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New world vs old world cooking
October 16, 2012 6:20 AM   Subscribe

Sara White, Canadian blogger who recently moved to Rome, shares some thoughts about old world food cultures versus the American approach to cooking. One of the most interesting things to me about her post is the discussion about how having no limitations (many Americans can just waltz into a large supermarket and get almost anything from almost anywhere) can negatively impact culinary creativity.
posted by hansbrough (107 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
many Americans can just waltz into a large supermarket

I always preferred to jitterbug or lindy hop into large supermarkets. I saved the waltzes for getting across Texas.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:25 AM on October 16, 2012 [13 favorites]


From the article:

There’s no strong sense of regional or national identity in North American cuisine – try to name a couple of quintessential Canadian or American dishes that nearly everyone knows and appreciates, and you’ll probably find yourself drawing a blank.

This right here is the point where she lost me, because I all but shouted at the screen: "What about Cajun food? Tex-Mex? Southern down-home stuff? New England clam shacks and Baltimore crab? Burgoo? For God's sake, what about the New England-vs-Manhattan clam chowder rivalry?"

True, people can get a lot more than that when they shop and I do make more Italian and Thai food more often than I do New England or Cajun, but to say that people couldn't even name regional dishes in this country is poppycock.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:28 AM on October 16, 2012 [40 favorites]


This right here is the point where she lost me, because I all but shouted at the screen: "What about Cajun food? Tex-Mex? Southern down-home stuff? New England clam shacks and Baltimore crab? Burgoo? For God's sake, what about the New England-vs-Manhattan clam chowder rivalry?"

Not to mention... barbecue.
posted by kmz at 6:33 AM on October 16, 2012 [16 favorites]


I would have never learned to cook like I have if I'd stayed home. Up into college, I was fine with packaged meals, boxes pasta mixes, and hamburger helper. When I went overseas, first to China, then to Japan, I had to learn to cook without the resources available at the standard American supermarket. I did, and still do, to a much lesser extent, bring a lot of food back with me. Now, it's mostly spices I can't get here, but the fact is, I would never have learned to make my own pasta sauces, to make biscuits (or anything) from scratch, to make my own BBQ sauces, or anything else had I stayed home.

Of course, for those wondering why I don't learn how to make Japanese food, I think that'd be a waste of time. Name any Japanese cuisine, and I'll be able to find a restaurant where someone's been making that for dozens of years. I could spend years trying to learn that, or I could just let the pros do it.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:34 AM on October 16, 2012


"poppycock"

I believe the favored word now is malarky...
posted by HuronBob at 6:37 AM on October 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


...having no limitations ... can negatively impact culinary creativity.
posted by DU at 6:39 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Just finished reading the article and agree wholeheartedly with what EmpressCallipygos said just above.

And while I'm very happy for the author of this piece to have discovered that simple dishes, in which relatively few ingredients are included and therefore those ingredients can really speak for themselves and shine, this particular observation seems, well, far from wondrous or revelatory. Truth be told, this sounds like something written by someone who is, yeah, probably rather young and who's just discovered some basic stuff about cooking and eating that one discovers when one is young*. Not a thing wrong with that, of course, but, well, didn't necessarily warrant a blog post.

Anyway, glad you're enjoying your meal, Sara White!

*And if she's not young, she's just a late bloomer in terms of food awareness.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:42 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Rome has supermarkets, too. And if she thinks there's no strong regional cooking in the US, I'm guessing she's never been to New Orleans. She's been in Rome for what, a month and a half?
posted by Ideefixe at 6:42 AM on October 16, 2012


Not to mention... barbecue.

I actually got het up enough to leave a comment on her article; I did mention barbecue there.

(And after reading the rest, it looks more like she's concentrating on the big splashy restaurants as proof of her theory, and no wonder she says there's no regionalism - she's looking at all the showponies rather than the workhorses.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:42 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


So many of the dishes that we consider to be Italian “classics” were borne out of extreme poverty...[i]n North America, this way of thinking about food doesn’t really exist.

