Bryan Caswell Defends Houston on Eatocracy, But Can We Defend Ourselves?

Categories: Chef Chat, News

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We're used to being insulted on a national level. Right, Zagat?
In 2002, Houston officially became a Zagat guide-less city.

Teresa Byrne-Dodge, editor and publisher of My Table Magazine, told the Houston Press at that time how the folks at Zagat -- based in New York City -- had not only snubbed her after 14 years of involvement as a contributor and editor, but had snubbed the entire Bayou City as well:

"The information in the old guide was pretty much from 2000, so it's getting old. They sell data, and it needs to be current," Byrne-Dodge says. "I kept waiting to hear something about the 2003 edition. Then this guy at SuperStand, before they closed, told me Zagat wasn't doing one again. I was floored. They're so popular; they always sell out."

Phone calls and emails to Zagat went unanswered except for an undignified form letter that Byrne-Dodge eventually received in her inbox: "Thank you for your interest in Zagat Surveys! The 2003 Houston Restaurant guide has been discontinued. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you. Unfortunately we did not have enough responses from our Patron Questionnaires with which to continue to publish the book." And that was it, despite the fact that -- at the time -- the greater Houston area had nearly 7,000 restaurants and the largest restaurant association in Texas, at a whopping 11,000 members.

But, honestly, good riddance to Zagat. One only needs look at what dreck the "dining guide" produces these days to know that Houston is better off without Zagat handicapping the opinions of diners, whether local or from out of town.

Yes, we're the fourth largest city in the nation. Yes, we're a center for energy, shipping and commerce of all kinds. Yes, we're consistently one of the nation's fastest growing cities. Houston is even considered an international Beta city by the Globalization and World Cities Research Network.

But Houston has long been accustomed to being snubbed, ignored or otherwise overlooked on a national level. As Bryan Caswell pointed out today on CNN's food blog, Eatocracy, we are consistently snubbed by national media and the greater food scene:

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Photo by Tam Vo
Yesterday, I began my ritual surfing through the better-known food blogs and happened upon Eater.com, where they are promoting their 2010 Eater Awards for the best restaurants and chefs in the seven cities that Eater.com covers: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Miami and Austin. Once again, my hometown of Houston has been omitted - and not just from the award competition but from an entire site dedicated to good eats across the country.

And it's not just Eater.com that ritually snubs the fourth largest city in the U.S. - it's endemic of all the major national publications, both in print and on the web.

Well, I'm sick of it.

Caswell is sick of it, we're all sick of it. From the outside looking in (*ahem*Dallas*ahem*), it might seem like Houston has a bit of an inferiority complex.

But is it an inferiority complex if you're simply proud of your accomplishments, proud of your culture, proud of your talents...and yet find yourself told by others on a daily basis that you just don't matter? I don't think it is; I think instead that it's symptomatic of two things:

1) America's attitude towards Texas in general

2) Houston's refusal as a city to control itself and act like a grownup

There is very little that we can do to combat the negative attitude that so many Americans have toward Houston and Texas until we take action on the second issue listed above. Houston's chefs, bakers, mixologists, farmers and foodies have done their part in making the Bayou City an amazing center of culinary creativity. It's not our food scene that's failing. It's the city that's failing them.

The City of Houston makes it notoriously difficult for enterprising cooks to do anything from smoking or curing their own meat to opening a mobile truck or food stand. The City goes out of its way to shut restaurants down for extremely minor violations, ban them from holding events that would appeal to their customers, and impose draconian parking requirements on restaurants that don't need or want an enormous parking lot.

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Photo by @Hella
We need less of this, as punk rock of a marketing concept as it may be.
But it's not just the City's insistence on hyper-regulation of restaurants. It's our refusal as a city to insist on better public transportation, creation of more green spaces and walkable areas. It's our apathetic, indolent refusal to protect our past and our history in any meaningful way. It's our insistence as a whole that strip centers and asphalt -- no matter how unattractive, how sprawling -- are the way of the future. After all, they're cheap and easy to build, and isn't that what Houston is all about? The path of least resistance?

All of these things may be fine for us as Houstonians, but they aren't going to encourage people to visit here, even for a weekend. Houston is my home and I adore it, but it's got a face that only a mother could love -- and it won't be bothered to clean itself up. Non-conformity is one [wonderful] thing; brutal ugliness born out of laziness, apathy and crass greed is another. It's easy to mock Houston for wanting to attain "world class" status, but why demean a group of people for trying to better themselves, for trying to better our city? Loving Houston and wanting more for our city are not mutually exclusive concepts.

And if we're the only ones who know about this wonderful, special thing that we've created -- this amazing dining scene that's sprung up and deserves to be nurtured -- because of our steadfast refusal to make Houston a hospitable and welcoming city for visitors, as we're just too smug and lazy to change...whose fault is that, really? It's time to grow up, Houston.


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