Foodies and their foibles

I was very entertained by an article in the Atlantic about Italian food and those who are purists about it. Here’s an excerpt.

I ask myself, what is authenticity and does it really matter? Italians are, of course, passionate about their food culture and ready at all times to chastise a foreigner for not understanding that right combinations or sequences of flavors. Salad always comes after the entrĂ©e — never before. Pasta and soup fill the same slot in the meal, so you eat one or the other and not both. Plum tomatoes are for pasta sauce, globe tomatoes are for salad. And so it goes, a dizzying array of rules and regulations for how you eat. But still I wonder, what is the importance of authenticity?

Italian food and flavors changed dramatically after 1492 with the influx of the New World fruits and vegetables — tomatoes, corn, beans, peppers, potatoes — that were gradually integrated over four centuries of gardening and cooking and are at the core of today’s version of Italian food. If we wanted to be really authentic with Italian food, shouldn’t we do away with all the invasive species? Doesn’t that make tomato sauce and polenta inauthentic?

Food is not static. What we eat is constantly evolving and changing. New things become available. When I was a child in Rome, cilantro, limes, and yams were unknown and unavailable; today, thanks to immigration and the global produce trade, you can probably find all three at the corner vegetable stand. When I first started paying attention to my neighbors’ farm in Tuscany, they were extremely self-sufficient in terms of their food. They grew, raised, and foraged probably 90 percent of what they consumed. Their food and flavors were delicious and unvarying, and the dishes Mita cooked formed the basis of my understanding of Italian food.

And yet as the times changed and they began to watch television and shop for some food at the supermarket, variances drifted in. One year we had pasta with a canned truffle and cream sauce. Another Easter my mother was surprised by violets in the salad. “I saw it on TV,” Mita said. Is it inauthentic to be inspired by new ingredients? Is it inauthentic to take the combination of insalata Caprese and manipulate the ingredients until they no longer resemble mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil but the flavor combination remains the same?

I cringe when Americans do strange things to classic Italian food: Spaghetti and meatballs has me running out the door with an excuse about my house burning down. Yet while I have never seen spaghetti and meatballs on a menu in Italy, I have seen plenty of fresh-off-the-boat Italian chefs appropriate the dish and add it to their repertoire.

Much as Italian food was changed by the discovery of the Americas and recently by immigration and a global market, Italian immigrants who came to America 100 years ago were influenced by the new ingredients and the lack of availability of ingredients that were common back home. Is it inauthentic to use Vietnamese fish sauce when we are pretty sure that 2,000 years ago the ancient Romans made and consumed fish sauce themselves?

There’s more at the link. Funny, interesting, and worthwhile if you enjoy Italian cooking (and eating).


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