Bull-fucking-shit. Has this woman never heard of Southern cooking? It's nothing but an expression of what you eat when you've got to make the best you can in extreme poverty. People ate cornbread because they couldn't afford wheat, they eat greens flavored with the less desirable parts of the pig because greens are easy to come by and pigs can be let loose in the forest when there isn't food to feed them. That's not even getting into the serious poverty foods that are less popular now, like pig's feet and chitterlings.

I think this is kind of like the phenomenon where people who aren't taught formal grammar don't learn about it until they start learning a second language; she isn't looking for this stuff in America because it's not exotic or new, but it's absolutely there.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:45 AM on October 16, 2012 [19 favorites]


And while we're at it:

Manhattan "clam chowder" is not chowder. Let's just be clear about that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:45 AM on October 16, 2012 [9 favorites]


I agree with y'all about regional American (and, I assume, Canadian) cuisine. Definitely exists!! But I do think she has a point about typical *modern* American at-home cuisine not being as informed by traditional regional cuisine. Having one or two specialties isn't really the same as having a complete food culture built on local availability, right?
posted by hansbrough at 6:46 AM on October 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


Of course, for those wondering why I don't learn how to make Japanese food, I think that'd be a waste of time

You telling me you haven't tried your hand at some basic home cooking like, say, miso shiru, Ghidorah? Say it ain't so!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:46 AM on October 16, 2012


But I do think she has a point about *modern* cuisine not being as informed by traditional regional cuisine. Having one or two specialties isn't really the same as having a complete food culture built on local availability, right?

True, but where's the evidence that there's any more of that going on in Italy than there is here? I don't think every single Italian woman is a happy little wife who's going to the market and haggling over the salami or anything, the way she's implying -- there are people in Italy who get tv-dinners from the supermarket or Chinese takeout as well, I'm sure.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:49 AM on October 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm kinda wishing I could find an Italian blogger who shows up in Memphis and writes 3,000 words about how Italy doesn't have as great a food tradition. Totally agree with Bulgaroktonos that this blogger "isn't looking for this stuff in America because it's not exotic or new" to her. That said, she does sound really blissed out about being in Rome, and that veal looks great. So, you know, good for her.
posted by nthorn at 6:53 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


This right here is the point where she lost me, because I all but shouted at the screen: "What about Cajun food? Tex-Mex? Southern down-home stuff? New England clam shacks and Baltimore crab? Burgoo? For God's sake, what about the New England-vs-Manhattan clam chowder rivalry?"

Not to mention... barbecue.


Can we use this as an example to stop the whole smug and grating "Canadians know everything about Americans, but Americans don't know anything about Canada" thing?

(Spoken as a Canadian seeking more reality-based relations with our southern cousins).
posted by molecicco at 6:53 AM on October 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't think every single Italian woman is a happy little wife who's going to the market and haggling over the salami or anything, the way she's implying -- there are people in Italy who get tv-dinners from the supermarket or Chinese takeout as well, I'm sure.

Totally agree. And I can't speak to Italian culture. But I definitely have noticed the perception of cooking as a chore in the USA.
posted by hansbrough at 6:54 AM on October 16, 2012


....Uh, sure Molecicco, I'm just not sure where you got that this was an instance of this?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:54 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


And I should say, of course it's completely impossible to generalize, as there are many MANY people in the US who do not think cooking is a chore!
posted by hansbrough at 6:55 AM on October 16, 2012


It's nothing but an expression of what you eat when you've got to make the best you can in extreme poverty. People ate cornbread because they couldn't afford wheat, they eat greens flavored with the less desirable parts of the pig because greens are easy to come by and pigs can be let loose in the forest when there isn't food to feed them. That's not even getting into the serious poverty foods that are less popular now, like pig's feet and chitterlings.

You forgot grits, the South's porridge.
posted by Atreides at 6:55 AM on October 16, 2012


I have never heard of burgoo or Manhattan clam chowder (???), fwiw.
posted by naoko at 6:56 AM on October 16, 2012


There is clearly regional cuisine in the US. Obviously, with plenty of examples above. But do families of similar demographics really eat all that differently in, say, Seattle, New Orleans, and Chicago? A vanishingly few people in each place are going to be eating super regional food every day, but most people go into Piggly Wiggly or Safeway and buy broadly similar products (again, looking at people of similar demographics). Whether that's mac and cheese from a box or arugula sushi fusion korean tacos from the foodie magazine or whatever, those food cultures cut across the US rather than being localized.

