General Discussion

The "Work" of Chowhounding


General Discussion 24

The "Work" of Chowhounding

Jim Leff | Aug 2, 2003 05:07 PM

The following stems from discussion on another board about chow in Western CT. I'm responding here, because it's about a larger topic and we try to keep the regional forums locally chowcentric. : )

"However, i would broaden this discussion to ask in what part of the country the food is NOT disappointing? even where there is great food, it's work to find it. No?"
Sure, but that's the whole point! And it bears restating once in a while, so here goes...pardon my length....
Like most of us here, I ignore a slew of mediocre movies, books, songs, cars, bars, clothes, politicians, stores, haircuts, jazz gigs, etc etc.. all run by folks just grinding it out with no relationship to quality, honesty, passion, or creativity. I've trained myself not to even notice them.
I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that 99% of everything is shit. And it's very true. So you can turn into a curmudgeon, or you can, as you say, "work to find it"....the good stuff. The treasure. That's what chowhounding is all about.
But the "work" of finding glorious exceptions isn't a's life. Life is about finding the good stuff, seeking out exceptions, be it in food, love, ideas, career, or anything else important. If we passively sit back and expect The Marketers That Be to steer us to Quality, that's not life, it's a hypnotic blur of unending compromise and a resignation to drearily follow the flock and walk well-trodden paths.
Chowhounds (I refer to a general type of person, rather than the denizens of this site) hack that set-up. Show us 95 lousy eateries and we'll use the information to strategize uncovering the 5 glorious exceptions. That's what chowhounding is...transcending the preponderance of crap and gleefully seeking hidden treasure.
In food, the 99% crap rule also applies. But I strongly disagree with your assertion that food's disappointing in most place. In EVERY place, at EVERY price range, and every niche of the food world there are magicians at work, and they're seldom widely-known. The 1% exceptions in the food world are supernal.
The reason is zeitgeist. In our present age, restaurants are where a lot of the action is. A hundred years ago, the creative zeitgeist was among artists and philosophers in smokey French cafes. Fifty years ago, jazz clubs flowered with human creative spirit. Thirty years ago, film was a nexus. Now it's arepas and sushi - and any other comestible you could imagine. That's where it's exciting right now, with myriad geniuses working in unheralded obscurity (most you've never ever heard of), all out there for us to discover and enjoy.
I love films as much as I love food, but these days there are usually no more than two great films in current release, and you can search like crazy but find few dark horses, because the system's been locked up. Restaurants still aren't locked up, and that's why there's excitement and genius there and that's why I focus on the topic.
But the chowhound focus is antithetical to the norm. While foodies ignore the 75 Colombian empanada places while driving down Northern Boulevard as they watch for the Zagat-endorsed picks (and non-foodies watch for the Golden Arches), chowhounds see the 75 empanada places and know one likely contains a magician. Finding him/her isn't a burden; it's a giddy adventure, which brings far more joy than passive consumers could ever imagine. After years of chowhounding, I know magicians all over. For anything I crave, there's a magician to prepare it - if I'm willing to go far enough (and I am!).
Western CT is so full of terrific food that I have long considered moving there. It's a chow wonderland, with fruit ripe and low on the trees. I refer mainly not to the usual suspects (some of which are good), but to the many talented, prideful people doing great work in obscurity. To say Western CT has limited deliciousness is to settle into conventional wisdom and miss grandeur. Conventional wisdom is the enemy. It's usually wrong. For example, it says NY Tristate area has no good Mexican. I don't know who generates these ignorant notions, but they're not out there eating. I can only sadly wag my head as I zoom around in my chowmobile enjoying Mexican mecca after mecca.
You can get "front line" tips by subscribing to Chow Alert, which contains my finds, or surfing our message boards (and/or subscribing to ChowNews, which summarizes the discussion via a weekly email). But best is to go out and explore for yourself. Go eat, and find, enjoy and support the good guys! There is no better feeling in the world than to walk into a new place with trepidation and to leave sated and glad to be alive, with the feeling of having traveled, befriended, and been loved. Chowhounds meet remarkable people, internalize their artwork, and are changed by it. It's not just about food. And in 2003 America, I'm convinced that this is as deep as it gets.

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