The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Looking For Authentic Italian Food? Good Luck

Buona? Forse. Autentico? No.

I was in Washington, DC and I went hunting for some good Italian food on 23rd Street South in Arlington. And I found it.......sort of. By that I mean the food I found was good, but was it Italian? That's another question.

This isn't a restaurant review, so I'm not going to name the place, but one of the reasons I went there was the claim on their website: “Authentic Italian Recipes.” The site touted that the restaurant was started up by an Italian family and “for over 30 years has been serving great and authentic Italian dishes, providing an outstanding ambiance and an excellent customer service.” Read on, however, and you'll find that the place changed hands more than a decade ago. The poorly constructed verbiage on the website is an indicator that English is not the primary language of whoever wrote it. And since not a soul in the place understood or spoke a syllable of Italian the night I was there, I'm fairly certain the “new” ownership is not so “autentico.” And neither is most of their food.

When the first item on the salad menu is a Greek chicken salad, you gotta wonder about “Italian-ness.” And, of course, there's the ubiquitous “Fettuccine Alfredo – tossed in a rich creamy cheese sauce” that makes its way onto every “Italian” restaurant menu in America even though it's about as Italian as Florence....Henderson! And, naturally, the next item on the menu adds chicken to this already non-existent Italian dish. Let me tell you something: adding chicken to pasta – and damn near everything else – is strictly an American practice. Autentica ricetta italiana? Negli occhi di un maiale!

My son, recently back from six years in Italy, passed on the Spaghetti Carbonara, containing “Parmesan cream sauce, Italian bacon and white onions.” Well, at least the “Italian bacon” is autentico. Except it really should be guanciale instead of pancetta. The “authentic” menu also featured both chicken and veal parmigiana, neither of which exist anywhere on the Italian peninsula. And don't get me started on “pepperoni” pizza.

I decided on a nice, safe spaghetti marinara. And in decidedly modo non italiani, it came in a bowl big enough to feed my entire party of four. More disappointingly, it was served in typical American fashion: they plopped a huge portion of pasta in a big bowl and dumped a quart of runny red sauce on top of it. My son decided “when in Washington, do as the Washingtonians do” and ordered the Fettuccine Alfredo. My daughter-in-law braved the tricolore tortellini, “Tomatoes, Spinach and white three cheese filled tortelline [sic] and a pink vodka tomato sauce,” and my wife got the seafood ravioli.

Don't get me wrong; all of it was good. None of it was Italian.

It is really difficult to get a good read on what is “authentic Italian” and what's not. This is because you will seldom find two Italians who make the same dish the same way. As nearly everyone who writes about such things will tell you, there is no such thing as “Italian food” or “Italian cuisine.” While Italy unified politically in the 1860s, the cultures of the different regions remained quite independent. That independence extends to the culture of the kitchen. And it's not always just a matter of Northern versus Southern, or butter versus olive oil, or pasta versus rice. Oftentimes the differences go down to the micro-regional level, to the town or the village or even the street level. Two households on the same street can prepare the same dish in different ways. Sometimes dishes made with the same ingredients can have different names, depending on where they were prepared. My nonna's nonna may have made a dish differently than your nonna's nonna. Does that mean one is less autentico than the other? No. Of course not.

That being said, however, there are some common threads that run through all regions and help define “Italian food” in general, if not always in specific. These are the things you will not find anywhere in Italy, and yet they are commonly represented in the United States as being “authentic Italian.”

“Fettuccine Alfredo” is one such thing. Yes, there once was a Roman restaurateur named “Alfredo” and he did make a dish that involved fettuccine. But that's about where the resemblance ends. What Alfredo di Lelio served to American tourists was a simple concoction of pasta al burro e parmigiano; pasta with butter and cheese. To most Italians, it's a dish you would prepare at home, but one you would never think of asking for in a restaurant. Alfredo didn't really have it on his menu; he was feeding it to his pregnant wife because it was light on her sensitive stomach. That's kind of what it's good for. You fix it up if you're not feeling well, or if you don't have anything else in the house, or if you're just plain lazy. Some Italians call preparations like this “pasta dei cornuti,” or “cuckold's pasta” because traditionally it was something that errant wives could whip up in a jiffy should the need arise. Alfredo's “dish” became a “thing” after American tourists got hold of it and touted it as the best creation they'd ever had. And when they brought the dish home, American chefs couldn't get the hang of it because they didn't have the right ingredients. It wasn't as rich and creamy because American butter and cheese weren't the same as Italian butter and cheese. So, in order to compensate, American cooks dumped cream into it, thus creating the ubiquitous “Alfredo sauce” that you can even buy in jars at the supermarket. The bottom line here is that if you see the word “cream” associated with “Alfredo,” you're not getting anything even remotely “authentic.”

Italians love pasta. And they love chicken. Just not together. In fact, meat and pasta are very rarely combined in the same dish. In the Italian culinary structure, they are two separate courses. You have your primo course, which is pasta, and then you are served your secondo course, which is the meat course. Most Italians just don't get putting chunks of meat in bowls of pasta. And when it comes to “authentic Italian recipes” like “Chicken Alfredo”........well, that's just a double whammy of inauthenticity.

