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Oakes Weekly - February 16, 2006
The Burger and Pizza Matrix
February 16, 2006
Written by Oakes
Toronto was a great city in which to live. The entire world lives there. In North America, it has the second highest percentage of population born overseas of any city besides Miami. But in Toronto’s case, they aren’t from a handful of countries but from all of them. Where else do you find a Maltese neighbourhood just up the road from a Mauritian restaurant that sits at the edge of a Polish quarter? Toronto’s cool like that. The thing about Toronto is, most people don’t know about its dozens of incredible neighbourhoods. People know the faceless suburbs that sprawl forever. They know the exceedingly bland financial district. They know the CN Tower. So this is one of the reasons that the city’s tourism department and mayor’s office are constantly uttering the refrain “world class city”.
It may very well be that they are trying to convince the citizens more than anybody else, but it’s still a strange thing to say. Truly world class cities don’t need to announce themselves as such, because everybody already knows they are.
I feel the same way about beer and food. We sure read about it in the beer press a lot these past few years. Sometimes even the mainstream press, where we’re happy to get any coverage at all. Beer and cheese. Beer and chocolate. Lots of beer and food tastings, hosted across the land by well-meaning writers, brewers and chefs. There has been an amazing amount of talk, even hype, about cooking with beer and pairing beer with food.
But from what I see down here at ground level, it sounds a lot like Toronto’s “world class” mantra. Yes, you can pair beer with chocolate, but the fact that you can rattle off some upscale, small-scale chocolate brands and attach a beer name alongside them does not make it any sort of phenomenon. Half the articles on beer and food come off as “Look, see, you can pair beer with food, too. We’re just like wine. Love us like we were wine.” Ugh.
You know why this all seems like a crock to me sometimes? Because when you go to a brewpub to buy a beer, you don’t get any of these combinations. You really don’t. Instead, you get locked into the burger and pizza matrix. Rare is it the brewpub that offers a menu based around anything else. Most of Toronto is faceless suburbs. Most beer and food is monotonous pub fare with little if any thought given to the flavour combinations so often written about in the beer and food articles.
It will be argued that talking about bigger and better things is the first step to actually doing it. I’m not convinced. So many brewpubs have the same menu because that’s what people are eating when they want a beer. Too much of the high-minded talk is focused on foods only a sophisticated audience would be interested in. I missed this at first, because I’m one of those sophisticated eaters myself. I lapped up the talk about farmhouse cheeses and classic beers.
Sating my thirst, and that of people like me, is all well and good, but very few brewpubs could get away with serving the high-end fare of most beer and food talk. Thus, when you go on the road and live off of brewpub food for a couple of weeks, you run into the all-mighty burger and pizza matrix. You can’t get out.
I had a cheesesteak at 21st Amendment the other week, and kicked myself hard when I next went to Thirsty Bear and found out they specialize in Spanish food. It is rare when a brewpub does something like that. I want brewpubs specializing in the wide range of cuisines that I eat. I don’t eat snob food. I eat real, down to earth food from all over the world. I mean, I look around Vancouver and not a single brewpub here sells sushi and they sure as hell don’t serve pho. They ought to, since a high percentage of our population eats these things on a weekly basis. I got into mussels and beer while living in Toronto and drinking at Smokeless Joe. Hardly anybody does mussels and beer, except for places with an overt Belgian theme, and that’s got to be the easiest, most obvious choice of all. Who’s got the Indian food and beer thing working? Why do I have to go to the Kaiwei Beer House in Wuhan to pair weizen with hotpot?
But yeah, although burgers and pizza are two of my favourite foods, I’m thinking I should quit eating them at brewpubs altogether. I had crab cakes at LaConner and didn’t regret that in the slightest. I want to reward brewpubs that offer interesting menu items. Beer and food is a great idea, but the time has come I think to move from writing about the possibilities to pushing brewpubs to actually offer these possibilities.
Sorry this degenerated into a bit of a rant. I’m just getting a little wound up here thinking about all the brewpubs that mail it in with pub standards. But the time has come to take the beer and food battle outside of the brewspapers and beer magazines. The time has come to take it to our brewpubs. If you’re like me and want to see menus as adventurous as the brews they are being paired with, the time has come to take the battle to the streets. Vote with your dollars. Pester the brewers about the inadequacy of the menus their beers have to be paired with. Beer and food isn’t about articles and organized tasting sessions. It’s about eating and drinking on a daily basis. I’m not sure we’ve even started fighting that war, but perhaps it’s time we should. Or like Toronto, beer and food will never be taken seriously, even when it should be.
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