Hanna Raskin is driven by a basic belief about people and their relationship with food.
"It's amazing how many people watch TV shows or movies about food, but I think food is meant to be eaten," says Raskin, a food writer and restaurant critic who has founded American Table Culinary Tours. "I also think if you're going to eat it, you ought to see where it comes from."
In fact, Raskin often sounds like the graduate student that she was until 2001, when she finished a master's thesis on the relationship between Jews and Chinese food (more on that later). Here's what she had to say about the mission of American Table Culinary Tours:
"The most important thing is to contextualize the food that we're eating. Obviously, if you just want to eat a bunch of food, you can stay at home. We want to impart to people the important role food plays in American culture. It's more than sustenance; you can use it as a prism through which to view so many issues facing our culture."
If that doesn't whet your appetite, consider Raskin's first offering: a September 13th to 15th tour to the heart of barbecue culture in and around Memphis. The tour kicks off at the Center for Southern Folklore with a meal and a lecture by Lolis Eric Elie, a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and author of Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country. The next day includes a judging seminar at The Peabody, hosted by the Memphis Barbecue Association, then an eating tour with behind-the-scenes visits of local 'cue spots. Day three is a tour of West Tennessee with Joe York, maker of the documentary Whole Hog. Through York's local connections, the group will follow pitmasters as they buy their wood, meet local barbecue purveyors, and even witness the slaughtering of a pig. And eat a whole mess of barbecue, of course.
As may be obvious by now, this is not a gourmet foodie tour.
"We won't be talking about which wine or champagne to pair with pig," Raskin quipped. "We want to give people the chance to get out into the field and have the experiences that typically only the hosts of TV shows get to have. We want people to actually meet the people who are keeping these food traditions alive."
The tour price of $595 per person includes all meals and activities but not lodging. (Group participants do get a break on the rates at The Peabody and the downtown Sleep Inn.) Raskin is also offering a discounted rate of $275 to anyone living within 100 miles of Memphis.
Two tours are set for 2008: one to Detroit in June, looking at the impact of immigrant workers on American food, and an October bourbon-focused tour of Kentucky.
Raskin is drawing on not only her academic and professional experience in writing about food — she's the food editor and restaurant critic for the Mountain Xpress in Asheville, North Carolina — but also the connections she made during a year she spent as "field-trip maven" for the Southern Foodways Alliance. The Alliance gave her its blessing to start American Table and also granted her access to their oral-history library, which she's using as a basis for her itineraries.
Raskin uses the word "foodways" often; she says it "encompasses everything pertaining to what ends up on your plate: fishing, farming, and all of the production, in addition to the preparation and how it's served."
She says the tours aren't focused on what's new and exciting: "For example, there's a big trend for eating local and organic, and then there's the Slow Food Movement. We're less aspirational and more about authenticity."
Now, about Jews and Chinese food. Raskin says she grew up in a Michigan family with no good cooks, so she was always interested in eating out. She also noticed that her Jewish family, and many of their Jewish friends, had a fondness for Chinese food. Years later, after getting a history degree at Oberlin College, she was a grad student at the State University of New York and decided to explore this for her thesis.
She says there are several theories for this "cherished Jewish tradition of eating Chinese food once a week," most often on Sunday evenings. One, which she didn't think too much of, is that since Chinese food is so chopped up, "you can't tell that it's not kosher." Another theory is that Chinese restaurants tended to be open on Sunday evenings and didn't discriminate against Jews because they didn't make a distinction between Jews and other whites. Raskin's favorite theory is that American Jewish culture basically adopted New York Jewish culture, and everyone in New York eats Chinese, especially the large Jewish community that once populated the Lower East Side, adjacent to Chinatown.
Whatever the reason, Raskin says nobody had ever bothered to ask why this was the case, much less written about it. And that's just the kind of thing she hopes her food tours will impart to people — even to Memphians who are surrounded by barbecue culture.
For more information on American Table Culinary Tours, visit tabletours.org.