Fish, on the other hand, is okay in pasta. Don't ask me why; it just is. But putting cheese on fish and pasta is not. Anyplace that serves “cheesy” pasta and fish is not authentic.

While we're on the topic of pasta, let's look at a few pasta “rules” that can help you determine the authenticity of an “Italian” dish. Italians don't ever put oil in the water when cooking pasta. A sufficient amount of water and a little stirring is all you need to keep pasta from sticking. So if your pasta is oily and the sauce won't stick to it, it's not authentically prepared. If your pasta is bland and you feel like you have to empty the salt shaker on it to get it to taste like anything, it's not authentic. The only way to flavor pasta is to aggressively salt the water in which it is cooked. The flavor has to develop as the pasta is cooking. No amount of salt added later will have the same effect. It'll just taste salty. Is your pasta the consistency of the stuff you get out of a can with Chef Boyardee's picture on it? Not authentic. Mushy, overcooked pasta is anathema to the Italian palate. If your pasta isn't al dente, meaning it has a slight “bite” to it, it isn't authentic. And if your pasta shows up on a plate as a gob of noodles with a gob of sauce dolloped on top, it's definitely not authentic. Nobody in Italy serves pasta that way. Any properly prepared pasta dish is a fusion of sauce and pasta. The sauce should be mixed in with the pasta to maximize the flavor of both. In authentic Italian kitchens, the pasta is finished in the sauce. By that I mean the cooks take the pasta out of the water when it is barely done and add it to the pan with the sauce, thereby allowing the pasta to finish cooking in the sauce, bathing it with the flavor of the sauce. And the pasta is never “oversauced.” In a good pasta dish, the noodle is the “star.” The sauce is a condiment. Neither should dominate. Dumping a quart of runny tomato sauce on a pile of bland noodles is not, never has been, and never will be “authentic.”

With the possible exception of a small area in the South, nobody in Italy puts meatballs in spaghetti. And even in that area, the meatballs are tiny. Those big, fist-sized meatballs that are served on top of spaghetti that has been drowned in runny tomato sauce are a foreign concept to most Italians. Oh, they like their meatballs, alright, and have many delicious ways to prepare them. But if you order “spaghetti and meatballs” anywhere in Italy, they'll likely serve you just that – a plate of spaghetti and a plate of meatballs. And they'll gape open-mouthed if you mix them. Remember that the next time you see an “authentic Italian recipe” for spaghetti and meatballs.

Now, meat sauce is another matter. Everybody's heard of the famous rich, meaty “bolognese” sauce. And “spaghetti bolognese” is on every Italian restaurant's menu. Except for the ones in Bologna or anywhere else in Italy. Some of those pasta “rules” I talked about extend to shape. Certain shapes “go with” certain sauces. Tagliatelle or pappardelle are traditionally served with bolognese. Sometimes other shapes like cappeletti or short, tubular pastas are okay. Spaghetti? Never.

Sunday “gravy”? Fughetaboutit! There isn't even an Italian word for gravy, much less an “authentic” recipe.

If your “Italian” restaurant serves “garlic bread,” it's not authentic. Bruschetta or crostini, yes; “garlic bread,” no.

With the exception of eggplant, anything “parmigiano” or “parmigiana” is inauthentic. Chicken parm, veal parm, meatball parm, and anything else “parm” are American creations. So are lobster fra' diavolo and anything served in a vodka sauce.

And the stuff “authentic Italian” restaurants pile on pizza is enough to make chef Raffaele Esposito weep. (He's the Neapolitan guy who really popularized pizza, if you needed to ask.) But that's a lost battle: pizza has become so Americanized as to be unrecognizable outside its native country. There's practically no such thing as “authentic” pizza anywhere outside of Italy. Just make the crust as thick as a loaf of bread and then load it up with “pepperoni,” sausage, hamburger, pineapple, peppers, olives, onions, chicken, barbeque, and anything else you can find in the kitchen. I'll sit over here in the corner quietly munching my thin, flat crust with a little tomato and cheese, thank you, and not even try to argue about “pizza.”

One more knock on “authentic Italian” places in America: friends and neighbors, nobody in Italy pigs out like people do in Italian-American restaurants. The portions I'm served in most “authentic Italian” places would actually insult most Italians, who would consider them grossly excessive and wasteful. But some slick advertising genius sold America on the idea of “abbondanza”, a strictly Italian-American tradition that has few, if any, roots in real Italian culture. Italian-American food is a category unto itself. It came about when Italian immigrants arrived on American shores and quickly discovered two things: one, a lot of the ingredients they were used to back home simply weren't available here. And two, what was available here was available in great abundance. And so they adapted. Which is really what the heart and soul of Italian cooking is all about. Adaptability. You can't find guanciale? Use pancetta. You can't find pancetta? Use uncured bacon. You can't find uncured bacon? Use regular bacon, but be aware the dish won't taste exactly the way it did back home. Adapt. It's okay. And it's okay to display your new prosperity. Hey! Back in Napoli, you were lucky to get meat once or twice a year. Here in America, you can have it every day! Abbondanza! And when the Americans started wandering into the Italian neighborhoods and enclaves, they saw all that abbondanza and assumed that that was just the way all Italian people ate. The ad people encouraged the myth, and before long, ecco! Instant obesity.

