product review

“Where Were You When I Needed You?”

~

the deadline for another Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery has come and gone without me getting my act together to apply to it, although this year is something of a special case because i was actively looking forward to the thing for some time. when i initially heard that 2012 was going to be themed “Wrapped & Stuffed,” i fairly shat myself out of excitement, but when the time rolled around to actually sort out a project for it, i found i couldn’t pull it together. all of my interests in the Wrapped & Stuffed were either too personal (wanting to stuff ’em in my person) or too meta, lacking an specific object by which my inclinations toward irresponsible theorizing could be anchored (it did not help that the deadline roughly corresponded to that of my thesis, which i perhaps shamefully gave priority). i cast about vainly for the Thing, the Crux, but nothing presented itself.

leave it to the caprices of fate, of course, to provide me with the perfect object a mere two months too late, in the form of the afore-mentioned “pickerel taco” from Bannock. it’s really, sadly, almost too perfect: it is effectively a wrapped food (to the extent that a taco is itself “wrapped,” which difference – that between wrapped and, say, enfolded) that by its complication and constitution calls up other stuffed (the steamed bun) and wrapped (the fish roll, arguably, and sushi, by still subtler implication) foods, and in this chaotic referentiality offers ample opportunity for tripping headlong into the slog of debates around cultural appropriation, hybridity, and gastronomic drift (which debates i like to think of, at their rarest and best, as an attempt to dance about a swamp).

admittedly, i still haven’t thought quite enough about it to get my rhetorical ducks in a row, but it’s certainly ripe for dabbling, and like many things it gets more interesting as one gets beyond the quite reasonable initial reaction of indignation. certainly, as is implied by my previous post on the PT (“pickerel taco”), and the not unrelated PBPB (“pulled beef po’ boy,” also in Toronto), my first inclination is to be like “Shut up, Bannock”; but a recent conversation with my friend Kristin reminded me that the repugnance/seduction (seductive repugnance?) of what might merely be crass commercialism or poor taste is also bound up with our responses to the monstrous and hybrid. i might describe my first response to the PT as a sort of conceptual disgust, that had nothing to do with physiological taste (in fact, i was from the get-go seduced by the taste prospect), and more to do with the  “good/poor taste,” and a moralizing of conceptual/cultural purity. but is that not always, or always the conservative response to hybridity? the offence against a certain order that makes the hybrid monstrous, as opposed to merely mixed?

and it is this disgust that eclipses thinking about “when a food ceases to be one thing and becomes another,” which is very much part of what is at stake in the reaction. or alternately, how such a hybrid comes to be?

in response to Kristin’s similarly perplexed, outraged question: “Why call it a taco? What are they trying to prove?” i came up with two possible answers:

the less charitable first option is that Bannock is simply cashing in on the massive popularity of tacos right now. everybody does tacos, or some “re-imagining” of the taco; it is a word with very good culinary capital right now (and i think politically involves similar issues to that of the po’ boy, without being quite as conceptually challenging from the get-go), whether or not what comes out on the plate bears much resemblance to a taco in the traditional sense. further, while “fusion” has become a worse word than “pig-fucked” at the  conversation, Japanese, Chinese, Korean and South-Asian “inspirations” abound, with Korean tacos in particular blowing up (is kimchi poised to be the new chipotle/roasted red pepper/sundried tomato? time will tell.). by bringing in the steamed bun the PT adds a little “Asian flair” to the mix; still further, i would argue, by evoking the by now pan-Asian appeal of sushi with the fish-roe tartar sauce.

the second option is that it actually started out as a taco of some sort. let’s say Bannock wanted to do a taco because they’re versatile, popular and cheap, and with the Canadian-Dream-of-Multiculturalism-Comfort-Food as their mandate, tacos certainly figure into the culinary landscape. somewhere along the line the fish taco (which is delicious) is dovetailed with the fish roll, that obscure Eastern Ontario specialty, and someone has the flash of insight that the spongey top-loading hot dog bun (aka the “New England Style,” that is so familiar to steamé and toasté-eating residents of Québec) recalls the pillowy whiteness of the steamed bun, and an inspired substitution is made.

now i would argue that this is a crucial substitution, the steamed-bun-for-the-tortilla. it is the timber by which the paradox of Theseus is broken; the difference that makes the difference. i in part draw force for this argument by an appeal to the internal logic of the taco’s context: in Mexico all one has to do is fry the tortilla and it becomes a whole other thing, the taco becomes a tostada. if method of cooking alone is enough to render something no longer a taco,¹ then so radical a substitution as a steamed bun should be still more de/reidentifying.  it is wholly speculation, but i do believe that the fish roll plays a stronger role in the genesis of the PT than even the taco. the choice of fish suggested this to me (pickerel and perch being traditional fish roll fillings, as far as i can tell), along with the tartar that upon tasting confirmed my suspicions, being evocative of the puzzling sweetness of the topping that one receives (somewhere between donair sauce and custard) when one is fool enough to order their fish roll “with sauce.” in this way the steamed bun substitution for the hot dog bun makes sense to me. there is an associative link that is frustratingly, distressingly absent when one tries to call it a taco. it is as if, assuming my imaginary reconstruction of the PT‘s origin is not far off the mark,² the taco provided the inspiration, the original template for the dish, but then was replaced piece by piece, displaced by the fish roll, until it returned a different ship. a triple substitution, a hybrid wherein only the whisper of the taco remains, to haunt and unsettle what might otherwise be a more harmonious mingling of references.³

if this is the case, though, Bannock may perhaps be forgiven for wanting to hang on to the taco’s recognizability, for although Ontarion, the fish roll is hyperlocal, perhaps to the point of obscurity, which doesn’t make for the best marketing. and so it is the fish roll that is resigned/consigned to the shadows, the reference that only some will get (assuming i’m not just imagining it).

and ultimately? the “pickerel taco” was pretty good. the steamed bun made for a delicious base/wrapper, and i wonder that this repurposing hasn’t been tried more often. they are smaller than the photo suggests, just lil’ guys, and if they were 2-3$ street food finds i’d be singing all sorts of praise, but for the 14ish$ that an order of two with some apple-iceberg salad comes to, you end up feeling like you’ve paid for the novelty more than anything.

and i certainly ain’t paying 14$ for no two tacos. i mean, shit.

¹ render it not a taco in this very particular sense. i realize that the hard-shell taco complicates this, and that i am by default prioritizing a particular version of the Mexican taco over its later Tex-Mex permutations, points of reference in their own right.

² if i had been seriously pursuing this, it might have been nice to speak with the chef(s) behind Bannock, but so it goes.

³ although, good simple-minded leftist that i am, perhaps i am simply more comfortable with the idea of an “Asian-inspired” reworking of a Canadian dish than the appropriation/revising/corruption of an “authentic” dish from another culinary tradition. it gets back to the question, which i have so far been avoiding, of not only “when does a food cease to be one thing and become another?” but “who says?”

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