Cincinnati is the best food city in the USA. Maybe.
Notes on food rankings, understanding the Midwest, and what we talk about when we talk about culinary scenes
Hello, Snackers. We’re moving away from the usual snack-specific content today and looking at the broader issue of comparing entire cities’ food scenes. What are we really talking about when we do this?
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One of my favorite things about the Super Bowl is how it gets Americans talking about regional foods. Politicians make bets, with local specialties (beer, candy, snacks, what-have-you) on the line, and news outlets dutifully cover it as a quirky story. Other journalists, looking for a way to generate content adjacent to the headline-grabbing main event, talk up iconic dishes of the places in question, something you can see in current coverage like The Ringer’s “NFL Food-City Playoffs” series or The Takeout’s story on Cincinnati chili or this Allrecipes post on “Recipes Inspired by Cincinnati and Los Angeles.”
But something interesting happens every time: Places get reduced to one or two iconic dishes (in this case, I’ve seen a lot of tacos for Los Angeles and five-way chili for Cincinnati). On the one hand, it’s good for outsiders to be introduced to (or reminded of) these foods, especially when it comes with some context—it can be a quick way to learn about the city’s history and roots. But when you hear the same talking points over and over, it can paint an inaccurate picture, giving the impression that the place’s identity has just one or two roots worth discussing.
I’ve been thinking about this, and the ways that this type of sports-adjacent local food coverage overlaps with articles about The Best Food Cities in the USA, ever since I posted this tweet back in January, when there were four NFL teams still playing:
It was meant as a joke, mostly. There are no numbers to crunch, and the food scenes of San Francisco and Los Angeles are famously vibrant and full of world-class restaurants (they don’t need me to promote them!), and, anyway, “objectively correct” is a ridiculous thing to say about something that is so clearly subjective.
But people took it seriously. That’s fine—people are allowed to interpret statements in their own way, which is why I’m not going to link to any specific responses—but I was surprised. It was far from a viral tweet, but it got a lot more replies than my usual posts, with an especially high number of earnest Californians telling me that I was not just incorrect but wildly so, appallingly so—it was as though I had just said in all sincerity that, actually, two plus two equals fifteen.
And it got me thinking beyond the Twitter goofballery of the original statement: How do we write about or compare entire cities’ worth of food? Because the more I ponder that tweet and the response it provoked, the less certain I am that it was a joke at all.
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The concept of ranking cities based on the quality of their food appears to be a recent one, popularized in the last twenty years or so on the coattails of the explosions of (1) food media, (2) being a foodie as a cultural marker, and (3) the internet as a means of news distribution, making nearly every publication internationally available and, therefore, part of a geographically dispersed discourse.
The earliest mention I can find of any kind of city-versus-city comparison is this Gallup polling question from 1955:
Other than the stray Gallup question (they asked it a few other years, too), the concept of the USA’s best “food cities” isn’t one that appears in newspapers or magazines at all until the 1980s, and in consistent numbers until around 2000. Here’s a graph from Google Books (if you can’t read the tiny type, the first bump up is in the mid-1980s):
You get similar graphs with related search terms, and also when you look at Newspapers.com. Within that upward-sloping line, you can find “best food city” lists in The Washington Post, Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, U.S. News & World Report, Insider, Eater, Houston Family Magazine, and many, many other outlets. TIME named Cleveland one of the nation’s top food cities in 2015, and local leaders included this fact in their pitch to be Amazon’s second headquarters in 2018.
But rankings are always a matter of metrics—different data sets yield different results.
If we’re talking Michelin stars, well, New York is clearly the best food town in the U.S., although Michelin only rates restaurants in four other American cities (Chicago; Washington, DC; Los Angeles; and San Francisco). If it’s about most acclaimed restaurants per capita—a stateside version of San Sebastián in Spain—then we’re probably talking about Portland or Charleston.
And if the conversation moves to include the whole constellation of food and restaurants in a given place, including regional specialties, that’s another matter entirely. In food writing circles, there’s much love—rightfully so—for the work of Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer-winning Los Angeles food critic famous as a champion of that city’s lesser known mom-and-pop shops, where the dishes are every bit as delectable and satisfying as anything you’ll find on a tasting menu lauded by Michelin or the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Thanks to Gold and others (including Anthony Bourdain, Calvin Trillin, Jane and Michael Stern, websites like Chowhound, and even a certain Food Network star named Guy) smaller, less-stuffy restaurants and food trucks and strip-mall takeout joints are now a standard part of the food journalism conversation. That’s good! Recognizing complexity and variety is important!
But consider this: San Sebastián has 11 Michelin-starred restaurants but, with fewer than 200,000 people, it doesn’t have the breadth of the culinary scene in, say, Cincinnati, where the population tops 300,000. Which of these places is a better food town?
How is the answer not Cincinnati?
And if you’re instinctively recoiling at that very concept right now—or if you flinched at my tweet ranking the Queen City’s culinary scene above those of San Francisco or Los Angeles—let me ask you this: What do you know about the food of Cincinnati?
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I didn’t know much. I was vaguely aware of the local style of chili (about which more in a moment) and I knew they also had mock turtle soup and goetta as, like, cornerstones of the city’s culinary identity, maybe.
