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Aug 17, 2001 05:32 AM

Anti-chowhounds -- chowcats??

  • a

There has been a lot of talk on these boards about chowhounds and foodies. However, there is a species with which the chowhound has a more symbiotic relationship, and which has received insufficient attention. I will call them chowcats.

Chowhounds have appetites for both quality and variety, and will search for deliciousness in any and every venue, no matter how obscure and out-of-the-way. We take particular delight in finding a kosher basement restaurant specializing in Tadjik (not Uzbek) style offal, located 100 one way streets from nowhere, where they look at you suspiciously when you walk in , but you are able to win them over (well, sort of) with your love of their food. Most of us on these boards have been there, done that in some way or other.

Chowcats would not set foot in such a place, unless they are kosher Tadjiks. Chowcats combine a certain finickiness with strong cultural loyalty and an appreciation of quality. Their main desire in a meal is for familiarity. However, their quality standards are often uncompromising. (E.g. only the freshest fish, steamed with the head will do – why would you pay good money for fish at Le Bernadin when they hide the head?)

Their search is often for foods that come closest to the unattainable standard: what their mother, aunt, or grandmother made. (Chowhounds look for what other peoples’ elderly female relatives make, while not neglecting our own.) This finickiness does not make them white bread eaters, just people whose appetites focus on familiar cuisines, with familarity being culturally relative. A Sicilian spleen eater might turn up his nose at iskender kebab, for example. I have a coworker who refuses to eat any meat whatsoever in our office cafeteria, and who is skeptical about most cuisines and restaurants, but who has a fine appreciation of the differences between rotis from Guyana, Trinidad and Barbados (which he of course will eat filled with meat and sold out of the back of a car – if it is properly prepared).

It is hard to over-generalize, but my guess is that immigrants or their children are often chowcats rather than hounds. There are many individuals who break the mold. Jim refers to a Yemeni cab driver who is a good informant on a wide range of cuisines. However, I would wonder if Melanie Wong’s Cantonese Aunties, about whom she has written so luminously, would be chowcats more than chowhounds. And more power to them. Where would we be without them??

Whereas there has been a fair amount of dissing of foodies by chowhounds on these boards, I have seen little appreciation of chowcats, on whom we depend. Although chowhounds and chowcats might both value authenticity, for chowhounds the value is almost ethnographic, while for chowcats it is the search for the best of familiar cuisines. We of course have to be careful, since familiarity may trump quality for some of the lesser examples of the species, but without chowcats, how would we know what and where to eat?

Any comments? I am by no means attached to the term chowcat – can anyone suggest anything better?

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  1. Hi Alan, I found your post very thought-provoking but would say that "one size does not fit all." IMO many people would probably have some of the qualities of both hounds and cats-I do. Familiarity to me has a non-adventurous hound connotation because I like to know what I'm eating - that the food isn't mystery meat, that it has more or less been prepared in a clean kitchen, that the kitchen staff haven't done gross things to the food beforehand, etc. There's a reason you see the sign in every kitchen bathroom - "Employees must wash their hands" - so if that's also familiarity, I guess I'm a hound & cat combo. I kind of like that - I love cats!

    You say: "It is hard to over-generalize, but my guess is that immigrants or their children are often chowcats rather than hounds." I disagree - we're an entire city of immigrants and/or their offspring. I see too many people of various nationalities in restaurants, eating snacks in the street, in fast food joints, etc. which contradicts this theory.

    Viva both cats 'n dogs!

    1 Reply
    1. re: Ruby

      Ruby -- you are certainly right about the immigrant factor. Perhaps I was extrapolating too much from my own family (immigrant grandparents). There is certainly much diversity on all sides. Maybe one factor is urban/rural settings. People in many urban settings have been exposed to more diverse cultural and culinary influences, rural less so. I don't know if this goes back to family origins, with groups from rural areas tending more towards cats, urban more towards dogs. Though as you say, there is plenty of both in many people.

    2. While I think we could quibble over the exact definitions, and the bounds of what is and is not a "chowcat," I think you've made a brilliant observation. In my opinion, this personality type absolutely does exist, is neither foodie nor chowhound, and (given the overall personality of the afformentioned animal) is probably best called a "chowcat." Best part is, chowhounds and chowcats can get along REALLY well; in fact, I personally am thrilled when I find a chowcat...makes my searching job all that easier...

      1. b
        Brandon Nelson

        I don't know about cats....

        I know all kinds of chowhounds. Take out addicts (retrievers)? Nose in the air fusspots (poodles no doubt). Some who take to adventurous eating like Indiana Jones takes to a bullwhip ( your lovable scruffy mutt of course). Some have gifted noses to seek out new fare (bloodhounds) and some of them lead the way (pointers).

        There is that other animal. That hopeless "food is fuel" critter. Those poor bipeds that see food only as substanance, savoring it not. They, alas, are merely human.

        Bow Wow!!!