I've brought the subject up many times with real Italian restaurateurs of my acquaintance. “Why do you serve this food in this way,” I ask. “You know your nonna is spinning in her grave.” They reply, “I know. But Americans expect it. If I serve food like I would at home, they'd all go to Olive Garden and I'd be out of business.” Sad, but true.

Now, before anybody starts invoking the spirits of their dearly departed grandmothers and siccing them on me with vats of tar and sacks of feathers, allow me to defend myself: I'm not saying there's anything wrong with Americanized Italian or Italian-American food. I just don't think it should be foisted off as “authentic,” that's all. There's nothing “authentic” about P.F. Chang's China Bistro. It's an “Asian-themed” casual dining restaurant that admits to “creative takes on Chinese fare.” And does anybody really think Taco Bell bears any resemblance to “authentic” Mexican cuisine? So you want to serve up vaguely Italian-sounding food at your place? Fine! But admit it. Own up to it. Say your dishes are “Italian-style” or “Italian-inspired.” Just don't throw chunks of chicken into an oversized bowl of overcooked pasta and cover it with a quart of cream sauce and then tell me it's an “authentic Italian recipe.” I know better. And I hope maybe now you do, too.

Okay. Enough preaching. I gotta go now. My neighbor says it's “Italian Night” down at the all-you-can-eat place, and they've got unlimited garlic bread, pizza, spaghetti and meatballs, and spumoni ice cream. I've got to save him!  

Friday, September 18, 2015

Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian

A Timeless Trip Through Time

Julia Child was inarguably one of the most influential culinary figures of the 20th century. And if you'd like to argue, let me posit this question: how many people do you know who have had their home kitchens enshrined at the Smithsonian?

In an age before the current cult of celebrity chefs, Julia's seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking had already made her a star when she first appeared on television in 1962 doing a cooking demo on how to prepare an omelette. Inspired by that success, her first series, The French Chef, hit the airwaves on Boston's WGBH on February 11, 1963. And history, both culinary and media, were about to be made.

Julia lived near Harvard University in a house at 103 Irving Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts from 1961 until 2001. After putting up with flaws in eight previous kitchens, Julia knew exactly how she wanted this one to function. She mapped it all out and her husband, Paul, designed the kitchen to meet her needs as a place where she could not only cook for the home, but also research and develop her recipes. To that end, he raised the maple counter tops in the kitchen by two inches to accommodate Julia's towering 6' 2” height. He selected a light blue-green paint for the room's overall color scheme. Covering the walls with pegboard, Paul used a marker to outline all of Julia's numerous pots and pans, ensuring that there was a place for everything and that everything would be in its place. This comfortable, efficient space would later serve as the setting for three of Julia's TV shows. Discreet poles and brackets were added so that appropriate lighting could be hung when the shows were filming. When tape was rolling, the table and chairs made way for an island equipped with a built-in cooktop and prep surface. Everything else in the room was authentic Julia, right down to her wall oven with the squeaky door.

Paul Child died in 1994. A few years later, Julia decided to return to her native California. In August 2001, representatives of the Smithsonian Institution met with her to discuss the possibility of preserving her iconic kitchen in the National Museum of American History. Her former home near the Harvard campus still stands and is now a private residence. But the kitchen was painstakingly removed and reconstructed as a historic artifact currently on display on the ground floor of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History: Kenneth E. Behring Center, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. To be clear, the kitchen you see there is not a museum replica. It is Julia's actual kitchen, complete with her appliances, cookware, furnishings, and an endless number of her favorite cooking tools and gadgets.

I was in Washington, D.C. recently and paid a visit to Julia's kitchen. It was as amazing as I expected it would be; a timeless trip through time. The 14 x 20 space, viewed through three glass viewports placed in the actual door openings that led to other rooms in the house, is like a wonderful time capsule. Julia's pots and pans are outlined and hung on pegboard just as Paul designed. There are no fancy curtains in Julia's kitchen, just simple blinds, open for viewing from the outside now, but once providing a look outward at tree-lined Irving Street. You can see an automatic icemaker tucked away in one corner, a practical necessity for keeping foods fresh during long taping sessions. Sixteen baking sheets rest in vertical slots next to the dishwasher. Oils and vinegars live on a countertop near the stove, with a variety of spices, teas, coffees, and syrups in a cabinet above. Julia liked cats in her kitchen. Maybe not real ones, but you'll see artistic representations of several spotted around the room. Although she relied on the handier electric wall-oven for her TV shows, her “big Garland” still dominates the room. Purchased used for $429 from a Washington, D.C. restaurant and shipped to Cambridge, the six-burner Garland commercial gas stove, big enough to hold two 25-pound turkeys, stands in its place near the main kitchen door. Look carefully and you'll see a handmade needlework sign that depicts Julia's famous “Bon Appetit” catchphrase displayed high on one wall. It was a gift
from a friend. My wife particularly drooled over Julia's gleaming dark blue KitchenAid stand mixer, displayed in its customary place on the counter. A KitchenAid food processor is there, too. It's the one she was using at the time of the Smithsonian's acquisition of her kitchen, having gone through several previous makes and models, including a French prototype of the Robot Coupe that she acquired in the '60s. Her Cuisinart blender is nearby. There's a large butcher's saw hanging on a wall and a huge cleaver, a personalized gift from the WGBH-TV staff. And the mezzaluna hanging up there is......quite impressive. I've got one, too, but it's nothing like that one. You'll notice a unique painting of an artichoke on the wall above the electric oven: it was done by a friend and was one of only two paintings displayed in Julia's kitchen. This one's a reproduction. The original went to Santa Barbara with Julia. Look at the bookcase full of cookbooks. Among copies of her own books and various other reference works, you can spot a copy of “The Joy of Cooking” by Irma Rombauer. Julia kept a “To-Do List” on the counter next to the phone, and yes, that's a lorgnette hanging on the wall above it. Julia used it instead of reading glasses to read fine print.

