What America Tastes Like

Caviar and Millennium Falcons

It probably isn’t possible to be human without being biased against cultures other than the one which raised you. The best we can do is recognize the bias for what it is, try to correct for it rationally, and choose to transcend it emotionally using compassion. When a pilot notices her plane is angling to the left, she can adjust her attitude, and fly through whatever winds are pushing her off-course.

I’ve been judgmental of wealth culture.

My neighborhood was in the bottom 1% of childhood poverty when I was a kid, but for a while my parents sent me to a private school. This was quite the bucket of cultural icewater on my head. I was the one kid driven to that school in a rusty Pinto.

What I judged as “bad” about this culture was a disrespect for toys. My Star Wars toys were precious to me. I never put on any of the stickers that came in the box, because I knew stickers could get worn and leave those sticky brown spots. None of my toys had a bent piece of plastic or a missing wheel.

Somewhere in the home of every single rich kid’s house was a broken Millennium Falcon. Every single time someone invited me to play, I saw a busted Falcon in the corner of a bedroom or garage. Some sat canted like a junkyard relic, missing a piece of landing gear. Nearly all of them were missing the hatch on the gun turret. A couple had been split in half.

Kenner released those massive plastic ships in 1979, retailing for $105.79 if adjusted to 2019 dollars. Every one I ever saw in a wealthy home was broken. Not only that – the kids didn’t care.

It was the lack of appreciation and gratitude that bothered me. Unfortunately, it seems that the more we own, the more challening it is for us to develop our gratitude for these objects. Yet we often try chasing this gratitude by trying to own more, as if the “next” thing will be worth appreciation.

As an adult, I’ve worked toward a sort of cross-cultural empathy. Compassion gets easy when you get close to people and find out how they hurt. When I’ve lived in ghetto neighborhoods I noticed that opiate addiction was rampant. People wanted to escape their lives. When I’ve lived in rich neighborhoods – I’ve also noticed that opiate addiction is rampant. People wanted to escape their lives. We all got problems. For rich people those problems are severe. They just don’t have anything to do with shoes or gas-money.

We all eat food.

So what is the food of the upper-class in New York? When people want to spend $295 on Peking Duck, where do they go? Is the food actually good? Is it better than shrimp-n-grits? Is it truly refined and elevated in some way, or does it just come in really tiny cubes stacked vertically?

“Hakkasan” in New York offers some of this culture. The French tire-company that reviews fancypants restaurants shows the Michelin man giving Hakkasan a big “Okey dokey!”

Inside? Yes, it is a Bret Easton Ellis fever-dream of upscale environment, all dark wood and lurking electric-blue lights. That being said, it’s remarkably comfortable despite the nightclubbiness, and the service lives up to the high-end vibe. They’ll tuck your napkin in for you.

But what if you came looking for food?

Small twists like the cocoa powder in the breading of the “crispy chicken in mango and kumquat” brought a smile to my face. I was looking for the heavy-hitter that would take me to flavor-Tian, and expecting to find it because of the blue lights and the two forks and all. But most bites of the meal were more clever-and-distinctive than ultra-delicious.

One item, however, knocked it out of the park. So far, in fact, that every other player in the meal ran past home base. This one menu item elevated the whole shebang into a vibrantly recommendable experience. In fact, these tiny morsels rank in the short list of food I’ll never forget:

Hakka roasted duck and pumpkin puff

You get a row of five two-bite-sized pumpkins filled with a sweet and savory duck filling. The pastry itself is what’s incomparable. Usually I have some clue as to “how it was done,” but in this case I can’t imagine how pumkpin flour fried in any sort of oil could result in this phenomena. It’s textually unlike any other fried food, and the little orange shell brings nuanced flavors that linger in your mouth like a sweet note sung in the Taj Mahal.

Somehow it manages to stick to your teeth delectably, crisply separate when you bite it, and lend a creamy texture that perfectly complements the duck while haunting your mouth with a nectarous complex richness after all other flavors fade away. You have to just sit there a moment, exhaling the memory of that little pumpkin.

You wonder how that event was possible in your mouth. And if they’d still be crisp after servants flew them to you on a private jet.

311 W 43rd St
New York, New York

“What America Tastes Like” is an exploration of sub-cultures in the US by way of food. Eating is something all people do, and it also happens to be one of the few expressions of “difference and diversity” in culture that just about all people are ready to celebrate. Regardless of our politics and religion and ontologies, we all like to eat food with our mouths.

Food makes family happen.

https://facebook.com/chrisshelbypage


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