Bob Garner: A rose by any other name
Sunday, February 18, 2018
Heartland Americans embrace some “foreign” foods and remain suspicious of others. I think it’s more a matter of emotion than logic.
Take pierogies. They’re pronounced “pea-row-geese,” but it looks like “pie.” As in fried pies. We love fried pies, and pierogis look just like miniature fried pies.
One Christmas, my late mother, eastern North Carolina-raised, gave us a kitchen gadget she called a “PIE-rogie.” She thought it was a tool called a “rogie” used to make miniature fried fruit pies.
“What’ll they think of next?” she said, laughing.
Pierogies also look like dumplings, which is what they are. We automatically translate “dumplings” into “pastry,” as in “chicken and pastry.” Gotta be good.
Most are filled with nothing more exotic than mashed potatoes. No one cares that in Poland they’re eaten with sour cream and fried onions. Relatively few even know or care that they’re of Polish origin. But we have somehow discovered they taste great as a side dish, covered in either cream or red-eye gravy. To keep it simple, you buy them frozen at Publix for next to nothing, boil them for three minutes and hit ’em with the gravy. My grandkids love them plain.
Mashed potato dumplings. Mmmm.
Basic Mexican and Central American food is more complicated because of the unfamiliar language and food names. But it really boils down to beans and cornbread.
What do we think these people have been growing and eating for centuries? Tomatoes, that’s what. Corn. Beans. A few pepper plants at the edge of the garden. A pig in a pen and chickens in a coop or running around the yard.
Tortillas? Basically fried cornbread, made with fine-ground cornmeal, water and salt. OK, maybe a touch of lime. There are variations on whether the cornbread is thick or thin, whether it’s really hot water cornbread — creamy in the middle — or something else, depending on the country.
With tortillas, though, whatever the filling at the “plain folks” level, such as beans cooked in lard, is folded into the cornbread and eaten with the hands.
If you have a lot of beans, you get a bigger tortilla made out of flour. A “burrito” basically starts with big, flattened “light rolls,” you might say.
We have our signature pepper vinegar. They have hot sauce. Big deal.
Taco Bell made pseudo Mexican fare acceptable, but the authentic stuff still scares a lot of people off.
As for Chinese and other Asian food, we’re finally used to that, and we love the folded pasteboard take-out containers. We also love Chinese buffets.
Have you ever noticed how Mexicans and Central Americans love Chinese buffets too? Big cities, smaller towns … doesn’t matter.
As a rule, we like Korean barbecued ribs. But kimchi, the odorific fermented cabbage, not so much.
Some like one thing, some like another. But despite TV shows highlighting “disgusting” foreign food for laughs and profit here in America, most of the world’s food has survived the test of time because it just tastes good.
Bob Garner is a UNC-TV restaurant reviewer, freelance food writer, author of four cookbooks, barbecue pit master and public speaker. Contact him at email@example.com.