Bon Appetit! Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian serves as a centerpiece to the museum’s ongoing Food: Transforming the American Table 1950 – 2000 exhibit. Surrounding the kitchen are numerous signs and displays related to Julia's cooking, her career, and her influence on America's food scene in general. Tapes of one of her programs play on a continuous loop. There's even a life-size cut-out of Julia with which you can pose for a photo-op. (Need you ask? Of course I did.)

Also in the exhibit are areas dedicated to “New and Improved!” consumer goods; “Resetting the Table,” highlighting the immense changes Americans have experienced in what and how they eat, and in how they think and feel about food; and “Wine for the Table,” a fascinating look at American viticulture.

As with all Smithsonian properties, admission to the National Museum of American History is free. While Julia's kitchen is a great attraction, don't miss other important treasures housed at the museum, including Thomas Jefferson's desk, George Washington's uniform, Edison's light bulb, Archie and Edith's chairs from All In The Family, Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, the Greensboro Lunch Counter, and, of course, the Star-Spangled Banner. Allow yourself plenty of time to explore and absorb everything. The museum is home to more than three million artifacts. Going in with the idea that you can knock it out before lunch will really lessen the experience.

The National Museum of American History is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW in Washington, DC. Open daily from 10 am to 5:30 pm, you can call the museum at (202) 633-1000 or visit the website at

The museum offers quite a delicious plateful. As Julia would say, “Bon appetit!”

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Latina News Anchor Uses CORRECT Pronunciation and Ruffles Viewers' Feathers

She Should Try Italian

An interesting story made the news cycle recently; a Latina news anchor in Arizona had the gall, the temerity, the unmitigated chutzpah to appropriately accent and correctly pronounce Spanish words on TV. And the tar was warmed and the chickens plucked by idiots who adhere to the idea that “this here is uh-MER-ica and she ort to be talkin' like a reg'lar uh-MER-ican.”

Vanessa Ruiz, a broadcaster with 12 News in Phoenix, was born to Latino parents in Miami, grew up in Colombia, studied in Spain, and traveled much of South America and Europe before starting her journalism career in the U.S. She is an intelligent, well-educated woman who understands her heritage and respects its language. And here she is being called down because she doesn't say Spanish words the way Americans – the intellectual cornerstones of modern civilization – say them.

She trips pinhead's triggers by rolling her “r”s. And she sets off lamebrain laments among the clodpoll contingent because she properly pronounces Spanish place names that local yokels long ago bastardized to fit their limited linguistic abilities. “It's MAY-suh, dammit, not MESS-ah. Talk like an American if yore gonna live in America.” Because we all know that the American way is the only correct, legitimate, flawless, inerrant, divinely ordained way to do things, right?

I can relate to her predicament. It's a battle I've been fighting on the Italian front for years. And, as Ms. Ruiz is finding out, it's an uphill fight.

Seldom has George Bernard Shaw's aphorism, “Never wrestle with a pig; you get dirty and the pig likes it” been more true than in the face of stubborn lexical resistance. People know what they know and what they know is right regardless of what you know, you know? I can't tell you how many vacant stares I've gotten from clueless servers in pseudo-Italian restaurants when I have tried to correct their egregiously incorrect pronunciation of words like “bruschetta” and “marinara.” When I explain the proper Italian pronunciations, the blank looks usually transform into simpering smiles. And I know that behind those smiles is the thought, “you poor stupid old geezer,” as if I am the benighted one in the conversation!

The sad truth is that most Americans simply don't give a cazzo volante about what they say or how they say it. As long as they can manage to grunt out a basic level of communication, the finer points of language are pointless and immaterial. They don't care, and if you try to disturb their ignorance they will resent you for it. As Ms. Ruiz is discovering.

Ms. Ruiz commented on Facebook that she was surprised her on-air remarks had led to such a “dynamic conversation.” She went on to say that she intended no disrespect. Indeed, she says her pronunciation is an attempt to offer respect to the heritage of some of Arizona's original settlers. Good luck with that tack, young lady. Timothy Hogan, executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, explains, “My observation is people generally feel threatened by use of communication that they are unfamiliar with.” Bingo!

