Fussy Daniel over at The Fussy Little Blog has started a discussion about the supposed lack of "Culinary Sophistication" in the fair City of Albany (click here to read). He and other readers have a couple theories and I don't necessarily agree with them on some of their points. The whole discussion did get me thinking about why things are how they are in the culinary realm of the Capital Region. I will paste my response containing a couple of my own theories below, I am very interested in the opinion of others in regards to this issue. Tell me what you think here or go over to the Fussy Blog and get in on the discussion there.
Oh yeah, kudos to Daniel for beginning to read William Kennedy. I have read pretty much everything the man has ever written, and he truly is a local treasure. He captures the pathos of life in Albany like no other. I still plan to recreate the route that Francis Phelan took in the "sharp cheese sandwich" passage from Ironweed (while eating a sharp cheese sandwich, of course).
When I think about things like this, I don’t really consider Albany as separate from the greater Capital Region. I kind of feel like we are a super region consisting of Albany/Troy/Schenectady/Rensselaer and all of the suburbs/exurbs therein. Therefore I think that analogies between the City of Albany and other cities of similar size in different states to be not that helpful in understanding issues such as this.
To me, the plight of our home region is similar to the issues of a city like Detroit, or even our very own Buffalo. If you want to understand the relative lack of “culinary sophistication (a subjective and dubious term)” you need look no further than the wholesale “flying of the coop” of heavy industry in the years following WWII. The entire area became unable to support the kind of urban upper and middle class households that would tend to support food philosophies that included more then filling bellies. There were immigrant/ethnic groups that supported their own cuisines locally, but not in the kind of numbers you would have seen in other major industrial areas.
But this is not explanation enough, you have to look deeper. The substrate culture that we have locally is an interesting case. I would say that people like me, Anglo/Scots/Irish types with routes in the area going back a couple hundred years, have much more in common culturally with inland New England then with the rest of New York. Just as parts of Central New York probably have more in common with the Dutch/German influences of Pennsylvania. This means the historically local cuisine was probably of your “beans and bacon” and “boiled dinner” type, i.e. simple and English influenced fare. Albany folk (not newcomers, people who have roots and were raised here) are simply stated, meat and potatoes folks whether they know it or not (or are even willing to stop affecting airs and admit it). Not that this is a bad thing, look at me, I celebrate it.
I also think there is a built in suspicion here of restaurants/food with real or imagined pretentiousness. We are stodgy folk and don’t appreciate people “putting on airs.” For better or worse, this is just kind of how it is.
My final point would be to look outside the urban areas to the suburbs, which will inevitably have a kind of bleed back influence on the cities. We live in an absolute wasteland of suburban sprawl, I shiver every time I drive through Clifton Park. It is Walmart, Panera, Target, Starbucks, or some pattern of chains repeated ad infinitum where ever you go. People are generally secure in their subdivisions and loathe to venture out. Certain well heeled locals often get an urge to gussy up and go somewhere “fancy” and head to Angelo’s or the like, they expect “fancy” food to cost money and restaurants are not afraid to capitalize on this. Simply stated, sometimes people just want to drop a lot of money on dinner to prove their financial worths to themselves or others. They are not really concerned with the philosophy behind the food.
These are just some of my thoughts, in any event the whole discussion is kind of mental masturbation. It is beautiful out today and I saw a Karner Blue on my morning run, everyone should go outside. I am going to have grilled cod and salt potatoes tonight with some early sweet corn. My culinary level of sophistication is just fine with me, the wife, and the lovely daughter.