Sunday, February 28, 2021

Ketchup on a Hot Dog?

There are two types of people in this world as they say. 

The first group consists of people who believe that food is for enjoying, and regardless of what ingredients are thrown together to make a dish, if they like it, they go for it. The second group would no matter how much they are tempted, never, and I mean NEVER, put ketchup on a hot dog. 

If you're from Chicago as I am, you know what I mean. But really if you are part of any culture that takes its food seriously, you no doubt have one or perhaps a thousand similar rules about what goes with what, and more appropriately, what does not. I'm not talking here about restrictions based upon religious dietary laws. There's a deeply spiritual reason why religious Jewish people won't serve beef along with dairy products, why you won't find pork served in a devout Islamic family's home, or meat at all on Fridays during Lent on the table of a practicing Roman Catholic family. 

However there are no spiritual reasons I know of that makes a former colleague of mine from Belgium react with abject horror and disgust, (something we, her coworkers exploited at will), at the mere mention of combining chocolate and peanut butter. Or my Central European father's strongly negative reaction when I dared add a little allspice to his beloved Weiner Schnitzel. And I dare you to go to a restaurant in Italy, order a plate of fish, then ask the cameriere to put grated cheese on top of it, something they do with practically everything else they serve. Regardless of whether or not you're thrown out the door at the suggestion, I guarantee you will never again ask for cheese on fish in Italy, or perhaps anywhere, ever again.

OK while there are probably no spiritual reasons for these purely gastronomic rules, they are no less profound. Food next to language, perhaps even more so, is the most basic foundation of any culture, for reasons that probably don't need explaining. 

But in case you don't get it, perhaps this novelty song from 1961 will help: 

Just as we call our native language our "mother tongue", there's nothing quite like the food your mother, father, or if you're lucky enough to be Italian, your nonna used to make.

Which explains why so many of us are so protective of the recipes handed down from generations in our families. I can't tell you all the times I've asked folks to recommend a good restaurant that served the food of their culture only to be told there are none, at least any that compare to the food they had at home. 

Many of us don't share the experience of coming from a strong food culture. Like virtually everyone of her ethnicity and generation in the States, my mom all but rejected the cuisine of her Irish/American background, for good reason, in favor of a variety of recipes she found in magazines and old standbys like The Joy of Cooking. The only exception to that rule was the annual St. Patrick's Day corned beef and cabbage, which she still makes. 
My Czech father on the other hand, along with my German born surrogate grandfather, introduced me to the cuisine of Central Europe. Mostly we ate this type of food at restaurants but I must say my father made a pretty mean roast duck for the two of us as my mother couldn't stand it. 

Consequently Central European food, its taste, its smell, and the ambience of the restaurants that served it, hard to find these days stateside, takes me back to my childhood. For me it is the true definition of comfort food, a term I find overused and abused these days, as it is mostly used to describe anything that tastes good.  

As food can be so evocative of a time and place, many years after the schnitzel episode, I can truly understand why my dad reacted so unhappily to the unexpected flavor in his favorite dish. It would be like getting together with a beloved old friend who after many years of not seeing you. turned out to only be interested in selling you his time share in Florida.

This subject of food taboos caught my attention about a year ago while studying Spanish, reading about a TV cooking program that caused quite a ruckus in Spain. On that show, the famous TV chef Jamie Oliver made a paella into which he added chorizo. To the uninitiated, adding Spanish sausage to a Spanish dish, wouldn't seem like a big deal. The truth is that many Spaniards actually DO put chorizo in their paella.  

However we're talking about the national dish of Spain and I'm sure it already rubbed at least a few Spaniards the wrong way that it was being prepared (the wrong way) by a cheeky Englishman. To them it was tantamount to Jamie Oliver coming to their country and changing the words to their national anthem.  

On the other hand paella, which most people assume features seafood, originated in Valencia, where the primary protein was (and still is) rabbit meat. In fact, once upon a time you could put anything you had lying around into your paella, as it was originally a peasant dish created for its flexibility. 

Regardless, rather than the meat you put on top of it, as anyone who has ever prepared it knows, the heart and soul of paella is the pan it is cooked in (originally and sometimes today still, over an open fire), introduced by the Romans, and most important of all the rice, introduced to the Iberian peninsula by the Arabs who also introduced paella's dominant flavor, saffron. 

The point is that there is no such thing as a pure recipe, the food we eat, much like the languages we speak, are mixtures of elements that come from many different sources. 

Take pizza, perhaps the most popular food on the planet at the moment. Practically every region you go in the world has its own method of preparing pizza, and more than likely its inhabitants claim theirs is the best, while all others are merely second rate if that. But unless you live in Naples where the dish as we know it more than likely originated, you have absolutely no bragging rights to pizza.

Pizza has a longer and more complicated history than paella, starting with flatbreads which go back at least to ancient Greece. The second most important ingredient without which it would hardly be pizza, (although some would beg to differ) is the tomato, which was first cultivated by Native Americas.   

There is no question that the Neopolitans took these diverse ingredients and made them their own. So I wouldn't have a problem with someone from Naples coming to Chicago, sampling a Chicago style deep dish pizza (invented in 1943), and saying our (like it or not) famous local dish is not pizza. But I would have a problem with someone from say New York, whose own pizza is hardly more recognizable to a Neopolitan, saying the same thing. 

Here is a hilarious video of an Italian YouTube chef and his take on another famous British TV cook, Gordon Ramsay, and his attempts to make the classic Roman dish, Spaghetti Carbonara, 

To be fair to Chef Vincenzo, he can dish it out but he can also take it. On his channel there is another video where he asks a chef from Bologna to critique his Bolognese sauce. That chef leaves no stone unturned in throwing poor Vincenzo's ragù under the bus.

Talk about a strong food culture. 

So do you have to be a nonna from Bologna, or at least a native of that city, to be able to cook an authentic Ragù alla Bolognese? 

I don't know. My godmother who is of Polish dissent, and is also an accomplished pianist, claims you have to be Polish in order to play Chopin properly. You may disagree but for my money the best interpreter of the composer was Artur Rubenstein, born and bred in Łódź.

Like music, food has a heart and soul that reflects the culture from which it comes. In order for those of us who are not part of that culture to properly interpret something, whether it be a piece of music or a recipe, we have to at the very least, understand and above all respect its culture. 

That's not to say we can't be inventive nor change things around at will, we just have to understand that by doing so, we're creating something new and different, certainly not a bad thing, but not the original. After all, you wouldn't throw a couple bars of an atonal Schoenberg piece into a Chopin nocturne and still call it Chopin. Or would you? 

That said, I don't know if the pressing issue of whether you can call something paella if it has chorizo in it will ever be resolved. I guess the bottom line is you can if you're from Spain and you can't if like me, you're not. 

I'm perfectly OK with that. 

But right now at this writing, as my own Ragù alla Bolognese is simmering away in the pot, I'm in a quandary over whether or not to add nutmeg which is something I've come to expect in the sauce, but not in the recipe I'm using from the master of Bologna. 

Oh wait a minute, the great Marcella Hazan has nutmeg in her recipe so I'm good to go, gotta run.

Ciao a tutti! 

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