Tales of a Food Critic: The Highs and Lows of Boise's Food Scene 

Comfort trumps innovation in Boise restaurants

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A couple of years ago, I produced a public radio show I titled "The Arugula Wars: Food as Partisan Politics." It was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek glimpse at liberal and conservative eating habits, but I soon stumbled across a serious vein of research on the subject that suggested political leanings and eating habits have more in common than I'd suspected.

For instance, a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2008 concluded that a person's belief system influences how she or he perceives food. In other words, if a particular food fits with your values--if, for instance, it jives with your moral belief in vegan fare or your lust for barbecued pork--it will actually taste better than food that doesn't mesh with those values.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, studies the underlying roots of liberalism and conservatism and says those competing philosophies can express themselves in restaurant preferences, too. In a 2008 TED talk, Haidt said that liberals score much higher on a major personality trait labeled "openness to experience" than conservatives. He explained that liberals "crave novelty, variety, diversity, new ideas, travel. People who are low on it like things that are familiar, that are safe and dependable." He went on to say, "once you understand this trait, you can understand why anybody would eat at Applebee's--but not anybody that you know."

Susan Swetnam, Idaho State University professor, food scholar and former Gourmet magazine contributor, isn't convinced that conservative politics and conservative palates always run in parallel.

"The more I think about that, the more I don't think that's true," Swetnam said. "When I was working for Gourmet and I got sent to The Point [the old Rockefeller Great Camp in the Adirondacks], which is arguably the most spectacular three- to four-day dining experience I've ever had, and the most expensive, there was almost nobody who wasn't right of Nixon eating there."

Perhaps more in sync with Swetnam's own observations, another study emphasized class rather than political affiliation as a major factor influencing food preferences. In a 1991 book, Feeding the Family, sociologist Marjorie DeVault wrote that blue-collar workers tend to live closer to where they were raised and therefore value familiar foods and foods that evoke family bonds. On the other hand, professionals tend to move away from family to further their careers and end up valuing foods that highlight variety and novelty over the familiar. They also have more cash to spend on food.

"It's much more economic than cultural," Swetnam said. "I don't think there's a population center [in Idaho] with a critical mass of wealthy-enough people to afford to eat out regularly and keep a number of high-end restaurants going."

She said the state also doesn't have enough of those restaurants to keep that affluent customer base coming back, except perhaps for the resort towns of Sun Valley and Coeur d'Alene.

"There has to be a critical mass of restaurants, because nobody wants to go to the same place, eat the same fancy food every week, right?"

Another factor may hamper achieving that critical mass--one we Idahoans happen to cherish: our wide-open, rural character.

"We're still kind of country out here," Couch said. "I think a lot of it is population-based. People think that Boise is a bigger city than it really is. Think of all the nice restaurants that probably could have been successful in more highly populated areas."

But higher population isn't the whole story. The fact that Idaho cities, no matter their size, are isolated from each other and the greater Northwest by vast distances likely slows the culinary cross pollination that naturally occurs where cities sit in close proximity.

After closing SixOneSix, Couch spent time as executive chef at St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, Wash. Although Boise is more than two times the size of Bellingham, Couch said he was surprised to see how vibrant the restaurant community was in that smallish, western Washington town.

"The difference between here and Bellingham is, you're smack right between Seattle and Vancouver [British Columbia]. You're on a major throughway of business and millions of people and cultural diversity," Couch said. "It has really good, fun dining and food culture and even some of the food markets were amazing--but that's what you get in these areas nearer population centers."

Idaho's isolation also handicaps its ability to compete for awards like the James Beard. Though the awards committee tries to recruit restaurant reviewers and food writers in every state in order to create an initial pool of candidates for the annual awards, votes for the finalists can only be cast by a select group of judges who must have eaten in the restaurants they vote for. The odds that those judges have eaten at restaurants in large cities or well-traveled locations are far greater than those for restaurants in small towns or out-of-the-way places.

The James Beard Foundation's award committee chair and Seattle Times restaurant critic Providence Cicero said that "Portland and Seattle chefs tend to make it into the top five because the group of people who vote are likely to travel to the bigger markets, the bigger cities."

Although the committee is continually trying to level the playing field, it's a nonprofit, volunteer-based organization without funds to pay judges to travel to nominated restaurants.

"The reality is that Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Alaska, are not markets that people travel through a lot," Cicero said--at least not with the frequency they travel to more densely populated destinations.

Even Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Denver and Houston have complained about being underrepresented in the James Beard Awards. They, too, have felt forced to compete with larger metropolitan areas or hotter restaurant destinations in their designated regions. Cicero said that even the current foodie magnet of Portland, Ore., once complained about its inability to get a James Beard award.

But, why, you may ask, is a vibrant, award-winning restaurant culture important? Society clearly doesn't require restaurants to survive, nor would it take much intellectual effort to write them off as unnecessary indulgences or worse. I'd argue, though, that a vibrant restaurant scene is as fundamental, as essential a cultural expression as the visual arts, music and literature. And without a vibrant restaurant scene, culinary creativity can bleed away from a community.

"A lot of chefs leave town," Kelly said. "It's easy to get bored as a chef if you're not being creative. We've had chefs that have shown up here and worked a few months and left. And we've had chefs that came out of Boise State and now the College of Western Idaho Culinary Arts Program who don't even bother. They get right out of culinary school and head to Portland or Chicago or San Francisco or Seattle."

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