When Place Dictates Food

The hush puppy gave with a crispy crackle between my teeth, yielding its creamy interior. Bright, peppery relish brought everything together. OK, I thought, this is going to be some good barbecue tonight.

I was sitting in Handsome Hog, an “upscale” barbecue restaurant in Saint Paul that opened last year and had earned all kinds of raves for its charcuterie, extensive bourbon list, and tasty dishes of piled-high meat. With these hush puppies and with a gin and tonic (with housemade tonic) in hand, I was pretty pleased.

But by the end of the night–the leftovers of my very salty pulled pork and massive potato wedges boxed to go home–I was disappointed. And I don’t know why I’m surprised by that.

Handsome Hog is one of the latest entries in the revitalization of Lowertown in Saint Paul. (Or so I’m told. I moved to Saint Paul a little over a year ago, so I haven’t been present for all of Lowertown’s shifting identity from sleepy downtown with nothing going on at night to a destination for Saint Paul Saints games, art gallery crawls, and new food spots.) It joins a cadre of restaurants surrounding gorgeous Mears Park, meaning it needs to stand out from the crowd. Barbecue is a great way to do that. Who doesn’t love ribs?

However, I’m usually skeptical when I encounter barbecue that’s gone “upscale.” What does that even mean? Upscale and elevated versions of comfort food took center stage around 2008 when the recession hit. People still wanted to dine out, but they didn’t have the dough to shell out for anything super fancy. Enter: lobster mac ‘n’ cheese, right? Fries. with truffle oil. Restaurants said, “Hey, everything’s going to be ok. Have a dish filled with cheese and pasta to feel better, and we’ll toss some lobster on there to make it feel special.” I suspect this is also when the decline of fine dining began (not to suggest white-tablecloth, crumb-scraper spots no longer exist, but I notice they’re less ubiquitous; Minneapolis lost three or four of its fine-dining strongholds just last fall).

So, what fills the gap between very casual and very high-end? Places like the Handsome Hog. These spots have taken up the “elevated comfort food” trend, but there’s a twist. At Handsome Hog, they’re aging their own bourbon. In other spots, they focus on local produce. Others work with local distillers to source their spirits and mixers. They’ve jumped off of that recession trend to go a few steps beyond.

But beyond what?

Recently, I listened to The Sporkful’s series called Other People’s Food. The tongue-in-cheek title prepared listeners for discussions about food and how it relates to identity as well as the problem of cultural appropriation when it comes to preparing and serving certain foods. In Episode #5, titled Your Mom’s Crappy Casserole, Ashok Kondabolu complains about the trend to take certain dishes and “elevate” them: ” ‘Now the dominant culture is going to take my culture’s food and repackage it and “elevate” it?’ he says. ‘Why don’t you elevate your mom’s crappy casseroles and your tuna fish sandwiches? It offends me.’ ”

The word elevate is so loaded, isn’t it? In English, we generally associate things that are figuratively high as being better or classier or of more quality. So if someone claims they’re elevating, say, tandoor chicken or a taco or barbecue, the implication is that they’ve improved it. And if a member of the dominant culture is the one elevating a dish from the non-dominant culture, then there are some issues.

Handsome Hog doesn’t suffer from that, as the chef masterminding the dishes knows his way around barbecue and other Southern fare (while Justin Sutherland grew up in the Twin Cities, he studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Atlanta). But when asked to name his favorite dishes on the menu, he names the chicken and waffles and shrimp and grits. Perhaps I should’ve done my homework before my visit and ordered one of these instead of the pulled pork sandwich.

However, I would say that Handsome Hog is between a rock and a hard place. Given their proximity to other restaurants that operate in the void between very casual and high-end, clientele expect a certain experience (mood lighting, craft cocktails, a variety of entrees at at a reasonable price point). But traditionally barbecue isn’t served under Edison lightbulbs, right? That’s the popular perception. When you think barbecue, you think sticky fingers and woodsmoke and lots of napkins. But that kind of dining experience isn’t necessarily one that would be welcome in Lowertown. For all that people want to see activity in that area of the city, it appears they only want certain kinds of activities, certain kinds of destinations. (That and rent is likely too high for anyone who doesn’t have a deep bench of investors.)

Barbecue is also so often about place. The Twin Cities don’t have the kind of entrenched barbecue tradition that Kansas City does, that Texas does, that the Carolinas do. According to one of the friends that dined with us, the vinegary and spicy pulled pork was an indicator that Handsome Hog was working in North Carolina barbecue territory. As great as it was to sample a new style of barbecue, it felt like another indicator that Handsome Hog was working under some specific parameters: barbecue that’s only to some extent rooted in a certain place.

When speaking to other transplants who have lived here longer, there’s a feeling about native (white) Minnesotans that is: don’t challenge them too much with food or spice or heat or flavor. This is certainly changing–thank goodness–but I wonder if Handsome Hog doesn’t operate just a little under that perception.

None of this is to suggest that my experience at Handsome Hog was anything less than. Those hush puppies were, I have to admit, the best I’ve ever had, and my gin and tonic featured a fresh sprig of rosemary, the perfect herbal finishing touch and excellent boost to the gin. Service was friendly and prompt, and the overall atmosphere was quite merry. Was my pulled pork amazing? No, not really. But it may not have been to my taste, and that’s totally fine. If other people like it, fantastic!

My visit there merely made wonder about what we hope to achieve when “elevating” certain foods. Perhaps we’re trying to make something even tastier. Maybe we want to combine flavors that haven’t been put together in the past. Fine, but it remains a thorny issue, especially when you combine it with place and gentrification and identity, and food is wrapped up in all of that. In this pursuit for something supposedly better, we use rhetoric that implies what already existed is less than. I’m happy Lowertown is busier, but I worry that certain expectations will result in dining options that just run together.

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