Ask Giada De Laurentiis. You know what constitutes one of the biggest criticisms haters launch against her? It's not her smile or her cleavage or, most recently, her relationship status. It's the way she pronounces Italian words. People don't like the way she says “spaghetti.” Could her pronunciation be the result of being born in Rome to an Italian family? Ya think? Doesn't matter. People still get all up in her face about it because they believe she is being “uppity” or “pretentious.” Yeah. I hear that one a lot, too. Comes with the territory when your vocabulary is made up of words containing more than one syllable.

One of my favorite excuses for the mangling of Italian words – or any other “foreign” language – is the old “common usage” chestnut. That fallacy holds that an incorrectly pronounced word becomes correct through repetition and common usage. In other words, if enough people say something wrong, it becomes right. My response to that inanity comes from French novelist, journalist, and poet Anatole France, “If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.”

And the “language is a living thing, always growing and evolving” theory may explain recent additions to the OED like “jeggings” and “staycation” and “twerk,” but it still doesn't excuse the outright mispronunciation of legitimate words.

Americans harbor the conceit that they invented English and that their version of the language is the only valid and correct one. Just look at all the funny things those stupid people from England say. You'd think they'd learn how to speak proper English, wouldn't you? Everybody knows that “can't” rhymes with “ant,” not whatever silly way they say it in England. And how dare all those foreigners from France and Spain and Italy – excuse me, “IT-ly” – all come over here and try to tell us that we are pronouncing their words wrong! The ungrateful so-and-sos. They'd all be speaking German if it wasn't for us, so they can just take what we say and like it.

Come to think of it, the name “America” itself is based on an Italian name, that of Amerigo Vespucci,.......and it's mispronounced by the majority of Americans. Listen to the way the “Sharks” sing it in West Side Story. The members of the Puerto Rican gang pronounce it perfectly. Not that I realistically expect anybody to start saying “ah-MEH-ree-cah” anytime soon, but there it is.

Now, the hot button issue of speaking foreign languages in America is a whole different argument. Although English is the traditionally predominant language in the United States, the country, in fact, has no “official” or “state” language. (Apparently, at least one of the dimmer bulbs on the political Christmas tree thinks that “American” is a language of its own and that Americans should speak “American,” but.......consider the source.) However since English is the predominant language here, its usage should be encouraged, if not mandated. My mother spoke no English when she started school in the U.S. in the 1920s. Now, the current PC way of handling that situation would be to change all the school's signage to something more “inclusive” and to provide Mom with textbooks written in her own language. But in those unenlightened days, rather than forcing everyone in the school to learn her language, she was made to learn theirs before she could advance. And that's the way it should be.

All of which rather circuitously leads me back to my main point: English is English, Spanish is Spanish, Italian is Italian, etc. Every language is “correct” within itself. But when non-native speakers attempt them, that's where the trouble starts because some people are simply not capable of assimilating speech that is not their own. When my sister was learning Spanish, a woman in her class, frustrated with her own ineptitude, put her finger on the problem when she said, “My Southern tongue just won't wrap itself around some of those words.” Some people can't roll an “r” to save their lives, and certain vowel sounds and consonant combinations are just beyond their comprehension. And those are the very people most likely to mangle a word from another language and justify the abuse by declaring, “Well, that's the way we say it in America.” 

And therein lies the crux of my issue: so-called “foreign” words are either right or they are wrong. They are either correctly rendered in the manner of those who speak them as a native tongue, or they are incorrect. There is no “American way” of saying an Italian word. Or a Spanish one. Or an Armenian one. Such words are either correctly pronounced as they would be by native speakers, or they are incorrect. Only in America do we have the hubris to take another culture's language, twist it out of shape, and then tell the native speaker that he or she is wrong. When a “foreigner” mispronounces an English word, it's funny. Everybody laughs at his accent and he is ridiculed and stigmatized as being unintelligent. But when an American screws up a word in somebody else's language.....“well, that's the way we say that word in America.”

Bravissima, Vanessa Ruiz. Or should I say muy bueno? You keep right on rolling those “r”s and correctly pronouncing those Spanish words. Don't back down, don't give up, and don't dumb yourself down for the sake of the plebeian ignorant. I'm with you, mia sorella, every step of the way.'d you like to try your hand at Italian?

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Obscure Origins Of Famous Sandwiches

Fit For A King......Or At Least An Earl

Consider the sandwich. More than just a quick and convenient form of immediate nourishment, it's a meal you can hold in your hand.

The concept of what we consider a “sandwich” has been around for a long time. Ancient Hebrew tradition holds that back between the years 30 BC and 10 AD, one of the most important figures in Jewish history, the religious leader Hillel the Elder, took slices of meat from a Passover lamb and some bitter herbs and wrapped them between two slices of matzah. And “open-faced” sandwiches were common in much of Europe during the Middle Ages. Food was frequently eaten in “trenchers,” which were basically hollowed out loaves of bread. But according to legend, it took the Earl of Sandwich to give a definitive name to the marriage of bread and meat.

