by Matt Gross, The Guardian, January 08, 2015
Nearly four years ago, my younger brother, Steve, moved with his wife to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and immediately began urging me to visit – in part to see him (I guess?) but mostly because he was fascinated by what he called the “cosmopolitanization-in-a-blue-collar-town” food scene.
“This is a city where Primanti Bros sandwiches are still extremely popular,” he emailed me, referring to the famously over-stuffed subs, “and yet bit by bit, international immigrants are changing the food landscape.” Chinese and Korean restaurants were the ones he was most excited about, but he was also excited about the “lively” farmers’ market. It was as if he’d stumbled on a secret only he (and 300,000 Pittsburghers) were privy to.
Well, the secret is out: Pittsburgh is officially a good place to eat, topping Zagat’s list of America’s 17 best food cities thanks not just to plentiful Sichuan dan-dan noodles but to “refined food glories” like “jamón croquetas with leek-ash aïoli”, “jerk pork and yam coulis”, and “rabbit accompanied by semolina gnocchi”. For various reasons, I’ve never made it out to Pittsburgh myself, but thanks to Zagat’s picks, I’m eagerly anticipating a trip there in April.
Except that Zagat’s is not the only list of Best Food Cities out there. We are at the beginning of a new year, and so any publication interested in food is decreeing a new slate of locales worth visiting just for the food. Over at the Washington Post, those cities include Charleston, South Carolina (No 10), Houston (No 5), and, at No 1, Portland, Oregon. At National Geographic Traveler, overseas culinary icons like Lyon (No 5), Osaka (No 7), and Bologna (No 8) rub shoulders with Buffalo, New York (No 3), and the top pick, Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville also makes a strong showing on the Jetsetter top 10, coming in at No 2, just behind Stockholm and edging out Madrid (No 3) and Hanoi (No 9).
Without even looking at the mid-year lists from a dozen other publications, these catalogs encompass 26 US and 13 foreign destinations – how do we make sense of them in order to start planning our gluttonous vacations?
Well, to start with, we can be cynical. Just look at how these lists are constructed:
For the most part, they include major cities that have, more or less, been good places to eat for quite a while. What kind of radical cojones does it take to suggest New York City, Chicago or Madrid? That’s not to say there aren’t year-to-year variations in the kinds of restaurants that open up and come to influence how we cook and eat across the country and around the world, but to give San Francisco a spot on such a list is an insult to the intelligence of anyone who cares about eating. We know already.
After the majors, though, it gets more interesting: Which second- and third-tier cities does a list-maker choose? After all, the United States has so many of them – surely they can’t all be worth a hungry traveler’s time and money?
If we’re going to stay cynical, we could select a number of criteria to use. Is the publication hoping to please the tourism board of Louisville? (The local news there sure seems happy.) Do any of the compilers have family in, say, Providence, Rhode Island? Did they vacation in Oakland, California? Are these lists essentially put together at random, by well-meaning food lovers pressured by their editors to transform their broad but by no means complete knowledge of the world food scene into something people will argue about on Facebook?
American dining has been transformed
But let’s not be cynical – that’s too easy. Let’s go the other way: However these lower-tier cities may have made it onto the lists, you can be fairly well assured that each and every one does have pretty excellent food. How can I be sure of this? Because everywhere in America has pretty excellent food nowadays.
I know: This is a hard idea to get used to. It wasn’t so long ago that eating well was a challenge outside America’s major cities. In 2001, I drove cross-country from New York to California, and didn’t drink a halfway-decent cup of coffee till I was within sight of the Pacific Ocean. On another cross-country trek, in 2007, the culinary highlight was Oklahoma City, whose dozens of Vietnamese restaurants provided much-needed relief from midwestern blandness. There were diner pies and patty melts and barbecue, some of it pretty tasty, but very little of it created with the ambition or presented with the pride I found in major cities.
Since then, though, American dining has been transformed. Locavorism and the farm-to-table movement shifted chefs’ and diners’ focus back toward the birthplaces of ingredients and dishes, while food trucks let anyone with a dream become a cook. Chances are, you live a mere keg’s throw from a craft brewery, and cocktails and spirits are so popular that we’re constantly on the verge of a bourbon shortage. Even ultra-local dishes – like Louisville’s hot brown or Cincinnati’s chili – are newly valorized, both in their original, often downscale forms and as reinvented updates. Finally, Instagram has let everyone see what everyone else is cooking and eating – everywhere in the world. Sure, if you want to get rich and famous, you can open a killer restaurant in Brooklyn or Chicago, but you can do it in Columbus or Richmond, too.
I’m hardly the first person to notice the abundance of good food all over America. Back in mid-2012, Brett Martin wrote a long feature in GQ, “The Best Place to Eat Right Now Is …,” making precisely that point, noting that even Boise, Idaho, had not one but two craft cocktail bars.
“We are now a nation with so many farmers’ markets that The New York Times has reported that farmers are getting a little worried,” he wrote. “A nation in which phrases like ‘Kosher in Fargo?’ or ‘Filipino in Detroit?’ – which once would have been failed pitches for fish-out-of-water sitcoms – are now perfectly reasonable queries on foodie boards. We the people have come to rely on, indeed feel entitled to, good food everywhere.”
At the time the story came out, I thought it would pretty much end the list-making. Here, I figured, was proof that we were in a new, enlightened era of eating, one that no longer required breathless copy extolling the sudden culinary transformation of America’s lesser metropolises. Clearly, I was wrong.
But the lists themselves, as Brett Martin himself pointed out to me the other day, are not necessarily useless. “I think the best lists of that kind are more than ‘these are the cities most like Brooklyn,’” he wrote via Facebook. “That’s the dark side of Good Food Everywhere – Same Food Everywhere. A good list is great. It’s what you want to get from a friend.”
There I can agree. When the list feels written from an individual’s unique point of view, with a well-defined audience in mind, it’s a joy. Who am I to criticize the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema for sharing with his readers the cities he’s most excited about? He knows them, they love him and his list satisfies them both. It’s only when the lists feel superficial, cynical or falsely objective that I get cranky. But hey, those other publications gotta eat, too.
By now, surely, you’re wondering about my own 2016 list. Well, I can tell you that Pittsburgh is now definitely on it, thanks to Steve and his wife having just had a baby. It is, however, technically at No 3 on the list. I hope the tourism board will forgive me.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Matt Gross from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.