When guilty pleasures become the cuisine du jour, what’s the illicit culinary thrill-seeker to do?
There was a time when fried chicken—really good fried chicken—was something to be coveted. You’d find a place that did it well (often in some dodgy neighborhood, in a place where even paper napkins were too uppity), and then you would tell no one about it. It was your spot, and you guarded the address the way you did the phone number of your weed guy or the place you could go and pay a hundred bucks for an inspection sticker for your car, no questions asked.
Now, fried chicken is cool. Fried chicken is “hip” in the worst sense of the word, and it’s no longer a secret, guilty pleasure, because you can get it everywhere. Restaurants display it on their menus in a way that’s almost braggy. In a way that says, Look how awesome we are! We took this classic American dish and jammed a bunch of lemongrass and pomegranate in it so now it’s cool to eat again! Aren’t we clever?
The inclusion of fried chicken on a menu once spoke to a certain loyalty to formerly overlooked American classics and the iconoclastic nature of the chef who chose to feature it. Once upon a time, serving fried chicken in a fancy restaurant was neat culinary mutiny, a nice little bit of pro-American-cuisine rebellion. But what happens to the revolution when everyone is rebelling?
I feel the same way about deviled eggs. You wanna know who makes the best deviled eggs in the world? My mom. Followed by every other mom in the world. Followed by any cook who follows a mom-inspired egg/mustard/mayo recipe. Followed (distantly) by any white-jacketed knucklehead who adds anything else at all.
Deviled eggs used to be something that I could score maybe twice a year—always in the summer, generally on a day involving some kind of family picnic—and that was fine. I would eat about 200 of them, get sick, have to lie down for a while, then dream about deviled eggs until the next summer family gathering came around.
Now? They’re on the bar menus of 967 different restaurants in Center City alone, and none of them are as good as the deviled eggs that I remember from the days before deviled eggs, like fried chicken, became cool.
Tater tots are also cool. Everyone serves them now. Usually gunked up with stuff that only a chef would think is a good idea to add to tater tots—like nuts, or mornay sauce. Grilled-cheese sandwiches? Totally ruined by chef-ly creativity and the juvenile desire to always add just one more thing to something that, in its original form, was already perfect.
Am I being a bit oversensitive here? Maybe. But in order to defend that which is so good and pure in the canon of the after-midnight, one-Yuengling-too-many, I-don’t-want-it-if-I-can’t-eat-it-on-my-couch-while-watching-Night-Court-reruns-in-my-underpants style of American guilty-pleasure cuisine, sometimes hyperbole is the best weapon.
So am I saying that the world will end the next time some bright and pretty young thing in a pearly-new chef’s coat invents a clever new way to infuse my tater tots with essence of rosemary and fill them with sardine gelée?
Yes. Yes, it absolutely will.
You have been warned.
First appeared in the September, 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine.
Illustration by Kagan McLeod