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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Battle for L.A.: Cheeseburgers, Frappuccinos, and Strawberry Donuts


I have lived in the Los Angeles metropolitan area for 20 years now, and until this week I hade never seen a strawberry donut.

I did not even know they existed.

And yet that very concoction from a store called The Donut Man was recently elected "L.A.'s Iconic Dish."

This made me think about the meaning of the word "icon."  The word gets used many times to mean something more like "famous" or "important" rather than its truer definition, at least in this situation.  "Icon" is derived from a Greek word meaning "likeness, image, portrait, semblance."  The Oxford English Dictionary states that an "icon" is a "person or thing regarded as a representative symbol."

For an icon to function as a symbol in this way, it must resemble the thing it refers to.  And in its function as an icon, it must signal something much larger than itself.  No food literally resembles a city, but we can think of city/food combinations.  San Francisco and sourdough bread.  Kansas City and barbecue ribs. Philadelphia and a cheese steak sandwich.  New York City and a slice of pizza on the sidewalk with a cigarette ground into it.

These foods "resemble" those cities because they are found so commonly there that they have become closely associated with those cities.  This is especially true when the food indicates a lifestyle or a particular culture or region.

When one sees that particular dish, one thinks of the city and a host of other associations.

Not a donut.
I think if we traveled around the United States, we would find no one who thinks of strawberry donuts when they think of L.A. This is because strawberry donuts are not seen on every street corner. They are not featured in song nor film. James Cagney did not rub one into Mae Clarke's face in Public Enemy. Randy Newman did not praise them in "I Love L.A."  They do not "resemble" Los Angeles because when you look around the city you do not see them.

If any donut is famously associated with Los Angeles, it is one you cannot eat -- the giant one atop Randy's Donuts, not far from Los Angeles International Airport.

I should not be upset about this.  The  process by which strawberry donuts were selected was not
Now that's a donut.
scientific.  It was bound to be skewed.  It was the result of a poll taken by public television station KCET, which provided its audience with an NCAA-style bracket of culinary options.  As the votes came in, various foods were eliminated.

I doubt the number of voters would be impressive or very representative of the region.  I think if the voting had gone beyond KCET's fairly limited demographic, Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles would have made it to the final round -- and a burger from In-n-Out would definitely have been on the charts.  Roscoe's is perhaps peculiar to Los Angeles, and even those people who have not eaten at one know about them.

Meanwhile, In-n-Out Burger restaurants ARE ubiquitous in L.A., and people who eat at them can be
Los Angeles: Burgers, palm trees,
 and smog-enhanced sunsets
rather zealous in their devotion.

One reason the strawberry donut cannot be an L.A. icon: They are not associated with cars.

Los Angeles is a city built for cars more than people.  It is impossible to imagine the city without them.  Remember Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons telling us that  "Only a nobody walks in L.A."?  I do not know whether Donut Man has a drive-thru window, but I do not think anyone tries to eat a strawberry donut while driving. Meanwhile, one of the main appeals of In-n-Out for Angelenos is the ability to order and eat without leaving one's vehicle.

In fact, In-n-Out is just as famous for the long lines of cars waiting to reach the drive-thru window and the clerks with their white paper hats and headphones taking orders from the drivers in line.  Indeed, some franchises do not have inside seating available.

Honestly, I think the Final Round in the competition should have been between an In-n-Out cheeseburger and something that may not technically be food: an iced coffee drink from Starbucks (especially in a plastic cup).

Mocha-Britney-ccino
My last nominee manages to mix L.A.'s car culture with Hollywood (both in terms of famous celebrities and its fakeness).  Think about how many times you have seen images of a celebrity with a plastic Starbucks cup in hand? This seems part of a TMZ ritual.  When a Hollywood starlet wants to show herself to the common people, she rides to a Starbucks in her Bentley or Escalade and runs inside for a dozen ounces of hyper-sugary caffeine, even though a personal assistant could have done this with more ease -- the paparazzi do not swarm PAs.  But, of course, getting swarmed is the point of going.

Can you get more L.A. than that?