Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Is It the Real Turtle Soup or Only the Mock?

However much the notion may appeal to American neo-conservatives in their xenophobic rapture or, for that matter, ardent Fundamentalists in their faith-based logic, cole slaw was not invented in America. Even more certain is the fact that it was not a last-minute invention of some long-forgotten short-order cook named Cole, faced with minions of hungry customers and with nothing to hand except a few head of cabbages and some tired carrots.

It is, however, true--I have the authority of a number of reliable food writers and of chefs--that in America, a chef about to hire an assistant will demand to see the applicant's knives, firm in the belief that the condition of said knives speaks volumes to how the applicant will perform in the kitchen. My authority is also multifarious that one of the first steps in an interview, even before arriving at the applicant's vision of food preparation, is the manner and speed with which the applicant is able to dice, sliver, and otherwise render into small component parts varied raw vegetables.

All of which leads me to one of the great existential American debates, in some ways more existential than the dwindling remains of the reign of Mad King George, the turd in our national punchbowl, the chewing gum under our democratic seat.

To begin, there are three basic approaches to cole slaw in America before we can begin to consider the medium with which the cole slaw is dressed. Approach one favors the precise, square dicing of the cabbage and carrot, producing a sort of mosaic texture in the bowl, in which every piece is of the same approximate size, a kind of democratic reduction as a symbol of the selflessness of cole slaw at this state in its existence. The second approach relies more on a fine uniform shred rather than a diced cut, symbolizing the shaggy freedom from culinary restraint, a kind of salad a la dreadlock. The third approach is indifference: put it on my plate and I'll eat all of it but those miserable carrots, which are well known to cause loss of secondary sex characteristics.

Of the first two approaches, cole slaw purveyors in each camp, the diced and the shredded, are of a whim likely to add purple cabbage, green peppers, pineapple chunks, red peppers, and sun flower seeds, extending the color range from the extroverted pallet resembling the rest rooms of art deco movie theaters of yore to the more restrained single-color look of a private hospital room. You could see this as the quintessential Blue-State/Red-State dichotomy inherent in American political taste.

In a memory I have refreshed earlier this year, the most splendid taste of cole slaw is to be had at The Pantry, an elderly jumble of stucco and shack on South Figueroa in the Baghdad of Los Angeles just before the Green Zone. Said slaw is a rather lumpish, nondescript green, dressed with a light oil and vinegar. Moving northward toward the venerable Union Station, we come to Phillipe's Restaurant, known more for its French-dip sandwiches than its cole slaw, but important in the sense of producing a more robust-looking cole slaw than The Pantry, one certainly of comparable taste.

All of which brings us to the Finnegan's Wake-type ending-in-the-beginning thrust of cole slaw. The cole slaw America invented has mayonnaise in it. America puts mayonnaise in everything, then claims it as its own. This is not to say that mayonnaise in cole slaw is a bad thing. Indeed, I am won over by it, particularly if there is a tad of horse radish or the Spanish equivalent, rais fuerte, folded into its creamy depths. Cole slaw with mayonnaise is, in some parts of this Balkanized country, served not merely with but in the hot dog.

You can fulfill the worthwhile ambition of touring the entire fifty states, starting, say, at Hawaii, jumping west toward Alaska, then swooping south and then east, along signs and symbols of Manifest Destiny and sub prime loans. You will find raw wounds, most of them racial, still festering, the tocsins of the Civil War still sounding, a stunningly inappropriate vision of immigration clanging the cell bars. You will find green Jell-o, red Jell-o, greasy hamburgers, politicians on the take, fire-breathing Fundamentalists, highly evolved Buddhists, football, baseball, and basketball rivalries of stunning proportions and hockey preferences only slightly less perfervid. You will find bad men, devious men, calculating women, and even some misguided women (Laura Bush and Elizabeth Dole come to mind); you will find a younger generation inoculated with a sense of entitlement, and you will find a national cookie that has only in recent months begun to remove its transfat, but you will be hard put to find in Hawaii, Alaska, or throughout the lower forty-eight, a place that serves conspicuously bad coleslaw. You would think to find it lurking, like a Republican in Alabama or Mississippi, in a KFC or a Taco Bell, but even they have been visited by The Good Witch of Cole Slaw, and rough beast that we might otherwise be, we go slouching toward Bethlehem.


R.L. Bourges said...

The truth is in the cole slaw, brother ( don't it like to settle in unlikely places, though? the truth, I mean?)

Anonymous said...

I cannot believe you think the coleslaw at The Pantry is better than the coleslaw at Art's. I'll give you Phillipe's; they make a mean slaw. But The Pantry? Yeah, yeah . . . I know it's a sentimental favorite. But nothing, not even Phillipe's, compares to the coleslaw found at Art's Delicatessen on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. And I think I've heard you say the same thing while sitting across the table from me. No, that's not true. I think you say that Annie's is best (gotta love a man who loves his mother), and then Art's. Or maybe you're just humoring me.

Which reminds me, let's make it Art's for dinner on the first day of the new semester?

Smiler said...

"A kind of democratic reduction as a symbol of the selflessness of cole slaw at this state in its existence".

Nothing to add.

lettuce said...

now who would have thought that a post on cole slaw could be so entertaining? and also so clever?

salad a la dreadlock, i like the sound of.
Pineapple chunks in cole slaw? not so much

x said...

I have never thought about cole slaw. I just assumed my mother,from Hungary, made it correctly, and everyone else made it a little wrong.