So I called up Jed Portman, a Cincinnati native who has moved around the USA a bit—Montana, Texas, New York City, South Carolina, Virginia—but moved back to his hometown. A former assistant editor at Garden & Gun magazine, Jed now runs the excellent newsletter Midwesterner, which is all about the food and drink of, you guessed it, the Midwest. Growing up, he often visited family in the South and “internalized this idea that Cincinnati was gray and was boring,” but that “the South had culture: delicious food, history, heritage, interesting people, vibrant accents, all of it.” As an adult, though, Jed had a turning-point moment, at a beer festival in North Carolina that focused on brewers from that state but also included some guests, including Scratch Brewing from Ava, Illinois. He recalls:
They were pouring an oak and turmeric brew and I tasted it and it had this delicious toasty oaky flavor. And immediately all these memories came flooding back of being a kid and running around in the Midwestern woods in the fall. It was truly one of those moments where you realize, oh my God, I have flavor memories. I have these nostalgic Midwestern flavors that evoke things in me. I hadn't really realized that before. I sort of thought of the Midwest as the place you went when you didn't want flavor or you didn't care about flavors.
As a kid, Jed did a lot of fishing, hunting, and foraging. “I still remember eating my first black walnut and thinking I was going to die,” he told me with a laugh, “because this thing had fallen off a tree and I thought, ‘No way, can I just eat this?’” He picked persimmons and paw paw paws. Yet for so long, he says, “I just somehow missed it, which is such a Midwestern—to have all that right in front of you and continue to say there's nothing here.” (Jed also noted that this natural bounty is widespread across the Midwest, pointing out that the fertile land, and indigenous Americans’ expertise in cultivating it, made Cahokia the largest city north of Mexico for centuries.)
Once you take a closer look at the area’s prepared foods, a similar thing happens: you understand the story beyond the stereotypes. The story is more complicated, more interesting. Take Cincinnati chili, with its layers of spaghetti, chili, and cheese. As Jed explained to me, and examined at length in a recent Midwesterner interview with culinary historian Dann Woellert, it’s essentially a version of the Greek dish saltsa kima, and was initially created by immigrant Macedonian brothers in the 1920s. People who don't know any of this story often marvel at that combination of ingredients, and the inclusion of cinnamon, but even this lady component is part of the flavor profile of the Mediterranean roots. “If the exact same dish had emerged from Greek diners in New York instead of Ohio, it would occupy a completely different cultural role,” Jed told me, “That would be where Anthony Bourdain and David Chang went to eat at two in the morning. But because it’s Ohio, people are so inclined to look at it … and say, ‘That’s gross,’ because they assume there’s no logic to it, that it’s evidence of Midwestern bad taste.”
Growing up in Cincinnati, Jed’s family’s pizza of choice was LaRosa’s or Mio’s and their ice cream was Graeter’s, Aglamesis, or UDF—not national chains. They had their own versions and they were good, so why not stick with them? At a cook-out, they were eating mett’s (a kind of sausage) and brats, but the local brats are different from the ones you’ll find elsewhere (they’re white and emulsified). And because the city has a sizeable Indian immigrant community, when Jed moved to New York in college, he was “really surprised to recognize the Indian food was not significantly better than what I'd eaten in Cincinnati.”
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When we talk about entire cities or regions as a “food scene,” we’re really talking about is the whole tapestry of various histories and cultures. That’s not news, of course, but it’s frustrating to see how often this obvious fact gets overlooked or simply ignored in the broad-brush summaries and understandings of a culinary landscape. Here, for example, is the lede of a 2019 Vogue story about my hometown (see if you can count all the stereotypes!):
Minneapolis might not be the first city that comes to mind for a food tour. An out-of-state visitor might imagine its cuisine to be dominated by Jell-O salad and hotdish, with spices ranging from salt to pepper. And then there’s that weather.
If that’s your expectation of Minneapolis, especially now, this statement says much more about you and your understanding of the world than it does about the realities of life here. As Phil Christman wrote in his superb essay “On Being Midwestern” a few years back, “Even if we insist, wrongly, on seeing the Midwest’s physical geography as featureless, there’s no reason to extend the mistake, as many even within the region do, to its cultural landscape.”
This is what bothers me about the way the Twitter conversation played out and national media coverage of the Midwest like that Vogue piece or stories that fixate on chili as the beginning and end of Cincinnati food: too often, the same people who rightly celebrate large cities’ culinary diversity and complexity forget that diversity and complexity exist in other places, too.
Los Angeles contains multitudes, but so does Cincinnati. So do Omaha (where the Rueben may have originated) and Kansas City (you know about the barbecue, but try their very own tacos, too) and Sioux Falls (which has one of the USA’s fastest-growing immigrant populations) and Indianapolis (try the Burmese food!) and Detroit (here’s a history of the city in ten dishes). If you’re looking for the best—and most—Hmong or Somali restaurants in the USA, head to the Twin Cities, where those immigrant communities are especially robust and have deep histories. (In 2007, The New Yorker published a review of what was apparently New York’s only Somali restaurant, a rarity that made me chuckle as a Minneapolitan; the same review had all kinds of odd and ill-informed comments like “Chicken Fantastic is a creamy chicken stew that tastes like the best school lunch imaginable.” )
I could list cities all day and include similar links for every place. There’s lots of great stuff to eat and drink—and, moreover, histories and cultures and actual humans with their own distinct lives—at everywhere, if you're playing attention.
None of this is to take anything away from Los Angeles or San Francisco or New York or any other big city—it’s simply to point out that maybe, just maybe, ranking one place’s “food scene” against another’s is a fool’s errand. Each one has its own distinct component parts and delights. It excels in different areas because it has different people and different histories.
There’s so much left out of the discussion when we look at a place and reduce its foods—and its many cultures and its sprawling history—to just a few icons, or when we say, actually, this place I know well is inherently better than this other pace I know very little about. There’s no shame in acknowledging the limits of how much you know about other places, but this is a lesson that's all too rare in food discourse.
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So. Does Cincinnati have the best food in the USA? I don’t know. I truly don’t—because these sorts of things are inherently subjective, and the conclusions are based as much on what we don’t know as what we do. But it’s a possibility worth considering precisely because the story is so complicated, the comparisons so impossible.
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