One of the best skills that I brought away from design school many years ago was the ability to become inspired at the beginning of a creative process. Inspiration, I found, can come from anything (music, modern art, a piece of trash), anyone (your sister, a flashy celebrity, that stranger on the bus), anywhere (your backyard, your grandfather’s basement, Times Square), anytime (today, your tween years, the roaring 20s), and can inform a tiny slice of your work or become the keystone that holds it all together. With interior design (my day job), an inspiration board morphs into a design story which in turn becomes the root of a project and the sense of place within space. Even after years of practicing this now-familiar process, the act of becoming inspired by something, someone, somewhere, or sometime that is even remotely multi-dimensional still draws me close to that dangerous line between stereotype and reality and leaves me peering in on my subject, wondering what truths to extract from it. What is the creative to do? Design to reality and risk an audience that misses the point? Design to stereotype and risk a product or project that lacks depth and character? With limited time and money, stereotype usually wins and the world gets another blinking sign that reads “Inspired by XYZ.” With better resources, creatives may fuse the two extremes and conjure up a project or product that is both real and recognizable.
Seeking inspiration for a menu is not all that different from seeking inspiration for a design project. Start with a general concept and drill down into it until the unknown feels known and the seed of an idea bears fruit. This month, Chris and I wanted to highlight our recent trip to Asheville, NC and selected “Carolina Cooking” for the second supper in our series of travelogue tasting dinners. Easy, right? Not so fast. As a Northerner, I know the highlight reel of this region’s cuisine; barbeque, biscuits, and sweet tea. I know how to sip brown spirits, walk (in heels) on old cobblestone streets, when to say “y’all”, and how to be patient with the slow drivers that are just so darn polite when it comes to giving right-of-way. But that’s about it…my experience with the Carolinas has been largely rooted in stereotype and even after years of visiting friends and family in these two states, the place remains more or less a mystery. What cultural and culinary traditions live on in the reality of the region today? Which stereotypes are no longer relevant? The answers to these questions are certainly out there, but at this moment, with only one more week to be inspired by this region for our upcoming supper club, I don't have the resources to fully understand what the American South is all about . The question that follows is, “is that okay?” After all, we’re just cooking food, not writing a doctoral thesis. I've mulled this one over and come to the conclusion that I think it is okay, so long as we…
1) …don’t pretend to offer a purely authentic Carolinian meal. We can try, but we’re still outsiders cooking an interpretation of the real thing.
2) …are honest about transforming and remixing the stereotypes and realities of this region’s deep, rich, and complicated food culture.
3) …take most of our inspiration from the Carolinian chefs and eaters that we know personally. Lean on Google for tips and techniques, but derive the story of the food from our own experience.
and last, but certainly not least...
4) ...simply serve up delicious food that celebrates the best traditions, values, and stories of the region. In doing so, I think that the line between stereotype and reality will be forgiven...if not forgotten. Easy, right?