England's 4th Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, is reported to have had something of a gambling problem. He'd settle in at the gaming tables for marathon stretches. In 1762, not wanting to be interrupted by so pedestrian an activity as eating, he ordered his cook to come up with something he could consume without having to get out of his seat. The clever cook slapped some meat between slices of bread and served it to the earl, who was so delighted by the concoction that it quickly became his favorite thing to eat. Owing to his position in British society, it wasn't long before the cook's on-the-fly idea acquired a name: the Montagu! No, seriously, it became known as the “sandwich.” Soon after the Earl's gambling binge, a fellow by the name of Edward Gibbon penned in his diary that he had seen “twenty or thirty of the first men of the kingdom” eating “sandwiches,” as he called them, in a London restaurant.

By the time of the American Revolution, the sandwich was well established in England, but no much in the Colonies. The rebellious colonists were not enamored of things British, you see, and it wasn't until 1815, many years after memories of the guns of war had faded, that a sandwich recipe appeared in an American cookbook. In case you were wondering, that sandwich wasn't good ol' American peanut butter and jelly; it was beef tongue. Peanut butter and jelly came along about a hundred years later.

In fact, peanut butter used to be considered a high-priced commodity. It was originally combined with things like pimento or watercress and served at fancy tea parties. But as commercial peanut processing got better, peanut butter got cheaper and by the time national brands like Peter Pan and Skippy were introduced in the 1920s and '30s, mothers all across the country were packing peanut butter sandwiches in children's lunches. Peanut butter was one of the few things not rationed during WWII, making it a great alternative source of protein. Because of that, peanut butter was issued to GIs during the war. So was jelly. It is said that enterprising soldiers put the two together and an American classic was born. At least, that's the legend. Ask older folks, though, especially those who lived out in the country, and they'll recall their moms mixing peanut butter and jelly back during the days of the Depression as a means of stretching scarce food resources. But whether it was frugal mothers or inventive soldiers who created it, PB&J is now iconic in American culture.

So, in no particular order, let's have a look at some other famous iterations of the Earl's namesake.

The Dagwood

Once upon a time, practically everybody knew who Dagwood Bumstead was. Married to Blondie Boopadoop on February 17, 1933, Dagwood became an international sensation on the newspaper comic pages before moving on to movie and radio stardom. And he also laid claim to a bit of culinary notoriety as the inventor of the eponymous “Dagwood Sandwich.”

The way “Chic” Young created and drew Dagwood, he was fairly inept at nearly everything. The one thing, however, at which he excelled was going into the kitchen, especially at night, and precariously piling mountains of various leftovers between slices of bread. The huge sandwiches the character created on his nocturnal refrigerator raids became known as “Dagwood sandwiches,” a term which even made it into the dictionary.

Now, Young was never specific about exactly what Dagwood put into those gargantuan multi-layered sandwiches, but they most often appear to be huge amounts of cold cuts, cheeses, and vegetables, slathered in condiments and stacked on and between numerous slices of bread, all topped off by an olive skewered through with a toothpick.

Several attempts at capitalizing on Blondie and Dagwood's popularity as food icons have been mounted over the years. A Dagwood-themed restaurant opened in Toledo in 1951, but was forced to close by the King Features syndicate, who sued over licensing issues. A similar attempt, made by a Michigan entrepreneur who circumvented the syndicate by hyphenating “Dag-Wood”, hung around into the early 1970s. Dagwood's image has been legitimately licensed to a product line of packaged lunch meats, and a “Blondie”-themed restaurant chain named “Dagwood's Sandwich Shoppes” was launched in 2006. The “Dagwood sandwich,” as served there, consists of three slices of deli bread, Genoa salami, ham, pepperoni, turkey, cheddar cheese, provolone, lettuce, tomato, roasted red bell peppers, banana peppers, red onion, deli mustard, and low-calorie mayonnaise. It weighs in at a pound-and-a-half.

The Reuben

The Reuben sandwich is often hailed as the ultimate New York deli sandwich. But some say it didn't originate in New York City or anywhere else in the Empire State, for that matter. Nope. It came straight out of the Midwest. Omaha, Nebraska, to be exact.

Like the Earl of Sandwich, Lithuanian-born Omaha grocer Reuben Kulakofsky was apparently quite a poker player. And he had a lot of poker playing pals, who called themselves “the committee,” and who, also like the Earl, preferred not to interrupt the game to eat. So in the 1920s, Reuben concocted a sandwich for his gambling buddies at the Blackstone Hotel and eventually convinced hotel owner Charles Schimmel to put it on the menu. A former hotel waitress entered and won a national recipe contest with Reuben's sandwich in the 1950s and it soon became popular all over the country.

But hold on a minute! New Yorkers have their own version of the tale to tell and it involves Arnold Reuben, the German-born owner of New York City's famous “Reuben's Delicatessen.” He claims to have invented the “Reuben Special” back in 1914 and his claim is backed by a print reference to the “Reuben Special” in a 1926 edition of “Theatre Magazine.”

Regardless of pedigree, the classic Reuben sandwich is a hot sandwich comprised of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing, all grilled between slices of rye bread.

The Club

Trying to pin down the origin of the Club sandwich is like trying to herd cats. The classic sandwich that was an avowed favorite of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII and his wife, Wallis Simpson, likely got its name because it was popular at hotels, resorts, and country clubs all over the world. But which one gets first dibs?

