Soul Food for Thought

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On my recent, brief trip to New York to visit family and friends, I had a checklist of specific foods I wanted to eat there; I wanted nothing but good food experiences – nothing mediocre, nothing mundane. To these ends, the trip was beyond satisfactory. Fork-tender Greek-style grilled octopus, colorful piles of Ethiopian curries on spongy injera, a lowbrow burger, a highbrow burger, and butter beans with bacon and crème fraîche all made their way into my gullet, washed down with a variety of uniquely American indulgences: high-gravity craft beer, bottomless cups of coffee, and the notorious Twinkie milkshake, which was probably conceived either by some mad genius chef, or somebody’s six-year-old child.

Twinkie milkshakeBottomless coffeeBrooklyn beersBottomless coffee

Yes, it was a five-day feeding frenzy on fantastic food – a very successful trip in my book. And though it’s hard to choose highlights from such a delicious holiday, my two favorite meals were probably a sampler plate from Miss Maude’s Spoonbread Too and good ol’ Akamaru tonkotsu ramen from Ippudō.

Miss Maude's

Miss Maude’s sampler plate included fried chicken, fried shrimp, barbecue short ribs and baby back ribs, candied yams, black eyed peas, and collard greens, a burly plate of food that was so good and perfect it could be in a museum – an exemplary soul food meal, Harlem, circa 2009. The ribs fell off the bone as if they couldn’t wait to be eaten, and the shrimp had a brilliant, fresh flavor that burst through the solid crunch and spice of its breading. I was especially impressed with the humble greens, wilted yet firm and unexpectedly tinged with a hint of smoke, like they had been cooked over a fire.

Akamaru

And then the Akamaru – well, we all know how I feel about Ippudō. Or do we? Ippudō is legendary. It was among the first bowls of really exceptional ramen I had in Tokyo, and it remained a favorite – somewhere in my top three, I’d reckon – over the course of the two years I lived in Japan, even after countless bowls of worthy competitors. The creativity displayed in Ippudō’s kiwami shin’aji and the ramen en flambé at its sister restaurant, Gogyō, cemented Ippudō’s status in my mind as one of the greatest ramen shops in existence. It seems silly, in retrospect, that I even considered not going there while I was in New York – the only city outside Japan lucky enough to boast an Ippudō.

Both of these meals (and yes, a bowl of ramen is definitely a meal – welcome to the site!) are sold as soul food. Miss Maude’s is soul food in the typical American sense of the word (and pardon my glib definition here): simple yet hard-to-get-right cuisine with loads of fat, protein, and carbohydrates originating in Southern Black households. The literature on Miss Maude’s and other restaurants serving this kind of traditional soul food often play up its homemade history; menus and reviews alike deploy comfort-food clichés such as “like Mom used to make,” “home-cooked taste,” and “just how you remember it” so repeatedly that crackers like me almost think that we actually did eat really awesome soul food growing up. Don’t we wish.

With this homey image in mind, the claim on Ippudō’s website that “Ramen is Japan’s Soul Food” struck me as a misappropriation of the term. Ramen, while hearty, frequently full of lard, and often relatively simple, it takes too much time and effort to cook at home (except, obviously, for the instant version); this, I thought, disqualified it as soul food. A Japanese visitor to Ippudō New York who could truthfully claim that his bowl of Akamaru was “just like Mom used to make” would have been raised by a very outstanding mother indeed.

Then I thought: what if the idea of “homemade” is allowed to extend outside the actual, physical home? While ramen isn’t really something that is cooked in the home in Japan, it is cooked at home in the sense that every town in Japan has a ramen shop, and, importantly, every region produces a different version of the dish that becomes a part of local culture and identity. Also, ramen is accessible – it’s cheap, fast, filling, and warming, and it provides a wonderful mélange of textures and flavors that just seems to make people a bit happier; in other words, it’s comfort food. So while ramen probably won’t elicit memories of the smell of pork broth wafting out of their kitchen when they come home from school, it’s likely to evoke a more generalized but no less affectionate nostalgia for their furusato, their old home – which may be their town, their prefecture, or (if they’re in New York), their country. And, for what it’s worth, Ippudō NY was just how I remembered it.

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