John Rawls said, famously, that the way to judge a society was to look at the condition of its worst-off.1 It doesn’t matter how rich or well-educated the people at the top are. The best society is the one that best treats the people at the bottom.
Let me suggest a corollary: the Rawlsian Theory of Food Culture. The Rawlsian Theory of Food Culture says that, if you want to judge the quality of a food culture, don’t look at its finest restaurants and best food. Look to its low-end. Look to its street carts, its gas-station snacks. Look to what you can get in the airport at 2 AM. Any community can spit up a few nice places to eat, if they throw enough money at it. What shows real love for food, and real caring, is when people make good food when they could get away with making crap.
I spent half my life in Los Angeles. Los Angeles has some fantastic pockets of food culture, and some of the best restaurants in the world. I love the Los Angeles food scene with all the passion in my heart. But for the most part, Los Angeles utterly fails the Rawlsian Food Test. I’m mostly talking about the wealthy parts here — Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Hollywood. Whenever people could get away with it, they’d serve up stale, thoughtless, bullshit food. There was crap food everywhere. Love for food didn’t go bone deep.2
When I went to Istanbul, I was so inundated with amazing food, that I started playing a game: could I actually find bad food? I turned out to be just barely possible. Almost everything I tried was at least pretty good. The pastries at the gas station? Awesome. The baklava at the airport coffee shop? Better than anything I had in the States. The kebab from the street stall in the fancy tourist shopping area? Surely, if there’s any place that people could slack off, it’d be there, right? Nope: even that kebab was pretty good, and made with at least a minimum of pride. Anthony Bourdain wrote that that, after a lifetime of bouncing around New York and having his fill of crappy, thoughtless food, his first trip to Saigon almost shredded his soul. Every single bite of food he had was amazing. Every single person he could find selling food had made it with care and attention and sensitivity.
Notice that the Rawlsian Theory of Food Culture is different from my Airport Principle of Food. The Airport Principle says that, in an area which is really good at Food X, the airport version of Food X will probably be better than the very best version of Food X at many other places. The fish tacos in the LA airport, which are just part of a local SoCal chain, are better than the best fish tacos in all of New England. The chili dogs in the Detroit airport are better than any chili dog I’ve had on the whole of the West Coast. The Chicago deep dish pizza in the Chicago airport is a pale shadow of Chicago’s best, but so many leagues beyond the best Californian attempt that it blows my mind.
The Airport Principle and the Rawlsian Theory of Food Culture are about different things. The Airport Principle is just about how what an incredibly deep and complex skill a particular food expertise is, and how much variation there is between areas. When some area specializes really deeply in a type of food, they’re not just a tiny bit better than other places. They are light years better. The Rawlsian Theory of Food Culture, on the other hand, is about love. It’s about the fact that in some places, the love of food is so deep that people will make great food even when they don’t have to. They care, even when almost nobody’s watching.
1 This is a simplification. Get off my back, Rawls scholars.
2 Some of the ethnic enclaves of Los Angeles, on the other hand, pass the Rawlsian Food Test with flying colors. Which just goes to show that a “food culture” is not the same as everybody that lives in some named geographic area.