Regional Food

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Overrated The most overrated American regional food comes from my beloved Northeast. Each April or May chefs throughout New York and beyond (those in my own restaurants included) celebrate the arrival of fiddlehead ferns and ramps with an overblown enthusiasm that belies their own culinary good sense. It is true that the long, endless winters of our region stoke a deep-seated craving for spring. By mid-February we are already sick and tired of cooking with apples, squash, and root vegetables, so we project our need to reawaken on the first green anything that emerges from the defrosted earth. Let’s be honest. A fiddlehead fern is not delicious, no matter how you prepare it. Blanched, sautéed, batter-fried, or raw, it is nothing more than a bland, oddly textured plant whose only redeeming virtue is that it doesn’t poison you. (And I’m told it’s even capable of doing that.)

The best thing about ramps (“wild” leeks) is their name. For some reason, people just love to say it. A ramp is distinctive only if you have the misfortune of eating one raw. You won’t lose the pungent taste in your mouth for at least 24 hours, which is not my idea of a great way to spend a day. As a consequence, ramps are usually cooked in some fashion, and the result is almost always fine, but never much more than that. In fact, almost every other member of the onion family— shallots, garlic, real leeks, and true spring onions—is a far more distinctive guest than ramps at any party to which they are invited.

I’ll always be delighted to welcome the arrival of spring. But from this moment on I’ll not shoulder fiddlehead ferns or ramps with the unfair burden of measuring up to my pent-up desire for the vernal equinox.

Underrated In the world of barbecue, regional differences are debated with a rancorous and religious zeal both within and without the regions themselves. Denizens of North Carolina argue vehemently over the finest (and coarsest) points of chopped pig, as well as which quadrant of the Tar Heel State produces the tangiest, properly tomatoed sauce. While barbecue lore maintains that America’s choicest regions for ‘cue are (in order) Memphis, Kansas City, and North Carolina, I know exactly where I’d head were I told I had just one final weekend to ply my body with barbecue. The Texas Hill Country, a beautiful part of our nation (whose gateway is the incredibly underrated city of Austin), is the ultimate in barbecue purity. Those who think the sauce makes the ‘cue will be disappointed. There is no particularly good sauce to be found there. Pit masters are proud to let oaky smoke and meat do all the talking.

Cattle is king in Hill Country, with exceptional versions of beef brisket, shoulder clod, ribs, and spicy sausage (hot links or hot guts) to be found throughout the land. But it doesn’t stop there. Hill Country outposts serve exquisite pork ribs, gargantuan pork chops, and my favorite versions of smoked chicken as well. I’ve even become a sucker for stewed pinto beans, preferring them to the sweet baked beans one finds in other barbecue regions.

Though I have at least 10 must-return-to favorites, one can almost throw a dart at the Texas Hill Country map and not be disappointed, wherever it lands.