Book Review: The Urban Cookbook

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King Adz, The Urban Cookbook: Creative Recipes for the Graffiti Generation (Thames & Hudson, 2008). ISBN 978-0-500-51430-6

Given an earlier post on foodways and street culture, and an interest in reviewing cookbooks, the subject of this post should come as little surprise. At the onset of this blog, I mentioned how coverage of street culture – especially how it was handled through the lens of streetwear – often avoided certain components of culture. King Adz’s The Urban Cookbook challenges this thought, if only in the fact that it exists as published volume.

The concept is simple enough. Adz visits five major cities (New York, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, and London), interviews local “street culture” legends (25 of them), runs down the scene, and designates a recipes indicative of the place (50 of these). In the abstract, the idea is a strong one. In reality, the subjectivity of choice hampers the potential.

Let’s begin by outlining one of the chapters, for the sake of ease chapter 1 “New York.”  The chapter begins with an outline of hip-hop history and falls into a brief description of two neighborhoods – the Lower East Side and Coney Island. These are “real” places, agreed, but snippets of New York. Arthur Avenue, in the Bronx, for example retains a “real” sense of identity unhindered by gentrification. Yet, it is left out in favor of more street trendy tourist destinations. The choice of interviewees does generate a good cross section of those that contribute to New York’s urban culture. There’s Boogie, the Serbian-born photographer, Rodney Smith of Shut skateboards, and Marc and Sarah of Wooster Collective. Add a toy designer (Tristan Eaton) and graphic designer (Jon Setzen) and a set of strong voices emerge. Adz also contributes a quick guide to shops and cafes, which includes many of the usual suspects (aNYthing, Frank’s Chop Shop, Shake Shack, etc).

The scene is well set, and the interest in a specific vision of the city built. On to the food, and things get slightly muddled. A steak recipe (included because Yanks love steak) comes from a South African uncle. Two pasta based recipes are more gangster oriented than indicative of creative food finds. Chili con Carne, while American, doesn’t scream New York. If chapter 1 is a snap shot of the book (it is), then you’ll understand where subjectivity comes into play. There’s both a severe limitation to the travel guide element of the book and a laissez faire attitude to finding truly unique born and bred in NY recipes.

On food, Adz composes a rather strict definition of street food.

“Street food is anything that is cooked on BBQs, grills or braais, in cafes, diners, snack bars, chippies, takeaway, boots, cabins and food vans, and it has to be good, ethnically diverse and fresh, not ‘fast’ or ‘junk.’”

In short, not haute cuisine. And, the definition works. It speaks to vernacular cooking, styles and flavors built from the intermingling of culture allowed to blossom in the urban environment. Adz himself knows food. He trained, for a short period, as a chef, and this promotes some credibility. However, as noted above, his passion for food does not seem to extend to diving too deeply into a given places food history. As a foodways story, The Urban Cook Book fails.

As an indicator of the variety and depth of urban culture though it succeeds. The book really is comprised of three parts – the introduction to each city, the interviews, and the recipes. Reading the interviews (the strongest portion) one does get a more nuanced view of urban culture. The introductions expose a simplistic (or, more fairly, narrow) view of each city. And finally, the recipes express an interest in street food without an interest in true adventure within food.

The strength of Adz book, and what makes it worthwhile, is that he does succeed in bringing food into the “street culture” conversation. Unfortunately, for those of us with a strong interest in the subject, developing a true understanding of the workings of multi-ethnic urban space through the food is stifled.

Adz presents a view. It’s firm. And, it’s concise. The effort deserves some applauding. But, it also generates questions as to why certain things have been omitted and why a man so obviously talented and intrigued would happily perpetuate limited notions of urban life which are primarily driven by hip-hop eyes and cool guy aspirations.

Read more | By on 3pm on 9/26/09 | no comments;

America Away

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Given the rich sporting heritage of the United States, there are few times when national pride truly comes into play. Preference for home grown games limits the importance of international competition. Dominance on the track, in the pool, and in a few other Olympic sports helps to forge a veneer of invisibility, maintained by avoiding coverage of “non-American” athletics.

In recent years, Team USA has suffered a few set backs in the core athletic venues. Hiccups in preparation for the basketball team led to embarrassing (though deserved) losses at past Olympic games and World Championships. Baseball too has seen increased global parity. On the world’s biggest stage, the soccer pitch (or football as some prefer), American’s remain nonplused. Success is applauded, but a loss remains to great extent meaningless. Mention of a loss in the press is fleeting. Analysis minimal.

The times are, however, changing. USA Soccer is building. The national team is beginning to show signs of true promise and potential on the world’s biggest stage is becoming more interesting.

This summer’s victory over Spain, during Confederations Cup was heralded as the biggest win in United States soccer history. The 1950 win over England, it must be said, is more myth than memory. Spain, beaten off US soil, was rightfully seen as a major development and boost to national interest in the sport.

Well before the USA upset Spain in South Africa, I had booked a trip to the USA v. Mexico World Cup qualifier at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. There is no doubt the boarder battle with Mexico is the one true American rivalry in Soccer. The rivalry, spurred by several 2-0 US wins over the years (most recently in February’s tie in Columbus, Ohio) and all the things that one could imagine, might make a Mexican fan’s blood boil.

But playing in Mexico City is an altogether different challenge. Azteca stadium is a place of footballing lore: it is the place of Maradona’s “hand of god” and cathedral to the game, seating close to 100,000 fans. As an American, no place is farther from home. Azteca is a battleground – and one where the stars and stripes rarely come out on top..

My experience as a sports’ fan has brought me to several “hostile” environments. I have cheered Georgetown basketball in almost every Big East Arena. I wore a Danny Ferry Spurs’ jersey to the 2003 NBA Finals at Continental Airlines (now Izod) Arena. In each venue I was met with suspicion, but ultimately only meek insults and weak taunts. I’d never truly been the enemy before.

I wanted that feeling. Azteca promised to fulfill the need.

Read more…

Read more | By on 11pm on 9/4/09 | 1 comment

Who Is We.

“The Social Consumer” is an ongoing review of the moment. Submissions are always welcome.

Jeff Carvalho is managing editor at Titel Media (Selectism, Highsnobiety). He received a degree in journalism from Northeastern University sometime back in the late 90’s and today spends his time hunting trash bins for modern furniture and typewriters. When not thrifting, Jeff enjoys riding his bicycles around Boston and NYC (all season) and watching soccer on TV.

Nicholas Schonberger is a graduate of the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture at the University of Delaware. An expert in nothing, Schonberger knows a little about Connecticut Furniture built between 1790 and 1800, American tattooing in the years 1870-1920, and British Rap music from 1997-2000. He is co-author of Homeward Bound: The Life and Times of Sailor Jerry.

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