In late February, 2021 The New York Times Cooking published a recipe for “smoky tomato carbonara“. The Italian farmers association Coldiretti retorted
The tomato carbonara is the tip of the iceberg of the falsification of Made in Italy…carbonara is one of the most scarred Italian recipes abroad with, for example, the habit of modifying it with the use of cream without pecorino cheese, but among the most “betrayed” specialties there are also… the typical caprese served with industrial cheese instead of buffalo mozzarella or fiordilatte, while there are also cases of pasta al pesto with almonds, walnuts or pistachios instead of pine nuts and with ordinary cheese…
Having recently moved to Italy –in order to have better access to fine ingredients– I am more fascinated than ever by this exchange, which has so much to reveal about culture.
Why are the Italians so uptight? This could be the perspective of those who commented on the recipe with further tips for improvement, such as doubling the amount of tomatoes, increasing the ratio of sauce:pasta, or offering a “pescaterian” version with smoked salmon instead of bacon. These home cooks understand recipes as an aid and inspiration to the healthful hobby of cooking at home. No longer a gendered family institution, nor a ritual of tradition, Italian gastronomy offers culinary frameworks for innovation for both chefs and home cooks. That innovation accommodates ethical dietary preferences from meatless to localist while encouraging playful creativity which has personal psychological benefits (put the recipe aside and trust your senses and inspiration) as well as social benefits to a diverse society now united in love for “fusion” cuisine like Korean Tacos.
Part of the innovation is driven by the fact that guanciale and buffalo mozzarella are rare in the US, while bacon is common (and almost all of it is smoked). A friend, Jamey Lionette, who ran a conscious butcher shop in Boston explained that it took him years to convince the slaughterhouse from which he bought “whole pigs” not to throw away the head and feet. Without the head, he could offer pancetta, but not guanciale (made from the pig’s cheeks). Buffalo are now being raised again in the US, mostly for their lean meat, but buffalo mozzarella is a luxury product. Fior di latte, like crème fraîche, is exceedingly rare in the US. Indeed until recently, even what is called “fresh mozzarella” (from cow milk) was sufficiently unusual that when I came across it (for example at Claudio’s in Philadelphia) I would do it the honor of eating it pure on the sidewalk outside the shop.
In truth, Italians should be able to understand this, as many Italian products are known but not available outside of their region of origin. Capito, I bought 2 kilos of Napoli’s special “sugna pepe” taralli to distribute as I traveled northward. Friends and hosts received this humble gift with ardor, understanding that what is common and inexpensive in one place is precious in another. They also know that food is so particular that it could be unknown outside its territory. When I asked a Piemontese salumerifico for mariola, common in next-door-neighbor Lombardy, they had never heard of it, although coppa is common to both. When I asked NorthWest Italian cheesemakers in Piemonte to identify a cheese which turned out to be from Veneto (NorthEast Italy), they scoffed and said it looked Dutch. Later I also found a very similar-looking cheese. Bra Duro, from the Southern part of Piemonte.
“Why would you move to Italy from California?” the Italians ask – envisioning a land of convertibles, musclemen, and year-round tropically-warm beaches. “For the food.” “Ah, well, yes,” they mumble – envisioning McDonalds. What Italians do not seem to know is how profoundly revered Italian cuisine is in the US, and particularly in California. Jeremiah Tower and Alice Waters fomented a national revolution in cuisine –and agriculture– based on their understanding of the Italian emphasis on flavor originating from fresh quality ingredients, in lieu of French sauces.
I could recognize my compatriots easily in Napoli. They were silent, faces upturned, eyes half-closed, eating the pizza as if they were receiving communion.
And that’s not even the whole story, it’s older and deeper. Our comfort food is macaroni and cheese. (I now have a hypothesis that the “correct” cheese for this is stracchino which melts to mild gooey salty perfection, has no remote equivalent in the US, and apparently was best replicated with milk + cheese powder.) Our fallback convenience food for groups is pizza, the centerpiece of every University club and every tired family. And the bedrock of “romance” in the US is the Italian restaurant, universally loved, and in candlelight. (I was humorlessly horrified by glaring overhead lights in restaurants in Italy, and when I discovered this décor was ubiquitous, refused to patronize them further.)
