Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Heights Report Part 4 - Carter & Cooley goes ethnic

"Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It denotes acculturation, but often connotes a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, may take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held. Or, they may be stripped of meaning altogether."


Carter & Cooley is a sandwich shop on 19th Avenue, which is the Heights' version of a small town main street. The sandwich shop has 1920s interior design features, old black & white photos, a hanging menu on a wooden board.

For the last month, they have promoted their special sandwich -- a Vietnamese pork tenderloin sandwich "in honor of the Chinese New Year." From the standpoint of cultural authenticity, this sandwich is an abomination. It is an attempt at cultural appropriation that fails, miserably. But it tastes pretty good.

Let's start with the bread. The key to a proper Vietnamese Bánh Mì sandwich is fresh French bread. See my February 6, 2006 post. The C&C sandwich, however, uses bread that resembles a hoagie roll. Then they grill it in a sandwich press, much like a Cubano sandwich.

The meat is also un-Vietnamese. Vietnamese pork Bánh Mì uses small flavorful bits of roasted marinated pork. I am never sure what part of the pig is used, but I suspect they use most of it. In contrast, the C&C sandwich uses only pork tenderloin -- the least fatty part of the pig with the least pork flavor. Admittedly, I like cooking with pork tenderloin because it is healthy, easy to cook, and soaks up other flavors. But this pork, which comes in thick lean slices, is nothing like Vietnamese pork.

The biggest difference may be the sauce. Vietnamese Bánh Mì shops flavor their sandwiches with fermented fish sauce, either in the marinade for the pork, or the carrot relish, or just as a sauce on the sandwich. The C&C sandwich uses a sweet, vinegary sauce that more closely resembles a Chinese sweet and sour sauce. Then, they add a lot of spicy pepper. The sauce has a strong flavor and a big kick, but tastes nothing like Vietnamese flavorings.

The C&C sandwich comes with shredded carrots and cucumber. On the side, they serve a tiny potato salad that is about 1/2 potato and 1/2 mayo. Or you can get potato chips. The sandwich costs $7.50. Most Bánh Mì sandwiches sell for less than $3.00

How did C&C create this "Vietnamese sandwich"? I suspect that someone read a brief description of Bánh Mì and tried to recreate one using ingredients bought in an American supermarket. Yet they had no idea what they were doing. This sandwich is no more Vietnamese than it is Cuban or Chinese. It is to Vietnamese food what a Taco Bell enchirito is to real Mexican food, what supermarket vegetarian "sushi" is to real sushi.

Perhaps, more than anything else, this sandwich is American. It is true fusion food.

If you want real Vietnamese food in the Heights, you have to go to The Vietnam Restaurant, just down the street. But if you want a quirky, strongly flavored sandwich that is a mish-mash of cultures, go to Carter & Cooley before their "Chinese New Year" special ends.


Anonymous said...

My personal theory is that where ethnic cuisine is concerned, authentic is usually not what you want. But the real reason for my post is to share an experience I had when backpacking in China that mirrors your tale here. When I got off a train or bus and walk down the sidewalk, owners of small restaurants would hawk their menus aggressively. I tried many of them. Some were unlike anything I have seen in any Chinese restaurant in the U.S, and I mean that in a bad way. Just awful to my tastes. But some of the best were their attempts to cater to Westerners with items such as "pancakes." (There were others that would help make the point, but it has been too long to remember.) They too were unlike anything I had before, but almost uniformly were delicious. The favorite dish I had was something they called a sweet and sour chicken. But it was not fried, and the sauce was nothing like the day-glo orange stuff you would get here. I have never seen anything like it again. In case you set out looking for it, I believe it was in Guilin, or perhaps Yongsua. And it was 15 years ago.

anonymouseater said...

Good points. "Authenticity" is a sticky concept. "Authentic" doesn't always mean "best."

Plus, I have no qualification to say whether Chinese food is authentic.

Still, I would have skipped the "pancackes" and ordered the Chinese food that was unlike anything ever served in the U.S.

Anonymous said...

I did! I was there for three weeks and pretty much tried it all. It was the attempts at Western cuisine that were most memorable, because they were tasty yet nothing like the dishes we give the same name. But the sweet and sour chicken was the best. Oh, and I neglected to mention the wine bottle sized bottles of beer for a nickel. It was the local "Guilin Beer," which Lonely Planet said tastes like wet newspaper, but if you are used to American beer how bad could it be. And also the whole peeled pineapples on a stick, also for a nickel. I expect much has changed now, with the Chinese economy exploding.

sackie said...

Understood in any language, and taste!

Wow, someone who can disect a figurative "fusion" sandwich as authentic... and with the same prosaic flair, give it KUDOS! Yup, I am the decidedly AMERICAN proprietor of this establishment...doing some homework, and came across your blog. I thank you, I think! Your commentary was accurate, and deserves praise for descriptive and paletable choice words. The sandwich has been very successful, and has taken its place on the menu as the origins of delicatessens are an ethnic shmorgasborg of tastes, whether real, authentic or a taste of... made more for the delicious nature of being eaten -- then the mystery of what belongs. Deliberate is the healthy (less fattening) pork tenderloin, baked with ginger root, a sweet and sour baste, and some "kicked" up taste of garlic, spring green onions, peppers, and a textural surprise of crisp cucumber, carrots, and grilled... hot. The health department doesn't allow us to collect "mystery meats"... not that I'd eat them, or subject customers to figure out... just what they are. So, with great appreciation, I accept this ethnic "twist" of the truth... as I serve you and everyone, who searches for the test of taste, rather then the ordinary... you can get that anywhere!

anonymouseater said...

Yes, my review was primarily intended as praise. It really is a good sandwich. I get it frequently for lunch. It might be more accurate to call it something like "Asian flavored pork tenderloin sandwhich" -- but that name would be much too prosaic.