Sunday, December 9, 2007

VAGUE EATS! A Guide to Baltimore's Undetermined Foodstuffs. (Part I)

(NB: Aspects of this blog posting may be said to show an obvious class bias--fair enough, that's the obvious part--the other part is what this blog is about.)

The Sandwich Which is Not Itself

Lets start with the basics, "Lake Trout." Baltimore's "classic" sandwich is a nonsequitur, since "Lake Trout" is not the actual fish of that name (Salvelinus namaycush) which is rarely eaten in Baltimore, but rather some other fish, usually Whiting or Atlantic Whiting, that has been fried and placed between two slices of white bread. In local corner food marts and the ubiquitous no-name carry-outs that dot the cities poor quadrants, Lake Trout is more available than hamburgers or "hot dogs."

It's a case of a completely mistaken labeling of a food becoming standard, and a strange one because its a distinctly salt-water fish being attributed to inland water. The sandwich is itself an impersonation, though one could argue that since all words are conventions, it is just a ripple in the web of conventions and a small one at that. One imagines that there may be generations of people eating Lake Trout sandwiches who fleetingly imagine nonexistent lakes and nonexistent fishes one time and one time only before the words become fixed in the noosphere.

Perhaps, along with "sweetbreads," and "prairie oysters," Lake Trout forms the basis of a class of foods that deceives. This is the opposite of animal mimicry, in the sense that the food misnames itself in order to be more likely to be eaten, not less. Call them deceptopablum.


The Lure of a Texas Cheesesteak
Next there is the business of New York Fried Chicken, a dominating fast-food chain which I think represents the paradoxical elan of Baltimore rather precisely. For a long time I was under the mistaken impression that chain existed only in Baltimore (and not New York)...I wish that poetic feat had actually born scrutiny.

Certainly its sudden appearance in Baltimore was disconcerting, since New York is hardly known for its fried chicken--though one wonders if, in certain highly insular Baltimore communities, that wrong reputation might become a certainty. I had a fantasy that New York Fried chicken could be improved by striking chicken from the menu, and only selling Lake Trout--like the restaurant's name, without explanation. I also had a fantasy of opening a restaurant on Pratt Street and calling it "Lombard Street Fried Chicken"--the name of the next street over, which struck me as a potential for true Baltimore style.

Baltimore's confusion, being a Southern city that mistakenly considers itself Northern, comes full circle in the dominance of New York Friend Chicken, like a fried snake eating its own tail. However, a second dissociation is in the mix--despite its New York parentage, New York Fried Chicken is largely run and owned by Afghani's. A federal investigation attempting to link New York Fried Chicken with terrorist networks unearthed significant drug dealing within the business and the possibility of money laundering, although, like many things, this was never satisfactorily resolved.


Low Tautologous Redundancy
Its a fine day in Hampden, one of Baltimore's deepest wells of ambiguity. Sun shining, I walk into Bella Roma and order some "slice pizza," but realizing I'm thirsty, I also decide also on some "can soda." What you might ask, is the difference between "can soda" and regular soda? Well, for one thing, the flavor.

Suddenly, everything is, for lack of a better word, "overspecified." When I have a headache, I eat some "pill aspirin." When I sweeten my drink, I use "grain sugar." When I eat breakfast, I ask for "link sausage," and at lunch I drink some "glass water." For a snack, I have a little "bag candy."

On the table are some "bunch flowers." I'm wearing "hand gloves."

So: Everything is as it should be on heaven and earth.

The trick is to qualify categories of things with less descriptive versions of themselves, or with adjectives or pseudo-adjectives which are already implicit in their structure (e.g., that pizza can be divided into slices).

Each thing then becomes less like itself by becoming more like itself.

(Thanks to Kevin Takacs for photos).