I haven't been to Italy, so I can't compare -- would people of similar demographics in opposite sides of the country eat similarly day to day, or do those regional cuisines penetrate down to sharp differences in daily food?
posted by Forktine at 6:57 AM on October 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


I mean, I think the fact that those things are regionally, not nationally known kind of proves her point.
posted by naoko at 6:58 AM on October 16, 2012


(Sorry was responding to my own comment).
posted by naoko at 6:59 AM on October 16, 2012


The thing about the "old world" (I have been in it for two years) is yes, the simplicity and tradition is great and wonderful tasting *but* the experimentation and creativity aren't there as often either. From my experience. A lack of gastronomic adventurousness exists when the same ten things are on the menu in every restaurant, believe me.

Note that I'm hating on anything, just that the grass-is-always-greener thing is going on.
posted by melt away at 7:02 AM on October 16, 2012


I can't speak to Italian culture. But I definitely have noticed the perception of cooking as a chore in the USA.

I can't imagine that you wouldn't be able to find people in Italy for whom cooking's a chore, though. Or France or China or Thailand or anywhere were there's a perceived "food culture".

She's speaking of Paris rather than Italy, but Clotilde Dusolier, the blogger behind Chocolate and Zucchini, has fun skewering the whole perception about "the average Parisian" and how they do food shopping in her first book - I think she says something like "I know you all think we go to the market once a week with our baskets and our jaunty little berets, but no." And she even admits that most of the time, she and her boyfriend eat a lot of leftovers and half-assed meals ("okay, a hunk of sausage, a hunk of cheese, some of that leftover soup....eh, good enough").

Yes, there's a perception of cooking as a chore in this country. But there is an equally strong perception of cooking as a joy, cooking as a competitive thing, cooking as a nurturing thing...there are ways in which North Americans relate to food that are different from everyone else, but this isn't one of them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:02 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


But do families of similar demographics really eat all that differently in, say, Seattle, New Orleans, and Chicago?

Well, I haven't spent much time in Seattle or Chicago, but the food in New Orleans is fucking extraordinary.
posted by nathancaswell at 7:03 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm Italian, living in the US. The great majority of women in Italy do, in fact, go to the market and haggle over salami and cook each meal by scratch even if they work outside the home. Most women will go to the store once or twice a day for the ingredients they need to cook lunch and dinner. And supermarkets have a very small selection of items.

In my opinion, the most startling culinary difference between Italy and the US is that in Italy, home cooked meals are just ridiculously, off-the-charts delicious, but restaurant food is crap in comparison. People pretty much don't eat out unless it's a very, very special occasion or they want pizza.

In the US that's, for the most part, reversed. Meh home cooked meals, delicious, delicious restaurants.
posted by lydhre at 7:04 AM on October 16, 2012 [10 favorites]


You forgot grits, the South's porridge.

Your absolutely right; I was fired up and thinking quickly. Grits are precisely analogous to polenta in the Italy to US comparison; they're very close to being the same food. They are also an absolute staple in Southern homes, in an actually made on a day-to-day basis sort of way, but not elsewhere. There's a lot of standards that cut across regions in America, but grits aren't one of them.

I also think it's worth noting that she also denies the US having a national identity in cooking. She seems to think that we are actually picking from the cuisines of the world, rather than the dishes of "American Food." I don't think that holds water, though, because the American interpretation of Chinese food is absolutely a set of national dishes that has (in some cases very) little to do with Chinese food as it's eaten in China.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:04 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have never heard of burgoo or Manhattan clam chowder (???), fwiw. I think the fact that those things are regionally, not nationally known kind of proves her point.

Okay, but have you heard of chili? Grits? Gumbo or jambalaya? Blackened catfish? Po'Boy sandwiches? New England clam chowder? Barbecue? Just because you haven't heard of two of the many examples I gave that doesn't actually prove her point.