The place that also gave us the potato chip lays an early claim. Popular theory attributes creation of the Club sandwich to the famous Saratoga Club-House in Saratoga Springs, New York. An exclusive “gentlemen only” gambling establishment, where neither women nor locals were permitted in the gambling rooms, it was originally called Morrissey's Club House. In 1894, it was purchased by Richard Canfield and became known as “Canfield's Casino.”

An unattributed recipe for the Club sandwich appears a few years later in the 1903 “Good Housekeeping Everyday Cook Book,” authored by Isabel Gordon Curtis. That recipe describes the Club Sandwich thusly: “Toast a slice of bread evenly and lightly butter it. On one half put, first, a thin slice of bacon which has been broiled till dry and tender, next a slice of the white meat of either turkey or chicken. Over one half of this place a circle cut from a ripe tomato and over the other half a tender leaf of lettuce. Cover these with a generous layer of mayonnaise, and complete this delicious 'whole meal' sandwich with the remaining piece of toast.”

The 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis gets credit for popularizing an astonishing variety of foods. Hot dogs, hamburgers, ice cream cones, banana splits, Dr. Pepper, cotton candy, and peanut butter are just a few of the everyday comestibles launched at the Fair. The Club sandwich got a boost, too, with four of the Fair's restaurants featuring a version on their menus.

A couple of early published references from the nineteen-teens and '20s credit an ordinary working man with the development of the Club sandwich. According to these sources, a guy came home late one night and found that the family had already eaten and gone off to bed. So he did what guys do: he raided the pantry and the icebox, the forerunner of the modern refrigerator. He made some toast. Then he slathered it with butter and mayonnaise. He found a couple of slices of cooked bacon and some cold chicken. A tomato looked pretty good, and he topped it all with another slice of buttered toast. Then he told his buddies at “the club” about his creation, and so was born the “Club sandwich.”

Of course, contemporary Club sandwiches are “double-deckers,” and some of the experts who study such things believe that the “double-decker” Club sandwich originated on the double-decker club cars of American trains back in the 1930s and '40s.

Apparently, you can make a Club sandwich out of almost anything. I've seen them packed with hummus, avacado, and even Dungeness crab meat. But the “classic” Club consists of toasted white bread, lettuce, tomato, bacon, thinly sliced chicken, and mayonnaise. Sometimes ham and/or cheese are added and maybe some mustard. The sandwich is usually constructed as a “double-decker,” having two layers separated by an additional slice of toasted bread.

The “Dean of American Cookery,” James Beard, had definite opinions on many food-related topics, including the Club sandwich. In 1972's “James Beard's American Cookery” he wrote: “. . . it is one of the great sandwiches of all time and has swept its way around the world after an American beginning. Nowadays the sandwich is bastardized because it is usually made as a three-decker, which is not authentic (whoever started that horror should be forced to eat three-deckers three times a day the rest of his life), and nowadays practically everyone uses turkey and there's a vast difference between turkey and chicken where sandwiches are concerned.”

The Grinder/Submarine/Hoagie/etc., etc.

This is a sandwich that really got around. Instead of slices of loaf bread, the base for the sandwich is a split roll, usually a long roll of some sort. The roll is then filled with a variety of meats, cheeses, vegetables, seasonings, and sauces. Nearly everybody who researches such things agrees that the sandwich is Italian in origin. Or, at least, it started with Italian immigrants.

The main issue with this sandwich is not who invented it or what it's made of; the bigger issue is what to call it. To some it's a “Po' Boy.” Many dub it a “Grinder.” Others call it a “Hoagie.” Some folks prefer “Hero,” while still others refer to it as a “Sub” or “Submarine.” If you really want to go off the deep end, you can call it a “Spuckie,” a “Blimpie,” a “Wedge,” or a “Bomber.” In some places it's a “Torpedo” or a “Zep,” shortened from “zeppelin.” To further add to the confusion, some folks think it's a “Dagwood.” In many instances, what you call it depends largely on where you're standing when you order it. Earlier, I alluded to herding cats. Well, this one is like herding spastic cats on acid. But here goes.

Most authorities agree that the “Po' Boy” came first. What they don't agree on is how the term “Po' Boy” came into being. That it originated in New Orleans is pretty much universally accepted. From there you have the Benny and Clovis Martin supporters. The Martins, streetcar conductors turned restaurateurs, supposedly invented the sandwich in 1929 for former colleagues who were striking against the streetcar company. They allegedly referred to their customers as “them poor boys,” which, in Louisiana dialect, translated to “po' boys,” and the name just kind of stuck to the sandwich. Other folks insist that dialect did play a part, but that the “boys” in question were literally poor and the sandwich was something which a “po' boy” could afford. The Martin supporters usually have the edge in the debate.

When the sandwich migrated to New England, it picked up a number of new names, the most common of which were “grinder” and “submarine.” The “submarine” appellation, later shortened to just “sub,” came about because the sandwiches looked kind of like......well, like submarines. Another theory holds that the sandwich picked up the name because of its popularity among workers at the Navy yards in Groton, Connecticut, a place where submarines were made. Here's where those spastic cats come in: the sandwich was supposedly invented by an Italian shopkeeper named Benedetto Capaldo, who called it a “grinder” because that was a slang term for the local dockworkers who were among his biggest customers. This version of the story says that because most of those “grinders” worked on submarines, the term “submarine sandwich” came into vogue. One way or another, submersible vehicles were involved.

