In a message titled "Multilingual" on the Manhattan message board, Melanie Wong was pondering the fallacy of the term "ethnic dining", at least as it pertains to the ethnic mishmash of Northern California
Is fried chicken and apple pie "ethnic"? Or does it depend on the color of the chef?
How about a highly-stylized French bistro that deeply evokes a foreign country, where people talk in a foreign accent and play Edith Piaf recordings ethnic? Surely THAT is ethnic...?
Is feijoada more ethnic than cassoulet? Is rodizio more ethnic than a steakhouse? Is General Tso's chicken (cooked ONLY in America, as far as I know) ethnic? Is an egg cream ethnic?
It's ridiculous! EVERYTHING is ethnic. Or nothing. The term is pretty much meaningless at this point, but is still used, out of habit, as euphemism for a restaurant that's inexpensive and somehow "foreign" to the sensibilities of certain sheltered souls (who until recently were the 'tastemakers'). Of course, the tallies of what falls inside/outside the circle for these egocentric people have changed a lot over the past half century (they eat raw fish now, can yuh BELIEVE it?), yet the fallacious exclusionary term has resisted purging from their vocabulary (See my editorial on the subject at the link below).
This is one of the changes in food perception/enjoyment/culture many of us chowhounds work to achieve. When I started writing about food in 1988, there were people in positions of editorial authority who were utterly contemptuous of the thought that a Columbian woman grilling transportive corncakes on a street cart could be worthy of the same sort of non-condescending respect as a 4 star chef. That attitude is much less prevalent now, thank goodness.
Well, all but the condescension part...that's still far from dead. Watch how the NY Times plays Grimes versus Asimov for an idea. Why is this the case? The 5-star restaurants (along with their symbionts in publishing and merchandising) have all the advertising and press agent dough and use that to act as journalistic lobbyists to perpetuate the idea that their mileau is where you get the REAL food. A lot of money rides on this. Chowhound.com does not take this money, and we hounds like to eat, think, and judge for ourselves.
I urge everyone to consider the above the next time you find yourself using the term "ethnic restaurant". And to eat skeptically and unhypnotized by artificially-induced conventional opinion.
To tie two discussion threads together, I find that there are many requests for "ethnic recommendations" on this site, and I feel that there are a couple of levels of coded information on it. Though authentic French bistro's would be included in the definition of ethnics, many people acknowledge that such a response is not the one sought after. They are looking for Polish, Hungarian, Vietnamese, Ethiopian... Not only are they looking for food that is exciting, but they are also conveying a price range as well. If I ask for a restaurant in a city without specifying a price tag, chowhounders eagerly will respond with places, typically starting at $18 entrees or possibly $30. If I specify "ethnic" (also without a price) there is a wider range of cost, anywhere from $6 to $20 per entree. In the request, we are conveying to the board that we are hip to a variety of food cultures, and also not focusing on an expensive meal. It seems that the true pejorative term on this board is "family restaurant." It seems to connote an establishment that serves inexpensive, if I may be forgiven for this, ethnic food from Whitebreadland.
Since I have been a member here, I have seen many requests for ethnic resturants and many postings descriting a resturnant as ethnic and agree that the tone is as Jim has described. Maybe those of us who agree with Jim would never post a request for an ethinic resturnant. I know that I wouldn't becuase the term seems so broad as to include everything. But go back and read your local board and see if there is not at least one post asking for a ethnic resturant or one reviewing a resturant just discovered that uses the term.
As a sociology major at UC Davis, I find this all hugely amusing. The term "ethnic" pertains to how one identifies themselves in relation to a group or how an individual belonging to a certain group is identified by others. It is more about inclusion in a particular group than exclusion from another. This term is not intended to incite offense. Perhaps the reason that bonafide Minnesotan cuisine is not considered "ethnic" is because most people within the states identify themselves as American first, and [Minnesotan] second. I'm sure I could dig up some statistics if you really wanted me to, but I'd rather go eat.
