A recent discussion about food inspired this discussion. I have been all over the United States and not only should I feel blessed that I live in Colorado because of the scenery and the variety of things we can still do in our lovely state, but also because we exist on a peninsula of flavor across a vast, Bland sea of cooking. I can’t even deign to call much of what is out there in the Midwest and the West as cuisine. I believe cuisine indicates seasonings. Cooking techniques. Flavor.
Throughout America, regions are known for the signature dishes. New Orleans is known for their Cajun influences. Shrimp, crawdads, Cajun boils of corn and potatoes, etufee, the dark roux of gumbo, the mishmash of everything delicious in jambalaya. The South and their wizards of fat and flour who infuse their meals with hospitality as well as a syrupy sweet layer of passive aggression. The Yankee states for treats such as hot dogs, cheese-steaks, pizza, and pretty much anything you can make out of bread, melted cheese, and meat. From the influences of immigration for the last hundred and fifty years. California brings in the influences of Mexico, Asia, and good ol’ Americana with burgers and fries, and whatever can be cherry picked from the East Coast as well.
Between the barbecue states, with Kansas City, Texas, and the hinterland of Chicago and the influences of the Great Lakes of German and Polish immigrants, something happens to food. Something horrible.
Along the I-80 corridor, the cross-section of food you get to experience drops off significantly once you leave the Chicago area and head West. Only briefly does it improve when you hit southern Wyoming, but then again it degrades once your travels take you through Utah, Nevada, and their adjacent states. In some places, it might even be hard to find a cup of coffee. North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Eastern Washington, Oregon, all the way down to Arizona, the palette of the average person must tend to be leaning away from things containing spicy, savory, sweet, or sour. What you are left with is salt. Bready. And pepper available only on request.
I think a big contributor to this would have to be the influence of Mormonism, which makes self-denying Protestantism look like Fat Tuesday in Trinidad. Simple, austere people traveling across the Great Plains with hand carts, jars full of sourdough starter, and plenty of beans, salt pork, and maybe bits of old boot leather and wood to eat. No alcohol. No coffee. A lack of spices (possibly due to availability or austerity) that would make the Amish blush.
The trend stuck. It still continues to thrive in many places unless the restaurant is some sort of madcap renegade, throwing paprika and cumin around like candy from a firetruck during a 4th of July parade. You’ll find things on menus like baked fish. Like that’s all they do to the fish is just bake it. *Shudder* Pork chops. “Steak.” Usually cooked all the way through without even a hint of pink. Because pink is for sissies.
Colorado, however, gets to benefit from its proximity to New Mexico, and because of that Mexico by proxy. Because of influences from Texas we not only have Chile (green from NM) but Chilli (red from Texas). As a crossroads of many cultures and many influences, we know how to grill a steak, smoke some BBQ ribs, roast, grill, poach, fry, sautee, broast, boil, and sashimi just about anything. Elk. Moose. Wild boar. Venison. Antelope! (more of a novelty, it’s really pretty gross). Chicken, pork, and above all else, BEEF. The only thing we don’t do very well with is cooked fish. Colorado is 1500 miles away from either coast. Don’t hold your breath the fish is going to be any good. Or better yet, hold your breath, because it’s going to stink.
Most of us don’t have the palette for fish. We catch trout, which is usually drowned in butter, salt and pepper, lemon wedges, batter, and anything to make it not taste like fish anymore. We don’t have many catfish to speak of. Many times have I gone fishing, only to have our catch rewarded by charring hot dogs over an open fire on the end of willow switches. The trout destined to hibernate in someone’s deep freeze until they are just thrown away years later. Between the billions of bones to pick through and the portion size, hot dogs sound like a better alternative. It’s more fun to fish for the fish, than to eat them.
Colorado’s biggest drawback today might be the prevalence of chiles and jalapenos in literally anything. At some point, our taste buds are going to be cooked out by our tolerance to Scoville units of pain. Also, we have nothing on New Mexico. Santa Fe is like finding some antediluvian text in a language everyone can read inherently. The purity of the food there, the simplicity, the synchronicity of seasoning which awakens the senses is, in my opinion, unparalleled. If I lived in Santa Fe, I would weigh 600 pounds.
Living in Colorado is a lot like flying just close enough to the sun without being burned by it.