You may be aware that the DC dining scene is obsessed with cupcakes. There’s a show about one particular cupcakery, but they are by no means unique. There are, at last count, approximately one million cupcakeries in the District (there may be more, I’m not very scientific with my counting). In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that I don’t like cake. I don’t really like sweets all that much, but when given a choice, cake is never it. If I want bread I’ll eat it with butter. Pie tried to make a stand for a while, but the people keep clamoring for cupcakes, and I’m convinced it’s not for taste, but for trend. Case in point, there is a line outside Georgetown Cupcakes every day, rain or shine, despite the fact that you’re paying $5 for something you can make yourself with a muffin tin and some Betty Crocker mix. Whatever, cupcakes. You’re pretentious, overpriced, unsatisfying, and unoriginal.
But there is a more insidious food trend in our midst: small plates.
Those who know me know that I have long harbored a distrust of small plates, or whatever loose interpretation of “tapas” pops up at seemingly every restaurant in the DC metro. I actually like tapas; having studied abroad in Spain, I love the idea of a snack to go with my beer or wine, enjoyed in the earlier portion of an evening. But you know what tapas aren’t? Dinner. They are not dinner, in Spain. They are appetizers; they’re a bite to tide you over, because dinner won’t come until 11pm.
But here in DC, at last count, for dinner we have options for Pan-Asian tapas, French tapas, Italian tapas, and, the absolute worst, Fusion tapas. If you’re making food that isn’t actual tapas as tapas, you are already creating fusion. I’m all for the melting pot/salad bowl cuisine thing we have here in American, but not EVERY dish is enhanced by truffle oil or sriracha, or, God forbid, both.
Now, I know what it must seem like, a chubby kid arguing against small plates. But that’s not the issue. You can order as much as you want, and in fact, most restaurants with a small plates format suggest you order 3-4 dishes per person, which usually ends up being far too much. You can definitely get full on small plates, but are you satisfied? There is something psychologically satisfying about a warm, full plate of food sitting before you, in a way that grilled sunchokes sitting on a bed of salt foam will simply never acheive. Small plates can be interesting, they can be a good way to try a variety of tastes, and they can challenge the palate in new and intriguing ways. But after all the intrigue, are you left feeling full, in every sense?
I say this as a self-confessed “foodie,” a word I despise but for which I have no sufficient supplement. Gourmand implies gluttony, gourmet implies pretention. Food can be art, I’m not arguing that point; but I don’t think that should be its primary goal. Food should nourish, sustain, encourage, and most importantly, bring together. Small plates are meant for sharing, but they don’t actually lend themselves to that activity. The human animal sees a limited portion of food, say two precious scallops in a broth of fennel, and notes the number of people around a table, say five. Someone is getting the short end of the scallop stick, and already dinner is fraught with the politics of division. Compare to that tense scene a group of people, like the ones who came to my birthday party last week, sitting around a table with an 11lb pork shoulder. No one’s rat brain is worried about getting enough, and so the urge to immediately shove it all into your gullet is lessened. There’s no pretention, there’s no panic, there’s just a big ass plate of food and you’re invited to join.
To me, a meal is only as good as the company with which you share it, even if you’re eating alone. But we’ve become segregated, stingy with our food and with our tables. Our cupcakes and our small plates are selfish morsels of food that we use to limit ourselves, and in so doing, our ability to share with others. Single serving food is for one person, and implies that others would be unwelcome. You’re encouraged to order 3-4 plates per person to make sure you get enough-to make sure the others don’t get your share. But a meal should be a shared experience, our food should be open to all. My grandmother used to leave a place setting for the Lord, and I’ve heard of other families who leave an empty dish out for the unexpected guest, whoever that might be. I’ll admit, growing up I hated sharing, because my parents would always just order 2 entrees for the three of us, and I never got my own dish. But that was a matter of autonomy for an only child; once I was old enough to share in the ordering, and not be the one with the empty plate, I grew to appreciate the logic and largess of eating every meal family style. Your food is my food is your food; your experience of this time together is my experience is your experience.
I understand the economic logic of small plates. But if a meal can be a cornerstone of community, I worry that as our plates get smaller, so will our capacity to share of ourselves and with others. So I’ll stand guard, armed with a joint of meat, and another seat, and hope that you’ll join me, family style.