TDQ, you're right on.
Not to be difficult, but in the great American southwest, I've discovered that "ethnic" is indeed a code word with a definite pejorative connotation (I'll also note that it's largely a region of transplanted midwesterners who resolutely believe that garlic is an "ethnic spice").
re: Alice Letseat
The good news is that many of us Midwesterners who haven't yet transplanted to the American Southwest don't consider "ethnic" to be a pejorative word any more than we consider "Midwestern" to be a pejorative word.
Personally, when I describe a restaurant as ethnic, I don't mean it as a euphemism for inexpensive or cheap or as the antonym of fine dining. I would describe a restaurant as ethnic if the restaurant serves traditional dishes of any ethnic group and/or geographic region and attempts for the dishes to be reasonably faithful representations of the ideals and standards of that particular cuisine, as passed down through generations--i.e., prepared the way their mothers and grandmothers made it (or their fathers and grandfathers, I suppose.)
To say a restaurant is "ethnic" does not imply any particular price point. In fact, I often distinguish between ethnic "mom and pop" restaurants versus ethnic "upscale" or fine dining restaurants. We have a wonderful ethnic restaurant in the Twin Cities called Vincent: http://www.vincentarestaurant.com/men... You can see from the menu in the link that this place is not cheap. I'd call this an ethnic fine dining restaurant. While the Chef, Vincent, in this particular example happens to have been born in Puy-L'Eveque, in the Cahors region of France, I don't think it matters what the genetic heritage or even birth place of the chef is, as long as he or she has studied and trained in the traditional methods for that cuisine and strives to be faithful to them.
If a restaurant is serving fused cuisines, then I'd probably not call it an ethnic restaurant, although, over time and through generations, fused cuisines can come into their own. But I wouldn't describe a restaurant serving newly-fused cuisines as ethnic. I'd say sausage can be ethnic, but a hot dog generally isn't, although once something has been embraced by a certain group for long enough, it can become ethnic. I'd say a Chicago style hot dog has attained ethnic status. It's very clearly associated with a specific region and there are clear definitions of what constitutes a Chicago style dog.
That being said, I try to limit my use of it because it's just not very specific--usually, I'm not looking for an "ethnic" restaurant, but a Vietnamese one or a French one or a Hmong one or a Mexican one, and so on. There are occasions where it's helpful, though, to speak of a collection. "There are many ethnic restaurants along Eat Street in Minneapolis and University Avenue in St. Paul."
The real problem, I think, of using the word ethnic is that it often connotes an otherness.
re: The Dairy Queen
Well, if you could define what "genuine Minnesota cuisine is, then, yes, abolutely (you bet!) But, I don't think there is a "cuisine" that defines it yet. Dishes, yes, that I would certainly considered to be ethnically Minnesotan, but a cuisine no.
Maybe you know all this (I didn't before I moved here), but Minnesota has heen the target of a lot of immigration, both in the past, and at present. Of course, many generations ago, there was the influx of Scandinavians and Germans that most people think of when they think of Minnesota. Mostly recently, Minnesota has become home to many Hmong and Somalis. Minnesota now has the largest urban Hmong community outside of Laos and has the largest Somali community in North America. Also, many Italians, Mexicans, and various Eastern Europeans have settled here. And, of course, don't forget the Native Americans who were here before all of the European immigration happened. Oh yeah, and the Voyageurs who passed through on their way up and down the St. Lawrence Expressway to Montreal, some of whom liked it and stayed.
So, if you could narrow in on what genuine Minnesotan cuisine is, then certainly, a restaurant serving it would be an ethnic restaurant.