Why, then, are Italians so infuriated, when they should be flattered and sympathetic?
As in any culture, some people are not fascinated by cultural resonance and sympathetic interchange, taking greater pleasure in righteous vigilante border-patrol. An example is Andrea’s comment to the NYT recipe: “Next time try it with Mackerel, maple syrup and dried shark. I bet you won’t notice the difference.”
But Coldiretti’s muster has a different agenda. They’ve done the math and they reason that if the global popularity of Italian food depended on access to the “correct” certified Italian ingredients, then the export market –and the farmers and producers they represent– would be dramatically enhanced. The use of what they refer to as “counterfeit” ingredients amounts, by their accounting, to a €100 billion loss to Italian producers.
As a devout localist who buys everything at the Coldiretti-affiliated Mercato Campagna Amica, I would urge Coldiretti to pay more attention to domestic consumption, currently hemorraghing at Carrefours and other “hyper” markets. Apparently many Italians prefer convenience to investing in the patrimony. Having been admonished by every food magazine in the US that Italians (indeed all Europeans) would never foresake food quality and traditions, stopping off at the butcher, baker, and produce monger daily on the way home by public transportation from their humanely shorter work-weeks, I went into shock on my first visit to Italy when my Roman host stopped on the way home from the airport with me to buy sodapop at an ugly supermarket. (Fortunately he responded to shock with sugar and took me immediately to a luxurious pastry shop where I ate 9 mignon (and the Roman ones are 2x the size of the Piemontese bignole.)
This issue of Italian food authenticity has, of course, been taken on for dedicated research by two American TV celebrity chefs, who are, of course, Asian American. David Chang’s series Ugly Delicious has a full episode on pizza, in which he travels around the world to gather perspectives on quality and authenticity. One of the first points he makes is that Italian-American cuisine is its own branch of the family, with its own traditions. Chang introduces Gary Bimonte, whose 3-generation Connecticut pizzeria’s most popular pizza has fresh clams. In Brooklyn, Italian American chef Mark Iacono uses limited ingredients and believes he is following Italian tradition perfected in New York. In Italy, Chang’s crew interviews both traditionalists and modernists using non-standard ingredients. Most important for the questions here are the interviews with Chefs Susumu Kakinuma in Tokyo and Christian Puglisi in Copenhagen. Both want to make true Napoli pizza, but believe they can do that best by making the highest quality and freshest ingredients close to the restaurant, rather than importing them from Italy.
In the series Mind of a Chef, Ed Lee takes on the idea of authenticity for several episodes of Season 3, concluding that many cuisines have “improved since coming to the US” by presenting their food in a different context and by relating more emotionally to the food of their homeland. He goes on to define tradition in a very useful way as “technique”, rather than recipe. Using this concept we can imagine many ways that Italian cuisine could be expressed in various places, even without the “correct” ingredients.
If one of the technique lessons of Italian cuisine is that flavor is freshness, is it more “authentic” to make pesto with walnuts from a nearby farm or get the only available pine nuts, stale, from another country, at a supermarket?
Later in Season 3, Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson also shares a breakthrough: .
There are so many fantastic traditions that I didn’t know about before starting to travel. The sad thing is that many of them are on the verge of disappearing. The only way for things to survive is if they are used, if they are practiced, if they are slowly adapted, with moderation, to the needs of today.
In hot pursuit of my other favorite topic, electric retrofit of heavy 1980s BMWs, I learned that some classic car clubs prohibit electrified models. But soon, these cars will only be able to be driven if they adapt to contemporary power sources.
While the Italians strictly enumerate ingredients for one of the various correct Italian salads, Michelin-starred Chef Michael Bras pays homage to vegetables with his “gargouillou”, presented to me by a young chef in Buenos Aires. “There are 39 things. It has some roots and some shoots. Some herbs and some flowers. Some leaves and some fruits. Some are cooked. Some are raw. Some are hot, some are cold…
Every bite was delicious, and new, and doing honor to nature, the source of all tradition.