The Post and Courier welcomes a new addition to its features staff, Hanna Raskin, a food writer, critic and blogger.
Raskin will be writing features regularly for Wednesday’s Food section as well as a new food and beverage blog and print column, “Raskin Around.”
The blog appears daily at postandcourier.com and the print column, which replaces “Chew on this,” in Thursday’s Charleston Scene. She also will contribute restaurant criticism to Charleston Scene.
Email all food and beverage news for “Raskin Around” to food@ postandcourier.com.
A Michigan native, Raskin most recently worked as restaurant critic for the Seattle Weekly and before that, the Dallas Observer.
Her writing has been recognized by the Association of Food Journalists, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, and the James Beard Foundation.
Her work has appeared in publications including Garden & Gun, Southern Living, Cooking Light, Modern Farmer and Tasting Table.
A food historian by training, she is a founding member of Foodways Texas and an active member of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
As a means of introduction, we asked Hanna about herself and coming to Charleston.
Q. You’re new to living in Charleston but not entirely new to the city’s food scene. When did you first start coming to Charleston and why?
A. I spent most of the (2000s) in Asheville, a town that has plenty in common with Charleston, including a sophisticated arts scene, an internationally distinctive cultural heritage, and — beyond the tourist hordes — a gaggle of citizens who are fiercely proud of their hometown. But, as you may have heard, what Asheville doesn’t have is a beach. We came to Charleston for sun and sand and oysters.
Q. What are some of your first observations about Lowcountry cuisine?
A. The first photo I tweeted from Charleston was the rice aisle at the Piggly Wiggly. I knew rice was the foundational grain here, of course, but the image of someone hauling home a 50-pound sack of white rice makes that point more clearly than any history textbook or cookbook ever could.
Q. Most recently you were a food critic for Seattle Weekly. Seattle also has a great food reputation. What are the differences between the Charleston and Seattle, food-wise? How about Asheville and Charleston?
A. Asheville’s restaurant scene has changed dramatically since I was eating there regularly, so I’m probably not equipped to compare-and-contrast: I look forward to getting back to the mountains to study up.
As for Seattle, it’s Charleston’s opposite in lots of interesting ways. Chefs and cooks in both cities are dealing with many of the same ingredients (minus the rice: Seattle’s fond of farro), but upscale restaurant dishes in the Pacific Northwest have a very different demeanor. There’s a strong Scandinavian influence, so pickling is prominent.
More generally, though, Seattle’s dishes fit the stereotype of its residents: They’re smart, rumpled and cold. Literally cold.
Seattle’s never been strong on service, and it’s now trendy to serve food at room temperature so the kitchen doesn’t have to worry about timing courses.
The Charleston dishes I’ve sampled thus far have been less funky, more composed and much saucier. Seattle has extraordinary bread. If baking’s a science, it’s no wonder it thrives in the city which birthed Microsoft, but there’s not always enough sauce for sopping. I haven’t faced that problem here yet.
Q. Describe two of the most interesting things you’ve eaten here so far.
A. I fell hard for the red rice at Dave’s Carry-Out. Beyond the Lowcountry, the only rice that’s red is the dried-out stuff served on combo plates at cheap Mexican restaurants. Dave’s vibrant red rice is more akin to a finely tuned pasta alla marinara. Bravo.
The terrific fish chowder at The Ordinary interested me because it so openly referenced Mike Lata’s New England roots.
What I’m finding in Charleston is a significant amount of sentimentality, but it’s focused not so much on the city’s past as the individual histories of the kitchen talents who’ve settled here.
This was especially apparent at Xiao Bao Biscuit, where New Yorkers are turning out what counts as comfort food for world travelers and former urbanites.
The flash of Asian spice certainly helped check my longing for the boiled fish at Seattle’s Sichuanese Cuisine.
Q. You describe yourself as a food historian by training. What was that training? How did that lead you into food criticism?
A. After a few years of working as a newspaper reporter after college, I decided I wanted my work to last longer than one day (this was back before the Internet was really up and running), so I enrolled in an American History/Museum Studies graduate program, thinking I could stick my storytelling on walls.
It turned out I didn’t have the visual skills or patience to be a great exhibit designer, but I wrote my thesis on the relationship between Jews and Chinese food, a topic which thrust me into the world of food history when it was still an emerging field. My academic background and decade spent waiting tables qualified me to become the food critic for Asheville’s alt-weekly.