While, I have found German, Italian, Hmong, and Mexican restaurants here, I have yet to find a restaurant in the Twin Cities that serves foods enjoyed in the homes of descendents of the Scandavians that immigrated here generations ago. Most of the traditional Scandinavian/Minnesota dishes are still served only in people's homes or in diners in rural communities. I've yet to find lutefisk on a menu in the Twin Cities, for instance. I found lefse on a menu once, as a daily special in a restaurant (I ordered it! It was good, although, my dining companion, born and raised Minnesotan, was apalled by the non-traditional use of the lefse as a wrap) and at a booth at the State Fair. I've found egg coffee at the Minnesota state fair (it was good!). And so on.
There are a couple of Scandinavian bakeries here, Café Finspang for instance, that I would consider to be ethnic bakeries.
Many restaurants offer wild rice (Native American) on their menus, but that's the closest to any restaurant serving native American cuisine and I'm pretty confident the wild rice dishes I've had aren't the traditional Native American preparations.
If by "genuine Minnesotan cuisine" you mean the stuff you hear Garrison Keillor talk about on Prairie Home companion, like hotdish, rhubarb pie, jello salad, lefse, lutefisk, wild rice soup, Swedish meatballs, egg coffee, sloppy joes and so on (all of that is real, by the way) it's just not possible to find it outside of the home, at potlucks, in church basements, or in small-town cafes. I'm confident you could have found tuna hotdish on the menu of many small town restaurants in Minnesota yesterday, given it was the first Friday in Lent.
If I were to move to, say, Tokyo, and open a restaurant with all of the above items on a menu--the foods I miss from home-- it would certainly be called an ethnic restaurant. So, why wouldn't I consider a restaurant right here that served that same menu to be ethnic? Except, of course, as I explained, I just don't know of such a restaurant, even here right at home.
re: The Dairy Queen
Nice reply...as an person that one would consider 'ethnic,' I do not take offense of the term unless one is using it in an offensive manner. As a society, we are too worried about what to say and how to say it. If a person says something that you do not care for, one should not take offense automatically, they may not understand your thinking or agree with it (as is evident in this thread). Think positive and if it really irritates you, tell them personally, but don't just assume the negative.
re: The Dairy Queen
TDQ - It really is a shame that the word "ethnic" is used, how Jim Leff described seven years ago, "out of habit, as euphemism for a restaurant that's inexpensive and somehow 'foreign'"
In the couple of short years of being around chowhound, I've seen many requests for "ethnic" restaurants and the tone surrounding ethnic is almost universally as what Jim describes.
I applaud you for not distorting a word like "ethnic"; however the word is more often than not used in a subtly condescending manner when referring to cuisine.
Interesting responses. I do take issue with the comments that the word 'ethnic' is used to denote non-white, different or cheaper food. Personally, in my circle in NYC, I've never heard the term ethnic restaurants used but I'm sure it's probably a common term just to describe food that's not inherently "Americanized” like hot dogs and burgers.
Look, we’re a nation of immigrants, a melting pot, and each group brought their own customs and foods. It could be argued that hot dogs and burgers originated from Germany. Yes, but the Germans immigrated to the United States as early as the 1680s and during the 18th Century Germans were the largest group to immigrate. So of course we’re more familiar with food like sausages and hamburgers. The Italians, also immigrated to the U.S. in large numbers in the early 1900s. Here again, we’re comfortable with Italian-American cuisine and it’s probably the most popular food in America. As air travel (and the World Wars) became more prevalent, U.S. citizens visited different countries and regions and became more knowledgeable with the cuisine.
Recent influxes of different groups of immigrants may not be “Americanized” yet insofar as their customs. This is where I believe the ‘ethnic cuisine’ term is used. Is it a slur? I don’t think so. Could we come up with a better word than ethnic? When did ethnic become a dirty word?
The problem is that "ethnic" connotes an otherness with no standard definition on what is "other" and what is not "other".
For instance, you point out that the Italians came here in mass quantities in the early 1900s. I don't think any of us would really call Italian food in America "ethnic". However, the Chinese came here in the 1840s .... they built 1/2 of the railroad across the US. Yet, Chinese food in the States is more "ethnic" than Italian food.
