The culinary world will award its Oscars tonight and who wins -- or doesn't -- will tell us whether America's food establishment is ready to elevate the Melting Pot to soufflé status.
As in other years, the 2009 James Beard Award nominees include an impressive showing of chefs doing unapologetically ethnic food: Vikram Sunderman turns out delicate palak chaat at Washington, D.C.'s award-winning Indian restaurant Rasika; at Philadelphia's Zahav, Israeli-born chef Michael Solomonov adds grace notes of allspice to raw ground lamb; and Thai chef Arun Sampanthavivat upscales lemongrass and yellow bean paste for Chicago tables.
I hope this year at least one of them wins. In the past, "ethnic" winners have tended to be safe or hyphenated choices: the bold Italian cuisine of superstar chef Mario Batali; the Asian-accented dishes of New York's David Chang; the French-California offerings of San Francisco's Traci Des Jardins.
Why have the awards shied away from the overtly ethnic? Maybe these chefs weren't the best in their category. Maybe there were political or cultural undertones that influence the way we think of these cuisines. Or maybe the American palate just can't fully commit to flavors like tamarind and zatar.
Let's remember that spaghetti was once considered "ethnic" food. And that even the most adventurous American diners took a while to accept raw tuna -- or any tuna outside the can -- as part of a meal. It's been said that you eat first with your eyes. But people also eat with their hearts and minds. And the way you feel about a particular culture or people will influence what you believe about -- and what you taste in -- their food.
Maybe its time for the Beards to take a cue from the other Oscars and honor their own Slumdog Millionaires. To graduate unvarnished cuisines like Indian and Middle Eastern from the strip mall into the canon. To make palak chaat and kibbe naya the new pasta primavera. And to move the country forward from who we've been to who we are.