Culinary heritage: tradition, nostalgia or identity?

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Where does culinary nostalgia fit into our over stimulated psyche?There is no doubt that culinary nostalgia is certainly alive and well in regards to “Italian food”. Everybody loves ‘Italian food’. But guess what? There is no Italian food.
Does the US even have a culinary heritage? As things stand now, we aren’t passing along any culinary inheritance. Aerosol pancake batter is not furthering our heritage. And today’s question is: does it matter if the US has a culinary heritage? People in other countries, feel free to insert your country name. Unless you are French, and then it’s an outrage to even ask the question.
Culinary Nostalgia I’ve had some interesting emails sent my way after my post about culinary heritage, so while pea season is over, I have other mundane kitchen chores to keep my hands busy while I think about the impact of culinary heritage.

The Locanda al Gambero Rosso family had a very heartfelt reaction to the blog post about culinary heritage and here’s rough translation of part of their  thought provoking reply:
“We don’t make the usual dishes or the popular "tourist" dishes but what for us is the true cuisine of this area: from the old kitchen, but almost always made of simple things and "emotions", interpreted in a modern way.
And the sincerest thing to understand, for someone who was not born here, is that the kitchen needs to reflect its traditional heritage, although this is represented by dishes that have more to do with poverty than with well being (because until 50-60 years ago there was only a few wealthy families).
We like to remember where we started and to do it through the kitchen (it's from the past that come our tastes and we will not forget).”

For me, the key here is the word ‘interpret’. The Gambero Rosso family absolutely respects their roots, but they feel free to interpret the past through the recognition of modern tastes and the use of technology.

Where does culinary nostalgia fit into our over stimulated psyche? Rachel Laudan thinks we are in a moment where culinary nostalgia is the flavor of the day.  A trendy word that can be applied at will to whatever suits your fancy.
Trattoria Nostalgia

There is no doubt that culinary nostalgia is certainly alive and well in regards to “Italian food”.  Everybody loves 'Italian food’. But guess what?  There is no Italian food. There is no single dish that shows up on everybody’s table.  Italy has only been a unified country since the 1860's. There are frequent hand wringing articles in Italian publications about the lack of a national identity. (Except during the World Cup, when somehow all Italians lose their minds in a collective, national ecstasy of soccer.)  What passes for “Italian’ food in the States is a mash up between American taste, ingredients, expectations and the ability of the post WWII wave of Italian immigrants to assimilate and adapt their heritage into something “American’.  
Fresh Pasta Pasta is a fine example of why there is no “Italian food”. Each of the 20 regions of Italy uses and prepares pasta in their own unique manner. Fresh egg noodle pasta, filled pastas, hard dry spaghetti…each region has it’s own tradition. So, spaghetti Bolognese, that universal dish, doesn’t exist in Bologna because they don’t eat spaghetti in Bologna, they eat tagliatelle. We’ve sat at the table with traveling Americans who are yearning for “Italian food’.  Where can we find real Italian food they ask? And they are looking for veal parmigiana, or giant meatballs.  Here is the paradox: they are experiencing a blast of culinary nostalgia for dishes that don’t exist here in the Mother Country.

So, where does this leave culinary identity? Dictionary.com defines identity as “the condition of being oneself or itself, and not another”.  The root of the word heritage is inherited.  So going back to the Gambero Rosso example, dire poverty in the area led to culinary necessities. Chickens were plentiful, so eggs were plentiful, so many of the dishes have egg in them.  Chickens lay eggs every single day, so you wind up with a boatload of eggs if you aren’t careful. Think about it, what would you do if you had 6 eggs delivered to you, every single day? Those culinary necessities faded as people moved away from the land and into the cities, but the remembrance of those flavors lingered, creating culinary nostalgia. And on Sundays, they traveled back home to the Nonna’s country house for a massive meal that was no longer based in culinary necessity, but in culinary tradition or heritage.  Italians are fiercely attached to the cooking of their region. The slightest deviation in a traditional recipe and you face outrage that you’ve bastardized a recipe or sympathy because you’re palate is not evolved enough to appreciate the subtle perfection of a particular dish.
Aperitivo hour

If Italy has any unified culinary identity, it’s found in the bar.   No matter where you go in Italy, you will find a place where you can ‘take’ a coffee or a glass of wine, or both, followed by a gelato.  “Bars” in Italy are self-contained worlds where there are universal truths: Coffee is served at all time, but no coffee with milk is to be consumed after 11:00am.  You wouldn't eat lunch at the bar, but you could get a coffee after lunch. There is mid-afternoon lull where you could hang at a bar and never order anythingl. This is followed by the aperitivo hour, which is a chance to wind down and share the days events with your community. At 8:00pm all bars are deserted as everyone is having dinner, however dinner could be followed by a nightcap visit back to the bar.  If you are traveling anywhere in Italy, and observe these rules, you would be in sync with the national rhythm. Break the rules by asking for a cappuccino in the evening and the whole bar will come to a standstill and stare at the foreigner in their midst. This is the Italian condition of being oneself and not any other, defined as identity.

I think I was wrong the other day when I said the hamburger was the US’s culinary heritage. Instead I think the hamburger is emblematic of our culinary identity.  Does the US even have a culinary heritage? As things stand now, we aren’t passing along any culinary inheritance. Aerosol pancake batter is not furthering our heritage. And today’s question is: does it matter if the US has a culinary heritage? People in other countries, feel free to insert your country name.  Unless you are French, and then it's an outrage to even ask the question.

One Response to "Culinary heritage: tradition, nostalgia or identity?"
  1. I think I’d have a hard time identifying with the Iraqi food heritage. My mother is 100% Texan and always cooked Iraqi food when we had home-made (my father’s preference), but too much fatty lamb is actually frightening to me. I think my current take on things is a variety of inspirations. Tonight, Italian inspiration. Another night, mexican (oh I love my fish tacos). Sometimes indian. Other times american (sloppy joes? OK!). Asian flare, greek, lebanese, etc. They all get fused together in the end, and it boils down to creating meals that are balanced, fresh, and will be enjoyed by everyone at the table (from the self-professed carnarian to the 3 year old who will eat himself silly on edamame). I feel fortunate to live in the age of information where we can learn about savory flavors from asian dishes and use that information when trying to balance the spice from an indian dish. Even at my son’s school the chef likes to create a variety of dishes to keep the kids palates interested and inspired. We’re proud of her – she’s heading to the white house this week to represent “Chefs move to schools” – a movement to pair chefs with school kitchens so more children can have freshly prepared foods 🙂 Oh — and our pea seaon is just beginning — can’t wait til we’re swimming in fave and sugar snaps (the 3 y/o loves those too)!

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