Consequently, I honestly believe "ethnic" is a loaded term, and I prefer not to use this term.
"For instance, you point out that the Italians came here in mass quantities in the early 1900s. I don't think any of us would really call Italian food in America `ethnic'."
As Italian-Americans are a recognizable ethnicity and Italian food is not the same as American food, I would think of it as included in the concept of "ethnic food." But I've never seen a reason to use that inaccurate term. I just call it Italian food.
I said below "The real problem, I think, of using the word ethnic is that it often connotes an otherness," which I think you borrowed a couple of hours later and expanded to include "with no standard on what is "other" and what is not "other." I'm not sure if I agree with the way you expanded it. What difference does it make if the definition of other is clearly defined? With problem with the common usage of the word is not that the "other" isn't defined, it's that in common usage, what's "other" is dependent on the point of view of the person using it if they are using it to mean "unlike me." "Different than me or what I'm used to" is not the definition of ethnic.
re: The Dairy Queen
Hi TDQ -
I agree, "ethnic" should not mean "different than me or what I'm used to."
However, as Jim points out at the top of this thread (seven years ago), when the word "ethnic" is used to describe cuisine, it is precisely this definition that's being inferred. We see it all the time in posts looking for "ethnic food."
Its a bummer.
jhleung - I would imagine that in many parts of the U.S., many people still consider Italian food to be 'ethnic' - especially when being introduced to different Italian regions other than Southern Italian which is what many people had become used to.
You say "Chinese food in the States is more "ethnic" than Italian food."
I don't believe it's fair to compare Italian vs. Chinese as one group being considered more ethnic than the other. Yes, the Chinese arrived early in the 19th Century but from 1882 to 1943 they were not allowed to become naturalized citizens, marry or have their family come over per the Chinese Exclusion Act. This was a long period of discrimination in the States against a group.
Here are a couple of websites that expand on the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act. I don't mean for this to become political but more knowledge of this exclusion might better enhance the history of this period.
I use the term "ethnic" to mean anything non-mainstream and non-local in heritage. To me, that includes grits and BBQ (I'm in Minnesota) as well as Pho and Coq au Vin. But I'm getting the idea that this is not a common usage, and I risk being misunderstood as well as causing offense.
So what word or phrase would you use as a replacement?
Other posters have proposed being specific (as in 'Why not just say "Bosnian Restaurant"?'), but what if you want an umbrella term?
One my favorite places to produce and some groceries in the Seattle area is evidently owned by a Vietnamese family. Some the produce and much of the frozen selection reflects this and other Asian tastes. But there is also a decent Mexican selection, an aisle of eastern European items, as well some middle eastern items. Breads include nazook from a Portland Eurobake and Mexican pan dulce. A mile away is another produce stand with Indian ownership, but a similar mix of groceries. In a different direction there is a California based 99 Ranch grocery with at stronger Chinese orientation. Africans also shop at these stores, though I've only seen injera at small shops that specialize in Ethiopian goods.
What is a good term for this type of selection? Ethnic? pan-ethnic? multi-ethnic?
I don't see any problem with calling a restaurant ethnic when the food, owners, staff and almost all customers are from the same ethnic group. We have a lot of these establishments in Chicago. Many suffer from language barriers. I don't know what other term to use for them in general except ethnic restaurants.
For example, I had a nice lunch today at a new Bosnian restaurant a few blocks from my home. It is small but light and warmly decorated. Judging from the conversations around me, I was the only one there who didn't grow up in Bosnia. Unlike many of these establishments, the owner spoke excellent English. This was good because their printed menus haven't arrived yet. I certainly don't have enough experience yet to post on this place, but early evidence is promising.
re: Eldon Kreider
Why not just say "Bosnian Restaurant"?
With the particular Bosnian Restaurant you mention, one of your criteria for the term "ethnic" is that the patrons of this restaurant must be of the same ethnicity as that of the cuisine which the restaurant serves.
