumpworld hotboxes the skunky fumes of its Big Lie, the harder it becomes to tell the difference between the right’s tragedy and farce. That there’s plenty of the latter is clear from this entertaining dispatch by Rolling Stone writer Stephen Roderick, who attended a rally in Wisconsin thrown by MyPillow founder Mike Lindell. Gamely predicting that Trump will be restored to his rightful place in the White House TV room, Lindell works hard to be the loudest blowhard in 45’s oompah band, but his event turns out to be a poorly attended logistical train wreck. Roderick: “The rally is one part far-right cosplay party featuring a series of wacky and deluded characters who hold no elective office. The other part is f*cking scary ...” This scariness is Mark Danner’s topic in an urgent The New York Review of Books essay about the right’s tragic estrangement from reality following January 6 — and what it means for the rest of us and for democracy, none of it funny. Or even obvious: “The coup was a crime against the state,” Danner writes, “and because it unfolded live on television as a grand public spectacle, Americans believe they know the truth about it. But we do not.”

4. If you’re unsure how a story in, of all places, Runner’s World magazine could win a National Magazine Award and a Pulitzer, it’s because you still haven’t read Mitchell S. Jackson’s “Twelve Minutes and a Life,” about the racist murder of jogger Ahmaud Arbery. Please rectify that now.

5. A friend of his once said that Dave Hickey’s true specialty would be the annotated cocktail party, a swinging mix of sociability and brainy rigor that approximates the best effects of his writing, particularly his takes on Las Vegas. Long-timers might remember his years here as a cantankerous cultural critic, ever-ready quote machine (“The whole business of being around art has been good for me; it’s taught me to be tolerant of the rich”), and genius with the papers to prove it. A new book, Far From Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art (reviewed here if you’re interested) deftly waltzes readers into Hickey’s life, work, and fluctuating relevance. Get a smart preview in this video interview with author Daniel Oppenheimer. (Tip: Start watching at about the eight-minute mark.) And, for Hickey completists, here’s his short, strange, punchy “Vegas Manifesto,” which appeared in a Houston art zine some 27 years ago. Finally, a little more art: Three Las Vegas artists talk about how a year-plus of quarantine, shutdown, protest, and change remade their work and lives.

6. Finally, let’s lurch toward the weekend in a state of carbonated whimsy with “Anti-Ha,” a piece of short fiction concocted by author Shalom Auslander for Index on Censorship. It’s a funny-cautionary tale about a society that has outlawed humor for the good of humanity. This is timely, too, following a week that saw Virtue Twitter swarm over a couple of novelists who dared to create fictional characters with unpleasant views. As he titled his memoir Foreskin’s Lament, three guesses as to Auslander’s position on laughter and offense. And, yes, his story includes a nun with a parrot on her shoulder. Scott Dickensheets

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Photos and art: Food photo by Shutterstock/CirclePs; David Page courtesy David Page; pandemic essay illustration by Kristina Collantes

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