Q. How does one go about training their palate? It’s a big question, but can you crystallize some key points?
A. Practice. The best way to sharpen one’s taste buds is to eat broadly and attentively. I always think wine and spirits writers have an advantage over food writers because they can compare tasting notes with the confidence that they experienced the same beverage, or something very close to it.
There’s no such standardization in cooking, or at least not in the cooking worth discussing, so palate training becomes more of a solo pursuit. But what eaters can borrow from drinkers is their reliance on their noses. If you want to learn to discern different herbs and spices, it helps to smell your food before you eat it.
Q. Many people in the food world had some seminal experience, often within their family, that sparked their interest in food. Did you?
A. My mother cringes every time I talk about my childhood eating experiences, because she thinks I make it sound like she was a terrible cook.
As she’d put it, cooking wasn’t her priority: Like many families with two working parents, we regularly ate Creamettes with cheddar cheese cubes and a taco salad built on a bed of Cool Ranch Doritos. (I’m certain my mother would like me to say she makes her own matzoh balls for the holidays.)
Although my great-grandparents immigrated to the U.S. more than a century ago, I’m not sure my family’s belief in the superiority of gourmet store-bought — an unknown concept in the old country — ever fully faded.
My grandparents prided themselves not on any particular dishes, but on knowing where to buy the best smoked sable, chocolate mints or feta cheese.
Accordingly, my favorite food memories were all forged in restaurants.
I loved the energy and glamour of eating out, and still do.
Q. Do you enjoy cooking? How would you describe yourself as a cook?
A. I like cooking, but it’s dangerous for a critic to like cooking too much, since opportunities to have dinner at home are relatively rare: Back in Seattle, I used my oven to store my record albums. So I guess I’m a non-practicing cook.
Q. You get around almost exclusively by bicycle, even on the job. Why do you do it? What are the challenges and benefits?
A. If I cooked, I’m sure grocery shopping would be a challenge. But as a restaurant-goer, all I have to worry about is showing up sweaty at a fancy restaurant.
I keep deodorant in my messenger bag.
I gave up my car when I lived in New York during grad school, but probably should have done so sooner: I’m a horrible driver.
Biking is cheaper, safer, greener and way more fun. The world’s more discoverable when you pedal through it.
Plus, as a food critic, biking helps me stay hungry.
Q. What trends in the restaurant industry do you applaud? Not applaud?
A. I keep pushing for a peanut butter trend. Outside of the South, peanuts are criminally underused.
I love the new interest in Persian and eastern European cooking, and all the sour flavors which come with it. Sherry and savory desserts are delicious.
As for service trends, the family-style meal that’s evolved from the small plates craze is a really wonderful way for diners to experience different dishes without having to sacrifice satiety to preciousness.
New Orleans’ Peche and Seattle’s Ma’Ono execute the format beautifully.
I’m also excited about restaurants using technology in interesting ways: It took much too long for restaurants to learn how to text waiting patrons when their tables are ready.
Is it too meta to say the trend I don’t applaud is trendiness? Not every restaurant needs to make ramen. Not every bar needs to age its Manhattans. The current feverish pace of popularity is totally at odds with the leisurely mood that restaurants are supposed to cultivate.
Fortunately, the worst trends tend to vanish on their own: I won’t miss communal tables.
And I’m sure it makes me a curmudgeon, but I’m opposed to the “dressing casually in nice dining rooms” trend.
If you can afford a steak, you can afford full-length pants.
Q. You self-published a book this summer “Yelp Help: How to write great online restaurant reviews” Why would you want to share your secrets?
A. I can’t imagine anything more detrimental to the cause of quality criticism than secrecy: It’s elitist and short-sighted for a professional reviewer to be coy about his or her techniques.
One of my goals in writing “Yelp Help” was to open-source our discipline.
Folks who get paid to write about what they eat don’t have a monopoly on culinary insights, although they may have a better handle on how to thoroughly report and compellingly chronicle their restaurant visits, maybe because someone showed them how it’s done.
By giving the same tools to citizen critics, we can enrich our communities’ food conversations.
And what critics want most is to spark engaging discussions. That’s why we chose to spend our time sitting around dinner tables.
Reach Teresa Taylor at 937-4886.
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