So is the Berghoff in downtown Chicago ethnic? Its a German restaurant but there's very little German to be heard inside.
How about Frontera Grill? Is that ethnic? Its "contemporary" Mexican cuisine, but there are less patrons that speak Spanish @ Frontera Grill than there are at the establishments on Ashland Ave.
How about Brasserie-Jo? This is cuisine from Alsace-Lorraine but not many people refer to it as "ethnic" because its not inexpensive.
I think the issue that people have with "ethnic" cuisine (which includes myself) is that "ethnic" has other connotations as well which stray far beyond ethnicity. These connotations include inexpensive price, non-white skin color of the people of the region from which the cuisine originates, high level of deviation in taste from "regular" American food, etc.
Since the term "ethnic" has so many subtle connotations, I prefer to avoid the term. I hope we'll all do the same.
Some white ethnic groups with restaurants in Chicago that would fit a definition of owners, food, most employees and a substantial fraction of customers from a single ethnic group would include Polish, Romanian, Bosnian and Lithuanian.
Note that Berghoff closed in 2006 and did not have a lot of German food on the menu in the last 20 to 30 years. Berghoff was a German-American restaurant just as a high percentage of Italian restaurants in Chicago are Italian-American.
I have no problem with the term 'ethnic' when describing certain restaurants - I believe it's just used as shorthand for 'ethnic cuisine' and not a label to describe cheap food or lower-ranking restaurants. I don't think it's pejorative or a slur on certain countries. In general, I dislike labels and I find non-descript labels such as Mediterrean food or global and fusion are sillier.
I find this to be a very interesting topic and did a little Google search on what 'ethnic' is.
Listed below are some websites that define ethnic groups
From my own perception, if I go to a Russian, Albanian, or Hungarian restaurant, where the food served reflects the country's cuisine and the owners and staff are from that particular country with that country's particular culture, then it's ethnic. I don't consider Chinese-American food to be ethnic because the recipes were altered for American tastes at that time. However, if I go to a Fukinese restaurant where the chef, owner and staff are from that region and cooking Fukinese dishes, I consider it ethnic cuisine.
Dictionary definition: being a member of a particular ethnic group, especially belonging to a national group by heritage or culture but residing outside its national boundaries: ethnic Hungarians living in northern Serbia.
The term ethnic means of or pertaining to a group of people recognized as a class on the basis of certain distinctive characteristics such as religion, language, ancestry, culture or national origin.
I think the OP had a problem with the standards not being applied in the same way to all ethnicities, particularly with regard to northern or western europeans, hence his distrust of the term. It's not that "ethnic" by itself is a slur -- it's just that it's often used as shorthand for "not white", and that as a consequence, ethnic places are often not taken as seriously as non-ethnic restaurants.
For example, most people probably wouldn't refer to a French-owned, operated and patronized restaurant as ethnic.
oolah, you've hit the nail on the head. "Ethnic Cuisine" isn't a slur - except that it is because it hasn't been normalized across ethnicities.
"Ethnic Cuisine" often means Cuisine not of European Extraction. I find that insulting.
Italian Food is ethnic cuisine.
Hot Dogs are ethnic cuisine (originally from the Germans).
Bagels are ethnic cuisine.
Steak au Poivre is ethnic cuisine.
just as much as:
Indian Food is ethnic cuisine.
Thai Food is ethnic cuisine.
Ethiopian Food is ethnic cuisine.
Sushi is ethnic cuisine.
We can find a subtle (and not intentional) bias with a post above this one in this thread that says that the poster finds ethnic to convey:
"To me it denotes spice, authenticity, interestingness, genuine goodness, flavour etc."
The problem is, last time I checked, most spicy cuisines come from people who are brown or black or yellow. Not white. So the term "ethnic" has unintentional yet subtle bias.
