All food is local

A college professor once asked my class to write an essay explaining why all politics is local. A young man raised his hand and said, “what if you don’t believe that.” I sat there quietly a little swollen in my chair at the foolishness of the line in the sand the guy was drawing.

The professor’s shocked face gave all the reply the class needed. “What else could it be,” he replied. “If you don’t agree with that statement you had better have a good reason, and that is the point of the paper anyway. So as long as your focus is on the idea that all politics is local you should write your essay explaining what that means.”

Harold Laswell says that politics is who gets what, when and how. We can apply this definition to everything you do. Every decision you make in life is a political decision and answers the question can you do X.

We tend to think that politics is about voting or whether we have certain rights. We want to push politics out of our lives when all we are doing is not recognizing everything we do is political. If you’re thinking right now that money decides who gets what when you’re kind of like that kid in class and not recognizing the central point- politics happens before economics.

Have you ever tried chicken feet? There’s a restaurant in St. Louis I like called the Mandarin House. They serve authentic Chinese cuisine and when you go with a friend from the community you will probably hear about how what most of us order isn’t authentic Chinese food. It’s an interesting discussion because like you I’ve had my fill of General Tso’s chicken.

A few years ago some friends were telling me about problems we were having with Chinese restaurants. The health department was cracking down on how they prepared food. Cooks were leaving food out too long before it was being prepared. This can cause problems because bacteria grow at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

The United States Department of Agriculture has all kinds of regulations and recommendations for food handling. This is important because for most of the food we consume it goes through a process of being broken down and transformed within a supply chain. Their guidelines define how long you should let food sit out before cooking and then once cooked what temperature you need to hold the food at and even how long you can take to cool food for storage. It’s a complex system designed to prevent people from getting sick.

Those standards, it turns out, also don’t fit the cultural traditions of some chefs who weren’t trained in the US, as I’m told. It may be they came from a place that was either lax in these standards or they knew these standards and just ignore them. The reality is if you don’t follow these rules you will, eventually, get people sick.

Many restaurant owners in the Chinese community felt they were being targeted because they weren’t passing their health inspections and being threatened with fines or being shut down.

I was introduced to the Mandarin House by then Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal who I worked for a few times in the past when she needed a local person to help with things in her district. If you think she’s wild on twitter ride around all day for a few month with her. You’ll see her whirlwind life is a passion for the people in her community. She’s kind of like water: if there isn’t a way she’ll make one.

Maria introduced me to the Mandarin House with an intern who was from the community. We didn’t go to the buffet. Instead, we chose from the dim sum carts and that’s the way to go for a real experience. The food is amazing and intricate and the texture is nothing like Western food.

One of the items we had was chicken feet. Not every place on earth has the commodity hog, beef or chicken we have in the US. In fact, we didn’t always have those beasts at the level we do now. People had to make do with the food they had and animal protein was sparse. Bone marrow is a trendy dish now in part because it tells a story of who we use to be.

Chicken feet will set some people off but it’s really good and a fun dish, in part because you can’t help but break etiquette to do it properly. To make chicken feet you have to boil them forever in high-temperature water, broth or sauce. The tendons need to break down and they become loose and then get cooled. Here in lies a problem based on where you’re from. Some might take them straight to a refrigerator but they should actually go into an ice bath.

The ice bath not only lowers the temperature quickly passing the danger zone but it also seizes up the feet making it a crispier product when you finally fry it.

So the dim sum cart comes along and Maria chooses for us and there are the chicken feet. I’m listening to how my company passes on Americanized Chinese food and that they have never really tried it because it lacks the flavor. So here I am jamming chopsticks into my mouth and twisting the feet around and sucking on knuckles. I slide the bones back between the chopsticks with my tongue and place them clean back on the plate, no different than a wing besides the utensils.

I mentioned I had never had the opportunity to eat chicken feet before and I was curious. They watch me maneuver the morsels and ask me what I think. I kid you not, I said it tastes like General Tso’s chicken because it did. Right down to the sauce the feet were served in. It was crispy, chewy and tasty. And I moved on to the pork bun.

Whether you eat chicken feet today is first a political decision because it answers who gets what, when and how. Whether you’re eating chicken breast or feet is an economic question. Economics is about choice where politics is about decisions. Once you have choices you can then make a decision. Politics decided that it is possible to serve chicken feet so long as you follow certain rules along the way.

The issues with the restaurants made it’s way up to the ninth floor and the health department convened a meeting with the offended parties. Staff from the county executive’s office attended and the situation was discussed as a group. St. Louis County government is the chief regulator of restaurants within its boundaries where food is concerned.

As an aside, Urban Chestnut in the Grove is actually regulated by both the City of St. Louis and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) because they produce liquor on site and distribute it around Missouri and other states, who also regulate them. But, the restaurant itself falls under local jurisdiction.

The county adopts a code and implements it locally. It also implements it across the board and applies it the same to everybody regardless of the municipality the business is in. It’s one uniform code. But the purveyor has to choose which municipality to set up in.

Between the city and county we have the choice of some 90 municipalities, unincorporated space and the City of St. Louis. The politics is different among all of these places and the city county merger can’t change that. Why? Because all politics is local and neighborhoods will always determine who gets what, when and how. Right?

The Mandarin House set up on state highway 340 in University City because they wanted to be in U City, right? Well, they wanted to serve their authentic cuisine to a population who would appreciate it. They wanted their customers to have a reasonable drive to get to them. So they chose to be located on that stretch of 340 known as Olive Boulevard. If you click on the embedded link above, you will see that 340 runs through multiple municipalities.

That Wikipedia page states the entire route is in St. Louis County. If you Google Olive Boulevard you are shown a map that designates 340 as running into the city ending at North Skinker Parkway. This is important to the Mandarin House because they want their customers to be able to find their way in the easiest way possible.

All customers know that the commute is a part of the experience of eating out. How you get there and home is as important as whether you have water placed in front of you when you sit down. If the commute sucks that will likely taint the whole experience. How do I know this? Because some restaurants make getting there a part of the experience. Ever heard of the Safe House?

But if I were to leave from Ellisville and go to eat in U City I would pass through multiple municipalities who all have different feelings about the state highway running through them. To my knowledge, the state has responsibility for the entire stretch. However, they hear from the different communities in different ways and at different times.

The Mandarin House probably doesn’t lobby a lot about the condition of 340 out front. But the fact that a state legislator likes to go there likely means that if they need to ask questions about its condition they know who to talk to, as do the city administrator and mayor of U City. As do the same people in Ellisville where you will find a Pasta House.

This is another popular place in our region and franchises are available. So if you were interested in buying this franchise what would you do? You’d talk to the county about health code and then probably talk to a couple different cities. Why? Because you need to be informed on each of their own codes, which may or may not have slight differences.

In reality most cities in St. Louis County actually use county code for buildings. The answer is straight forward, economics. These cities can’t afford to manage the technical needs of building code. But before it’s an economic choice, the county made it a political decision. They won’t implement individual codes for each muni. Public Works in the County keeps a matrix to keep track of which city they have a contract with to manage electrical, plumbing and other codes. But each city the county contracts with uses the adopted County code.

This leads to some interesting lobbying from school districts, city aldermen from county munis and business. Enter the raw politics most people can’t abide. I’ll tell some of those stories another time.

But, if you wanted to start a business, would you want to spend time getting to know all of your choices? Or, would you prefer knowing you had one place to deal with?

If it’s a choice of chicken feet or chicken breast you’re really talking about economics. But if I were having dinner with Laswell, I’m pretty sure we would focus on the fact that this choice doesn’t go away because both are regulated the same way.