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National food critic dubs H-Town's restaurant scene "bastard cooking" — sorry that's no compliment

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Chris Shepherd Photo by © Julie Soefer
News_Underbelly, dining room
The dining room at Chris Shepherd's Underbelly. Photo by Julie Soefer/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau
chris shepherd underbelly
News_Underbelly, dining room
Sarah Rufca, Column Mug, head shot, USE THISJune 2012

I love it, I do, when a food critic from a culturally acceptable coastal region comes to Houston and realizes how awesome our food is. The more they sputter or feel the need to couch their praise in how ugly the city is, the better the schadenfreude.

But please, for the love of tacos, stop giving Houston food dumb names.

First there was "lardcore," the term that Josh Ozersky coined in Time magazine to describe Southern chefs taking classic dishes and pushing them to the next level through "virtuoso technique and hard-core attitude," naming Bryan Caswell's Reef as a hotspot of lardcore cuisine. That title is, to put it kindly, nasty. I'll sing the praises of the lard that Caswell uses in the beans and the tortillas at El Real all day long, but to describe anything as lardcore is the opposite of enticing.

 Even if the bastard title can be separated from the person doing the cooking, the term still reeks of pejorative connotations. 

More recently John T. Edge took to Oxford American dubbing Houston "Mutt City," a name that combines the city's embrace of the variety and splendor of the foods from our immigrant communities and our penchant for crossing the lines and boundaries between not only different cuisines but between high-dollar and low-brow fare. It also makes us sound kinda bedraggled yet lovable, a culinary version of Benji the dog.

The latest critic to try their hand at describing Houston's varied and brilliant food scene is Hanna Raskin of the Seattle Weekly. After a quick three-day visit, Raskin says Houston "should be atop the travel wish list of any enthusiastic eater right now," after trips to Oxheart and Underbelly. She describes the food at the latter as "exquisite" and the space as a "bombshell," but when it comes to taking on what makes Houston food so interesting, Raskin gets more creative.

[I]f I was in the naming biz, I might call what's happening in Houston "bastard cooking," since the city's kitchens have inherited an astounding amount of swagger from the cowpokes and oil barons that folks beyond Texas associate with the state. The beef fat which showed up in the turnip dish, or the tannic black tea which mingled with sunflower seeds in a knobbly soup, calmly demonstrated that even in the most refined settings, Houston chefs prize grit and gusto."

Swagger is good, as are grit and gusto, but I'm pretty sure Fox has copyrighted "bastard cooking" for Gordon Ramsay's next reality show.

While Houston chefs like Shepherd and Yu favor big risks and bold flavors, the title belies one of the most endearing and unique facets of Houston's culinary scene, which is the way that our chefs work together in a genuine spirit of camaraderie and community, with the combined purpose of creating one of the best food cities in the world.

Even if the bastard title can be separated from the person doing the cooking, the term still reeks of pejorative connotations, marking Houston's mutt cuisine (ugh, for lack of a better term) as something that debases the original. I don't think that's what Raskin meant, but it stands as unacceptable regardless.

Is there a phrase that could adequately label Houston's unique food movement? Not one that anyone's found yet. I, for one, am still looking.

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