That's been my issue with this, too. No one would call a mom and pop diner that served eggs and bacon "ethnic" even though the workers there are from the same culture and speak the same language. No one really considers Applebees ethnic but Panda Gardens are. When you come down to it, "ethnic" means "different" and non-white. In the same light, I've heard people refered to as "ethnic" also, meaning non-white. Maybe what people mean by "ethnic" is newer to the US? Do people consider soul food "ethnic"? I think that would be the question to see if ethnic means newer to the US (if the answer is no) or non-white (if yes).
I dunno if ethnic means non-white. To me, it means food from all one place. A true french bistro would fall under 'ethnic' -- I assume that means 'white' to most people.
Places like Cheesecake Factory, Applebees etc do a bit of this, a bit of that, pretend italian, pretend french, pretend etc. Panda Gardens does only chinese (I think, never been).
What about Vie de France? Is that ethnic? I don't want it to come off like I'm arguing but trying to figure out what it really means to people. I've seen threads asking about favorite/best ethnic restaurants and I don't remember ever seeing a French bistro or an Italian trattoria. Not to say it's never been said but I'm wondering if the average person considers them ethnic (not to imply by any means that you're "average" :-) ). But I am just repeating the OP here.
I'd call that mom and pop diner ethnic. In my NYC post seeking ethnic restaurants, I wrote "I apologize for using the word "ethnic": It doesn't really fit but I couldn't think of one that did. What I meant was a restaurant (often inexpensive) primarily run and patronized by members of a specific community or nationality. But that's a rough definition." So I think I would have to call Mortimer's (a recently-closed NYC restaurant that offered comfort food and a clubby atmosphere to an exclusive and fanatically loyal clientele of rich socialites) ethnic.
"In the same light, I've heard people refered to as `ethnic' also, meaning non-white."
Similarly, consider the use of "cultural." I am a professional musician (and son of an anthropologist) and have never used the term "cultural music," but I was surprised the first few times students of my Music Appreciation courses did. Apparently, Beethoven is not considered "cultural music" by them, which I just consider odd to the nth degree. All music is cultural, of course!
Hmmm ... yep ... 2000 thread.
There is a discussion on the SF board about Indian food being labeled as ethnic. A poster linked to this discussion with the comment that the editorial link to the OP was dead and no longer working unfortuantely.
I really liked some of those special reports on the original site. There was info in some that was no where else on the web with some fabulous pictures. So I saved off those reports. Here's the content to that dead link. I thought probably this would be a better place to copy it than in the SF discussion.
Chowhound's Articles & Special Reports
There's a practice in the food press that bothers me. It's the condescending term "ethnic dining". First of all, what ISN'T ethnic dining? Well...French, Northern Italian, Thai, Chinese; the Officially Sanctioned Cuisines. "All of those other...LITTLE places," goes the old-fashioned rap, "offer surprisingly INEXPENSIVE alternatives to those unfortunate souls who can't afford the Real Thing". Well, screw the official sanctioners. I love cassoulet, but how dare they pronounce it more edibly valid than its Brazilian cousin, feijoada?
Posh dining is a fine evening's entertainment, and the food in this very narrow slice of the food spectrum sometimes even inspires. But one wouldn't want to live life drinking only champagne; darn it, a banana milkshake is more than just culinary consolation for those who can't afford Dom Perignon. In fact, I won't even concede that Dom Perignon tastes "better" than a beautifully-made shake. They serve different needs and say different things. THE CATEGORIES ARE HORIZONTAL, NOT VERTICAL!!
An end to culinary materialism! Delicious is delicious...period! The art of cooking is no different from any other: a feeling or idea in the mind of the artist (cook) faithfully transfers via a medium (food) into the mind of the audience (eater), the MESSAGE TRANSCENDING THE MEDIUM. To become caught up with ingredients and technique-- medium for medium's sake--is to flout art.
