Unpacking the (racist? yeah) Trump Country Diner article trope

Issue 210: Plus, the savory, fudgy goodness that is Melinda Mae, a bloomy-rind cow's milk soft cheese from Connecticut.

Hello! Welcome to Nosh Box, a food newsletter. On Mondays, I send a reading guide of food system ideas and cheese recommendations, and on Thursdays, I dig deeper with an original essay or conversation or recipe you can only find here.

Check out last Thursday’s dispatch: The world is falling apart, so make your own ricotta cheese tonight

The Dairy Situation

Let’s start with cheese today, why don’t we? Today’s cheese I’m excited about is Melinda Mae, a square-shaped, bloomy-rind softie (named after, of course, the Shel Silverstein poem!). It’s a cow’s milk cheese that’s quite mild, with a nice balance of mushroomy and yeasty notes. Delish.

Melinda Mae comes to us courtesy of the fine folks at Mystic Cheese, whose logo is a narwhal impaling a hunk of cheese. Doesn’t get better than that. And also! They started out in 2013 in what they called a “cheese pod,” and what the rest of us might call a shipping container, although they quickly outgrew it and created their own creamery facility in Groton, Connecticut.

The cheesemaker, Brian Civitello, was trained in Italy and many of his cheeses are inspired by classic Italian recipes. Melinda Mae, for example, is in the style of robiola, which is a raw-milk softie that can be made from cow, goat, or sheep milk (or any combo of the three) and is aged for only a few weeks, if at all. This means that traditional robiolas cannot be sold legally in the U.S., since they’re raw and aged fewer than 60 days. (There are some good Italian robiola-style pasteurized cheeses out there that we are able to get here, though, like La Tur.) 

Our friend Melinda Mae here is pasteurized and aged for 30 days, so it can retain its fudginess while still developing a nice bloomy rind. It’s also a little milder than robiola or some French farmstead bries (which tend to have much more pronounced mushroomy notes) but I find that its savory quality is still front and center, so it’s a crowd-pleaser for sure.

As for a drink pairing, personally, I went with fino sherry (since that’s what I had, and I’m also very partial to it). But broadly speaking, most dry white wines (pinot grigio, chenin blanc) would be lovely with Melinda Mae, since their crispness both helps cut through the richness of the cheese and complements the earthy flavors. A drier bubbly wine or champagne brut would also be amazing, much for the same reasons. Or, you could go to funkytown and pick out a sour beer. Try it!

>> An exciting piece of mail that came this week…

...was Diners, Dudes, and Diets, the new book by food scholar (and BU Gastronomy alum!) Emily Contois. I believe I’ve cited her work before in conversations about Guy Fieri and the populist idea of “Flavortown,” and I’m stoked to read this book and learn how she expands on those ideas to talk more broadly about masculinity in food and Americana. (She’s also quoted talking about diners in a story I’ve featured below!)

>> One of the most interesting stories I read this week: “Why are journalists always visiting diners in Trump country?

Doug Mack, a journalist working on a book about diners, asks a really interesting question here. What is the “real America” that journalists are searching for when they visit “the heartland” or “Trump country” to talk to diner patrons — people who, as he points out, are “white, working-class, politically conservative residents”?

In this fascinating article, he charts an interesting shift: One from diner-based journalism of the ‘70s through ‘90s, where candidates would stop into diners as a photo-op to appear more “real,” into a form of diner journalism where reporters try to find the “real” voter. He writes:

All of this is telling in its own way. Candidates love diners for the same reason they love Ben’s Chili Bowl or flipping pork chops at the Iowa State Fair: They’re a photographable connection to everyday folks. Emily Contois, an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Tulsa, explained it to me this way: Most politicians are “far afield from the average American family” in terms of power and economic status, and yet “there’s this idea that if they eat $4.99 pancakes next to you, then you can feel this authenticity and this sense of realness with them.”

photo by Steph Chambers/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette courtesy of The Counter

But it’s the erasure of, well, everyone who’s not a rural, white diner patron that makes this genre so problematic. If those folks are the “real” Americans, what does that make those who live in cities, or aren’t white, or can’t afford to eat at a diner? They’re excluded from the narrative, their voices devalued and deemed not sufficiently authentic, they are disenfranchised once again. These stories operate with the implicit perspective that an urban Black woman is less American, or less “authentic” somehow, than an unemployed white Pennsylvania coal miner — and that the latter’s opinions deserve to be blasted across newswires around the world, while the political opinions of folks of color maybe aren’t perceived to matter as much.

Mack, again:

There were fundamental flaws, though, in all of these stories. A central problem was the way these outlets focused on white working-class conservatives at the expense of other demographics, creating an artificial sense of monolithic whiteness. As New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie observed, “All these profiles of Youngstown and I have yet to see one which notes that more than half the population of the city is black or Latino.” There’s also the not-so-small matter that Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump in Youngstown. And then there’s the fact that the Yankee Kitchen is perhaps not the best stand-in for the city, given that it’s actually several miles north, in Vienna Township. Never mind all that: There’s a story to tell, a particular trope to work with. That’s the allure, the point, and the problem.

You could find a diner that’s also a Meals on Wheels center, or one that’s a Michelin-starred bistro. You could find a working-class halal diner or a Midwest kosher diner or a red-state vegan diner or a diner in literally thousands of big-city neighborhoods rather than another small town. You could use diners to showcase virtually every ethnic group, cultural identity, or political perspective in the United States. You could use diners to showcase immigrant success stories and the benefits (and deliciousness) of cultural pluralism. But that would mean telling a more nuanced, more complicated story—a longer route, to be sure, but one much more likely to arrive somewhere closer to the truth.

>> Keep an eye on this: “The pandemic’s pop-up explosion

As the weather gets colder, outdoor dining is getting less and less appealing — problematic, when the restaurant industry has already had a devastating spring and summer season. But, as Devra First reports in the Boston Globe, chefs are turning to creative pop-up experiments to take advantage of the situation:

But during this time, a host of alternative projects — pop-ups, independent delivery, prepared foods — have debuted, drawing audiences via social media and word of mouth. Making use of existing kitchens, operators don’t have to shoulder all of those costs. And diners can partake in a revolving feast of dumplings and doughnuts, noodles and Nashville-style hot chicken sandwiches, seven-course Japanese meals and Malaysian menus that sell out in minutes. New restaurants are a rarity at the moment, but there is still fresh energy on the scene. Novelty now comes in the form of happenings rather than openings.

The people behind these projects have often worked at some of the area’s best restaurants: No. 9 Park and Sportello, Oleana and Sofra, Momi Nonmi and Pagu. Some are ramping up existing side hustles or launching new ventures after being furloughed or laid off. Others would have opened their own restaurants by now but are biding their time in an uncertain climate, using this as an opportunity to do R&D and build their brands.

>> If you missed it, making chèvre ricotta at home is an easy project for tonight!

Nosh Box last Thursday was devoted to a recipe for goat cheese in the style of ricotta salata, a salted and pressed cheese that you can make with just milk and lemon juice or vinegar. It’s pretty straightforward; once you heat the milk and strain the curds, you just press it for a day and you’re golden. Or don’t, and eat it fresh like ricotta, and live your best cheese life.

I documented the cheese-making process on my Instagram story, so go check it out — and then try it for yourself and let me know how it goes! Here’s how mine turned out:

See you all on Thursday!