Serious Eats blogger Adam Kuban revealed in this edition of Last Chance Foods that it was desperation that drove him to start baking his own bagels. He grew up in Kansas and told me, "You can't get a good bagel there to save your life," calling the heartland version of a bagel "rolls with holes." He said bagels in Kansas never quite matched what he had tasted when he had visited New York.
Of course. This is New York City, home of the bagel, king of the hill of the culinary universe, top of the heap of the world of food.
I, too, grew up in fly-over country — in Brunswick, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. My parents still live in the area, and they really bristle whenever I start a sentence, "Well, in New York...." To wit: "Well, in New York, they really know how to make bagels."
Or, "Well, in New York, they don't roll up the sidewalks at 5 p.m., like in Cleveland."
Or, "Well, in New York, we walk everywhere... "
And it's not just New York. My parents' disdain for culinary and cultural one-upmanship extends to other parts of the world, too. While visiting during Christmas, we got onto the topic of a trip we had made in 2008 to Paris and my husband casually mentioned how great the food was.
"Why does everyone think the French are the be-all and end-all when it comes to food?" my mother asked, exasperated. "What do they do that is so special?"
Now, I don't think anyone likes being made to feel that their food, their local culture, their city, is lacking. But I wondered, 'Is it a Cleveland thing?' After all, my home town was called the "Mistake on the Lake." And during my childhood, it was known more for the fact that the Cuyahoga River caught on fire and Lake Erie was declared dead than it was for the Cleveland Museum of Art or the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.
I called my friend, Mark Sieckowski. He grew up in Brunswick, too, and we've been friends for about 30 years. He is Cleveland's biggest fan.
"I think their reaction is one of a certain generation," he said. "As for our age group, we've traveled a bit, seen more, had more opportunities to explore. We just know better."
However, he does get tired of our food superiority schtick.
"New York City is a marvel and a wonder, but once you step outside the walls of the Emerald City you discover that the Munchkins have been busy building their own traditions with food and art."
Mark tells me Cleveland has become one of the "hot spots" in the country for innovative cooking and hot restaurants. "It's not as expensive to get something rolling here," he said.
He mentions Iron Chef Michael Symon, a native Clevelander, who has several restaurants (check out his bio, on the website of one of those restaurants, Lola Bistro, here: http://www.lolabistro.com/michaelsymon.shtml)
And bagels? Mark likes the ones made by Christopher's Bakery at the West Side Market, the nearly 100 year old showcase of Cleveland foodways (Check out Christopher's here: http://www.westsidemarket.org/vendor.aspx?id=29)
"Cleveland is more like New York than other places its size," he said.
There are vibrant ethnic communities in the city -- Italian, Turkish, Polish, Romanian, Lebanese, Russian, to name a few -- and the restaurants to support them.
"Many of them are family run, with the family living upstairs and the restaurant business putting a kid through college," he said.
He recommends Nate's Deli for Lebanese food (he and Di like the shish tawook: "chicken marinated in mustard and vinegar and grilled until it's crispy and crusty, and served with rice pilaf and a side of homemade garlic mayonnaise.") and Mama Santa's for pizza ("We usually buy a quart of their sauce every time we visit," he said).
So proud is he of Cleveland's food scene, he admitted to his own feelings of superiority, especially during the last two years, during what turned out to be a disastrous move to Raleigh, North Carolina.
"I have to say that I've been just as guilty as anyone of being dismissive about food/culture," he later wrote to me in an e-mail. "I'd only be a tad facetious when I say that in Raleigh, bologna and mayonnaise on pasty white bread is considered a local delicacy. Di and I would come home to Cleveland for a visit and have to make provisioning runs to our favorite spots for meats, breads and all manner of restaurant foods to be frozen and rationed through the bleak months in North Carolina."
He's moved back to Cleveland; he closes on a house at the end of the month. Mark says the "simple truth" is that Raleigh didn't have a tradition of ethnic neighborhoods, with their restaurants, bakeries, meat markets or grocery stores. "Cleveland, New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh all do. And you'll find great eats in all of them."
The Munchkins, he says know how to live.