All who sample the Arepa Lady's arepas smile the same smile. The Arepa Lady is telling you something deep, and what she's telling you has nothing to do with corn cakes.
Postmodernism embraces and respects all manifestations of an artform. It's long past time for stodgy gourmets to adopt a more postmodern attitude toward food.
© Jim Leff, 1999.
I wonder if Susan Sontag ever read this. If she had ,she would have enthusiastically approved. She said similar things about visual art in her "Notes on Camp" "The
experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the
sensibility of high culture has no monopoly on refinement," Sontag
wrote. "The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving
himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the
constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out
of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste
as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste
cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated.
It is good for the digestion."
The only problem is, there are times when I try to express a concept and the only word that will fit the bill is "ethnic" E.g. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/323386 Postmodernism is great, but sometimes it can subvert communication.
re: Brian S
Is any "ethnic" food in Manhattan worth the trip from Queens??
Is any Asian, African, European, Latin, etc food in Manhattan worth the trip from Queens??
Is any food in Manhattan worth the trip from Queens??
ethnic replaced by? ...
other than American
Oddly enough the thesaurus defines international as the antonym of ethic which is defined as local
I guess that would mean that your question was asking if there was any local food ... that is American food ... better in Manhattan. It's a melting pot anyway ... I was kidding about using un-American.
I don't know ... maybe by restricting your question, it missed the opportunity to find the best apple pie in Manhattan. Also by restricting food from specific nationalities to a 'location ghetto' the isolated amazing Greek, Indonesian, Mexican, etc joint in Manhattan might get missed.
That might be the problem with the original question. Not being inclusive of the various cuiines that Queens has more of. It doesn't mean that Manhattan might not have great, though fewer of the same.
Because there are more ... for example ... Thai restaurants, in Queens ... sure the higher ratio of good Thai restaurants ... also the higher ratio of bad Thai resturants. Some of the best food I've found have been in places they shouldn't be ... where they are unexpected.
Just learned that the best fish in SF, could be in the most unexpected of places ... Fisherman's Wharf ... San Franciscans won't eat in the Wharf Area because the thought is that it is over-priced, poorly-prepared tourist food .. and yes ... much of it is ... and yet there might be ...
That doesn't mean I don't understand the concept. When someone asks where's the best Mexican food, I'll often answer International Blvd in Oakland ... though there are specific better restaurants elsewhere.
re: Brian S
It was my reply over in the SF board that started this little resurgence. I reacted to a poster asking for a recommendation for "ethnic" food. Just struck me funny. I haven't heard anyone use the term "ethnic food" for years. That's a good thing, as mentioned in 2000 - I take "ethnic" as a bit of a slur, like a codeword for black, brown, yellow. Ewww.
Brian S, you've got a real point, which I think I can paraphrase as: "what's the name for a lower-class restaurant serving the people's food"? Like when I'm traveling in Mexico - I have an aversion to the fancy restaurants, have a higher "miss rate", and tend to eat at outdoor stalls. It's so easy to tell quality - the tone of the crowd, the smell of the grill, the care they take with ingredients, the joy of the cooks. "Street food" is a term we use for stalls, but what about when that class of food moves indoors?
"Low class" has the wrong connotations, although may be literally what I mean (the opposite of upper class with no slur intended). I find myself using "hole in the wall", or "joint". The local free paper has a column "without reservations" targeted as the rung above, whereas the "cheap eats" column is focused squarely on tiny family run joints. As I consider, "joint" is the word I use the most. "Yeah, it's a little bahn mi joint with one table inside, and one by strip mall curb. Meat can be a little dry, but great pickles and bread".
How do you descibe this thing? Can we agree on a term?
I challenge the 'hound community to come up with a good word for this kind of place. I'll do my part to promote it.
But the word sure ain't "ethnic".
I stopped using 'dive' and 'hole-in-the-wall' to be replaced by 'mom & pop'. I use joint, but I'm as likely to use that for an upscale restaurant.
