A Failure To Understand Italian Food
In my reading, I recently came across an article in the US edition of “The Guardian” in which the author, one Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, puts forth her assessment of Italian cooking. Spurred by a backlash from a number of people who took to the 'Net to lambast British food maven Mary Berry's use of white wine instead of red in a “classic” ragu bolognese, Ms. Cosslett avers that while food is important, recipes aren't sacred. She describes the Internet as “a maelstrom of pedants, trolls, mansplainers and sealions.”And nowhere, she says, is this more apparent than among recipe websites.
It is Ms. Cosslett's considered opinion that Italians are “sentimental and possessive about cooking; this is the way their nonna or their mama did it, and it must stay that way.” She then states that “though tasty, the homogeneity of Italian food can be boring,” and she criticizes Italy's “uncompromising attitude” that, she opines, “can suck some of the joy out of cooking.” She continues by gushing about the “culinary variety and adventurousness” of British cuisine, confiding that “by the time I came home [from Italy] I was desperate for some spice.” She then describes her fondest childhood memories of badly cooked pork chops, her grandmother's applesauce, and her other grandmothers' eating “blood” from a roast beef with a spoon, concluding it all by waxing ecstatic over a family recipe for steamed chicken.
British “culinary adventurousness?” Please! Of this oxymoron I can only say, “Standing in defense of Italian cuisine, Your Honor, I rest my case.”
I guess she feels that we Italian cooks are too fussy and too tied to our precious recipes because we get upset when somebody dumps cream in a carbonara. Saying that Italians are “rigid about their recipes” she quotes Jamie Oliver's rant regarding “food facism” in which he bloviates that “maintaining regional food traditions is important, but not at the expense of all creativity and innovation.”
Picture me now as Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke: “What we've got here is a failure to communicate.” What we've got here is a failure to understand Italian food.
In the first place, anybody who knows anything about Italian food will tell you there is no such thing as “Italian food.” There are twenty Italian regions – twenty-one if you count the Bronx – and what we consider to be “Italian food” is totally defined by regional food traditions. Across the width and breadth of the Italian boot and even in the Italian-American enclaves of the US, Italian cooks employ time-honored traditions and use local, seasonal ingredients to – with apologies to the esteemed Mr. Oliver – create and innovate in a manner not seen in any other cuisine on the planet.
Yes, we stick to our recipes, dammit, not because we are pedantic, but because our methods work faithfully and consistently time after time across borders and generations. If some Brit twit wants to consider that boring, I respectfully suggest she tuck into a nice side of boiled beef, a plate of bangers and mash, or her beloved steamed chicken and leave the rest of us alone.
Trust me, Italian recipes are nothing if not flexible. Many a “traditional” dish will vary in preparation from region to region, sometimes from town to town within a region, and even from street to street and house to house within those towns. It is precisely that variety and flexibility that leads those of us who understand Italian cooking to say that there is no such thing as “Italian food.” All “Italian food” is local, based on what each individual cook has to work with. “Italian” is as much a style of cooking as it is a specific cuisine. If you are using traditional techniques and methods to create delicious food from carefully selected, fresh, high-quality ingredients, you are cooking like an Italian.
That said, however, the roots of most “classic” Italian dishes run deep, tracing their origins to either “cucina povera” or to very specifically sourced regional ingredients. From that aspect, Italian recipes are sacred and Italian cooks are rigid. Using carefully curated Italian ingredients, mamas and nonne and bisnonne have worked for generations to perfect particular flavor profiles. And I'm sorry, creativity and innovation be hanged, you can't screw with that level of perfection. Can you “innovate” by substituting Cheddar cheese for Parmigiano-Reggiano? Sure. But the result won't taste the same and it won't be traditionally Italian. You want to be “creative” and put white wine in a sauce instead of red? Go for it. But don't call it “bolgnese” because it's not. If I write a recipe and you come along and change it by adding or subtracting or substituting ingredients, it's no longer my recipe; it's yours. And that's okay, but don't call it whatever I called it because you're not making it the way I made it. You want to dump cream in carbonara? Va bene! “Innovate” away! But call your creation “spaghetti in cream sauce” or something, because there's no cream in traditional carbonara. Mary Berry wants to make a pasta sauce with white wine? Assolutamente! But call it “pasta alla Berry,” because it's simply not classic “bolognese.”
Cooking is hard to codify because it straddles the line between “art” and “craft.” When you're dealing with an instruction manual for assembling, say, something from IKEA, you need to use the materials you're provided and follow the steps exactly as they are written. Get innovative or creative and your project winds up a pile of scrap. Because cooking leans more toward “art,” a lot of people say recipes are merely guidelines. Yes and no. For instance, sometimes you have to substitute ingredients. You can't help it. And within the framework of those “rigid” Italian recipes, that's perfectly fine. Substitution is the basis of most Italian-American dishes. Immigrants who came to America couldn't find many of the ingredients they had back home, so they substituted. When I make bucatini al'Amatriciana, I often use pancetta instead of guanciale because the former is easier to find than the latter. Far from being “uncompromising,” Italian recipes allow for such variances because they are sensitive to the cook's need to work with whatever ingredients are available.
But there's also a reason why Italian cooks are “sentimental and possessive about cooking.” Food is part of the Italian soul. Italians take great and justifiable pride in their food products. Things like Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma, mozzarella di bufala, and more than two hundred other nationally recognized and legally protected food products are an integral part of Italian life and culture. And Italian cooking methods have been developed through generations of trial and error. Delicate balances of textures and flavors and aromas can only be tweaked and “innovated” just so far before they become something else. Something not “Italian.” My friend Allan Benton produces some of the finest country ham in America. But as fantastic as Allan's ham is for biscuits and Red-eye gravy and seasoning for soups and vegetables, I wouldn't necessarily use it in place of Italian prosciutto di Parma. The flavor profiles are too radically different. The salty bite of country ham is completely different than the delicate sweetness of prosciutto. I'm not saying you can't do it; whatever you put Benton's ham in is going to be delicious. But is it going to be “Italian?” Not in the traditional sense. (That's why Allan also produces a wonderful prosciutto, by the way, prepared much as it is in Italy.)
I don't think that “maintaining regional food traditions” equates to “food facism.” And “creativity and innovation” are fine as long as they don't detract from the cultural soul of the dish. In the very same breath with which Ms. Cosslett talks down being “sentimental and possessive” about cooking the way Italian mothers and grandmothers cooked, she proceeds to rhapsodize, “I hope to pass down her [grandmother's] delicious steamed chicken recipe to my own children one day.” Huh? How does that work? It's okay for her to pass down her grandmother's recipes, but my grandmother's recipes “suck some of the joy out of cooking?” I think not.
I'm sorry to be disagreeable, Ms. Cosslett, but many Italian recipes are somewhat sacred and I will vigorously defend them against all trendy “innovators.” And if that makes me a pedantic mansplainer, I guess I'm guilty as charged. But I'm also guilty of being autentico, classico, e tradizionale. I'm a boring, uncompromising, sentimental, possessive, rigid, joy-sucking Italian cook. And I'm damn proud of it.