Another entry posits the notion that the sandwich was a favorite among a particular type of “grinder,” the one in charge of rounding off rivet heads. The term “grinder” is also said to have been added to the lexicon because the bread was so crusty and chewy that it took a lot of “grinding” to eat it.

I've seen some who date the “submarine” sandwich specifically to WWII. Others insist that it was a product of the '50s. To both I present the 1940 phone book for Wilmington, Delaware wherein an advertisement was placed for “submarine sandwiches to take out.”

“Hoagie” supposedly got its name thanks to Italian shipyard workers on Philadelphia's Hog Island. (Say “hog” with an Italian accent and you'll get it.) It is also said to have Irish roots taken from the name “Hogan,” either used as a slang term for Irish dockworkers or from an actual Irishman of that name whose wife apparently made killer Italian sandwiches. Still another theory holds that back in the 1920s, a Philadelphia jazz musician, later turned sandwich shop owner, named Al De Palma saw some fellow musicians chowing down on a big sandwich. He supposedly said to himself “you gotta be a hog” to eat a sandwich that big. So, naturally, when he opened his sandwich shop in the '30s, he dubbed his big sandwiches “hoggies.” And, speaking of jazz musicians, the sandwich was in no way related to the great “Hoagy” Carmichael, whose first name was Howard and whose middle name was “Hoagland.” Another Philadelphia “hoagie” theory has to do with “hokey-pokey men.” No, they weren't guys who spent all their time putting their left foot in and taking their left foot out. They were early-twentieth-century street vendors. Why that made them "hokey-pokey men" is beyond explanation. Anyway, the story goes that when Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta “H.M.S. Pinafore” opened in Philadelphia in 1879, local bakeries commemorating the event produced a special long loaf called the “pinafore.” And the "hokey-pokey men" sliced the loaf in half, stuffed it with antipasto salad, and sold the world's first "hoagie" sandwich. Another fringe theory out of South Philly says that among Italian immigrants there, the phrase "on the hoke" was a slang term used to describe a destitute person. Supposedly, kindly shop owners would give away scraps of meat and cheese in an Italian roll known as a "hokie", but since there's no letter “k” in the Italian alphabet, the local immigrants pronounced it "hoagie." Which sounds like a lot of hokey-pokey to me.

The other funky names I mentioned represent regional variations on the same theme. “Spuckie” is native to Boston, where it derived from the Italian word “spucadella,” a kind of Italian roll. “Blimpie's” come out of Hoboken, the “Torpedo” and the “Zep” are Pennsylvania natives, the “Bomber” hails from Buffalo, and the “Wedge” is specific to Westchester County, New York and adjacent Fairfield County, Connecticut. The story goes that the Italian owner of a Yonkers deli got tired of saying “sandwich” and shortened it to “wedge.”

Another example of pronunciation possibly influencing the name of a sandwich comes from the “Hero.” Now, I read something about people calling it a “hero” because it was such a big sandwich that it took heroic effort to eat it. That story can be traced to New York Herald Tribune columnist Clementine Paddleworth who penned the comment in 1936. But the Greeks had (and have) a sandwich called the “gyro.” Americans have a strange proclivity toward anglicizing anything and everything that they can't otherwise pronounce, so that sandwich got mutilated as “JY-roh.” But the proper Greek pronunciation is closer to “hero.” The flaw in that theory is that “heroes” have been around since the '30s and '40s, but “gyros” didn't really catch on in America much before the '60s. One more kind of whacked-out theory, but one that appears to have some legitimate basis in scholarly research, proposes that the term was actually part of the jargon of armored car guards who used “hero” to describe a really big sandwich. Take your pick. I like the Greek option.
The Muffuletta

Back to the home of the Po' Boy we go for the origin of the Muffuletta. The pedigree of that one, at least, leaves no doubt: it's Italian. Specifically, Sicilian. It is said to have originated at the Central Grocery in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where owner Salvatore Lupo sold salami, ham, cheese, olive salad, and either long braided Italian bread or a round muffuletta loaf to Sicilian immigrant farmers who sold their produce at the nearby Farmers Market. The farmers ate everything separately while sitting on crates or barrels and balancing their lunches on their knees. Salvatore suggested cutting the bread and putting everything on it in a decidedly non-Sicilian sandwich style. The farmers rejected the thick braided loaf in favor of the softer, rounder muffuletta loaf, and a new sandwich was born.

The traditional muffuletta is a cold sandwich consisting of the bread, split horizontally and covered with layers of marinated olive salad, mortadella, salami, mozzarella, ham, and provolone. Some vendors heat the sandwich in order to melt the cheese.

I was going to tell you all about hamburgers, but for some reason I'm suddenly very hungry. And there's fresh-baked bread and ham and cheese and Benton's bacon and a bunch of other stuff calling to me from the kitchen. So maybe next time, okay?