Here's why I stopped using the other two words ... at least directly in a report about a place.
I did a report on a little Russian bakery that had great soup and baked goods. The people didn't even speak English. So I called it a great hole-in-the-wall.
You would think the last people to read Chowhound would be at this obsure Russian-speaking place.
The owner responded (in English) that they were planning a nicer restaurant in the future and talked a little bit more about the menu they did offer.
All I could think is that here's someone who didn't have a great command of English and probably didn't understand the coloquism of a hole-in-the-wall just meaning a little restaraunt. He probably thought I was saying the restaurant was a dump.
Yes, I know Chowhound is about the diner and the food. Still, there are real people at these restaurants who work hard and take pride in what they do and might not understand a common term and take it as a slur.
So it doesn't kill me to use mom & pop ... people understand.
While I agree that ethnic cuisine can have pejorative connotations, I think that there is a useful aspect to the term. Back in the 50's and 60's, when restaurants were far less varied, it was a convenient catchall for "non-American" places. At that time another term had currency which is also rare these days - Continental - another catchall for pan-ethnic or European, and usually just "Americanized" French. At that time, the sense of the word had as much to do with exoticism as ethnicity. Diners, not to mention chowhounds, were far less adventurous than now. So while I believe it's true that ethnic cuisine is a term that has outlived it's usefulness, the concept of "strangeness" or "foreigness" has not.
As an example of this, while staying in Anagni, Italy with the relatives of a friend about ten years ago, we had frequent conversations about food. Bear in mind that Anagni (about 50 miles outside Rome) is quite rustic/provincial. They inquired about the cuisine in America and were surprised to find that Italian food and restaurants were available. They expected me to find pasta to be exotic. For them there could be no Italian food in America. It had to be American food. I kid you not. Anything that was not what what they were accustomed to was both ethnic and exotic even if it amounted to the same thing on the plate.
I'm with you in thinking that ethnic food means absolutely nothing these days, but I am also aware of some geocentricity informing my own attitude.
"Ethnic Cuisine" has become as overused as "postmodern" anything.
If one had to choose, I would say that everything is ethnic. The Southern American food Jim mentioned above are the result of different ethnicities blending together in the form of food. Indian, African, and various European traditions blended to form such delights.
If any one factor is overlooked the most in cooking's adaptablility, it is geography. On several occasions, Chowhounds have brought to my attention the variability of food--- even in relatively small regions like Italy. The nuances of a people's cuisine owes as much to geography as it does ethnicity. German cooking in south america is much different.
I once studied the eating habits of 3 different Indian tribes (the Cherokee, Hopi, and Gitksan-- just south of alaska) in North america for grad school. Each had its own ways of survival, codified in their legends, agriculture (or lack of it), and cooking.
as far as ethnic cuisine being a derogatory term, i've found the opposite in many cases. Some Thai or Korean restaurant serves a $5 meal for $15 or more. Italian and Mexican places (though popularized ethnic) especially serve substandard crap under the 'authentic ethnic cuisine' flag. Since when did pasta, beans and corn cost sooo much? Here in Fla (away from elitist food writers and the cornucopia of NYC dining), ethnic is often the liscence to overcharge.
One more thing: i check out the featured articles all the time here, but find them less than useful since they (by necessity) focus mostly on the NYC area. As a result, many of the restaurant reviews (but not all the features) are purely a matter of curiosity for me.
re: Melanie Wong
"But you didn't take my bait about the Taiwanese pastrami . . ."
I don't get it!
"This is the first time I've read your editorial"
Not to pick on you, Melanie, but I'm slightly chagrined that some of our most loyal regulars haven't taken full advantage of the site. Our "Articles and Special Reports" section contains--along with that editorial--a lot of infotaining chowhound-related reading material. And don't get me started on Radio Free Chowhound. C'mon, everybody, check this stuff out! Give us the surf we deserve!