Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Grappling with Chowhounding Hubris

All Portugal trip reports in chronological order:

Oddly Bookended Food Day in Portugal (Nepali and Goan in Almada)
My Portuguese Rosebud (questing for a second helping of the arroz de mariscos that changed my life 30 years ago)
Bacalhau Score (glorious restaurant version of a homely grandma dish in Almada)
Grappling with Chowhounding Hubris (good-not-great pork cheeks in Sintra)
Taskinha Do Chef (Torres Vedras, Portugal) (exquisite family-run restaurant in Torres Vedras)
False Friends, Inadvertent Penetration, and Coimbra (diagnosing the Coimbra Problem)
Solar dos Amigos (rustic culinary splendor in Caldas da Rainha)
Burguezia do Leitão (the best roast suckling pig palace near Coimbra, in Casal Comba)
A Casa do Jorge (smashing wine country steakhouse in Santana, near Azeitão)

I've been rinsing/repeating a very familiar process around Portugal. I enter an unfamiliar town, eyeball a little, web search a little, scope out venues, entering cagily and applying strategies. And nearly each time, I score. Big (more photos to come). Which gives me the heebie-jeebies. Because there's a clear hubris to this scenario. Who is this guy to just wander into town and smugly announce he's found grandeur?

Chowhounding is inherently presumptuous. It just is. And since I do it more publicly than most, I've been hit with more than my share of counter-arguments and snarky take-downs. The big one is this: "You're eating only average quality, but you're insufficiently calibrated to local cuisine to properly rank it."

But deliciousness is deliciousness. The level of care and talent necessary to really stun me, after all the wide-ranging eating I've done, is a steep slope. I understand that, say, Colombian pan de bono is intrinsically yummy, so even an average rendition will make one cock an eyebrow. But I think I'm beyond being tricked by intrinsic yumminess into premature cries of "GENIUS!" I was, after all, a hard ass about Neapolitan pizza.

I discussed this today with a veteran Chowhound poster over a plate of pork cheeks at Cantinho de São Pedro in Sintra, Portugal. Here's some pork cheek porn for you:

I thought it was an interesting topic, but he seemed to feel I was bragging. Which, after all, is the entire point I’m trying to come to grips with. Is it bragging to declare you've just dropped into eight locales and sussed out eight incredible meals via brute chowhounding instincts? Well, what if that's what actually happened? And has been happening for years?

It should count for something that my singular goal is enjoyment, rather than credit-taking or legend-pumping. If I were a legend pumper, I'd have maintained my eager chowhound persona, hoisting my way into the spotlight as the manic/obsessive ambassador to the masses for the dining out realm (as, say, Richard Simmons and Ruth Westheimer did for their respective categories).

I disliked playing that character, and bailed the moment I spotted an exit ramp. I like chowhounding, but don't need attention for it. Yet, still, it's presumptuous to imagine one could consistently pop into places and cop grandeur with a finger snap. Thousands of chowhounds are out there treasure hunting, and I wonder if they’re as uncomfortable about it as I am. Is it a superpower, or a figment of our addled imaginations?

Mulling it over, I had an insight. What if I've been doing Machine Learning? Having fed so much data and detail into my mental database, have I reached some critical threshold? I've likely eaten in 30,000 restaurants, doing so with eyes wide open, fixated on cracking code and plumbing treasure. Plus, I was naturally good at it to begin with. So, 40 years in, have I simply acquired a sufficiently massive data stack to make it effortless? Is this simply the perq of a lifetime of obsession?

Ironically, we discussed this while eating merely good pork cheeks in a barely adequate restaurant. And I chose the place. So, hmm. Maybe forget the whole thing?

I was once invited to come hang out in Tokyo by an American expat food writer who claimed to be a fan of my work. Each night, he showed me his faves, which were wonderful. Each day, I’d find my own, which I eagerly reported to him, making him angrier and angrier. I’d just arrived. I knew nothing. I was eating in just any old place and proclaiming it brilliant, as if I could possibly find great stuff that had escaped his expert, experienced eye. Dial it back, guy. You are in no position to proclaim anything. I’ll show you what good is. This is my turf.

I begged him to try my places, but he didn’t need to. They were in his nabe, he knew “about” them, even if he hadn’t actually tried them, and if they were outstanding he’d KNOW about it. Because he LIVES there, and he’s an EXPERT.

This happens a lot. When I drop in and profess to find finds, it can leave local experts scorned. Even a little pitchforkish. “What are we, shmucks in your view?” Over the years, I’ve heard from dozens of people who grew up around Avenue J in Brooklyn who consider me an overheated loon for making such a damned fuss over Difara’s Pizza, which was, locals well knew, just some neighborhood pizzeria. Good, sure, but not the second coming of Christ, for chrissakes.

Working against conventional wisdom pisses people off. But it always surprises me. I always expect people to value fresh discoveries - especially ones right under their noses. I take it as well as I dish it out. Tell me that all my hometown faves suck, and I’ll listen eagerly, with pen poised, to your superior finds. Please please please do this! Please tell me I’m missing greatness…so I can experience greater greatness!! Step me up! Elevate me!

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