(For the record: burgoo is a stew from the Ozarks and that area, I believe; and Manhattan clam chowder is a tomato-based clam-and-stuff stew. Different from the milk-based broth in New England.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:06 AM on October 16, 2012


There’s no strong sense of regional or national identity in North American cuisine

Isn't Mexico in North America?
posted by HumanComplex at 7:07 AM on October 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


I mean, I think the fact that those things are regionally, not nationally known kind of proves her point.

That could have something to do with the US and Canada being countries that are rather larger than Italy, one might imagine.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:08 AM on October 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


But I do think she has a point about typical *modern* American at-home cuisine not being as informed by traditional regional cuisine. Having one or two specialties isn't really the same as having a complete food culture built on local availability, right?

Having food cultures built on local availability is something folks have been trying to avoid for the most part, and the US has been pretty successful. It's as if she's saying "it's a pity we're not as poor and isolated as we were in the past." The fact that the US isn't limited to traditional regional cuisines is a great success story.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:10 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


the American interpretation of Chinese food is absolutely a set of national dishes that has (in some cases very) little to do with Chinese food as it's eaten in China.

The same is true for Mexican food.

Mexico is more like Italy than the US in regards to food. Highly regional. Characterised by simple, fresh, local ingredients. This goes toward explaining why those simple tacos (using freshly made tortillas with fresh indigenous corn ) or tamales you had in Michoacan or Oaxaca can't seem to be replicated elsewhere.

American Mexican food is a whole different beast.
posted by vacapinta at 7:10 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


On the one hand, her argument seems sort of naive and silly to me. There are plenty of regional traditions alive and well in the US, although the fact that Americans have been cowed into thinking of cooking as a chore means that, in many cases, they're only expressed on special occasions.

On the other hand, this is inspiring me to try my hand at my father-in-law's ragu alla bolognese this weekend, which is a thing of beauty (but every time I taste it, I think: I could probably do better).
posted by uncleozzy at 7:15 AM on October 16, 2012


American Mexican food is a whole different beast.

I think the fact that you're able to differentiate between American-Mexican and Mexican kind of disproves her point. And I'm not talking about Taco Bell or anything -I'm talking about "Tex-Mex," which is absolutely a thing distinct from Mexican cuisine. You'd have trouble finding a real Oaxacan taco in Austin, but I also bet you'd have trouble finding classic nachos or chile con carne in Oaxaca.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:21 AM on October 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


The same is true for Mexican food.

Oh absolutely, it's true for all of the "ethnic" cuisine we sell in the US, very little of it is authentic, which is why the "What type of food do I want to eat tonight? Italian? Chinese? French, Indian, or Mexican?" line is so off the mark. We're not actually choosing between Italian, Chinese, or Mexican; we're choosing between what are effectively genres of American national cuisine. The original inspiration might be what they eat in Indian, but it's adapted for American tastes and what's available here(See, Indian food with beef); it is based on locally available ingredients, but it's easy for Americans to miss that because what's fresh and local in Italy is exciting and what's fresh and local in the US is just food. No one's looking at Americans eating ground beef and thinking "they're eating local foods," but for large parts of the country, they are.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:21 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I mean, I think the fact that those things are regionally, not nationally known kind of proves her point.

The United States has 350 million people in an area larger than all of Europe.... and this isn't counting Alaska, Hawaii or island territories in the Pacific and Caribbean. To treat it like a single cultural entity is absurd... especially when you consider the vast differences in Italian cuisine from region to region - Tuscan cuisine is not Sicilian cuisine.

Hell, we have three styles of johnny cakes, three style of hot dog and five different kinds of clam chowder here in Rhode Island, each tied to a different part of the state - and we're about the size of a Wal Mart parking lot in other parts of the country.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:23 AM on October 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


I didn't read the article the way the FPP out it at all.

She's not arguing that choice or a supposed lack of regional dishes impacts culinary creativity. Quite the opposite. She's arguing that not being creative - i.e. having to toe the line to tradition and benchmarks set by your grandma's grandma - leads to one having more restraint and savoring simpler fare, prepared more carefully, with better quality ingredients.

If she's arguing that Americans in particular adopt a bigger, bolder, attitude to food and flavours.. well, that's her call. If she's saying that Americans (and British for that matter), in general, care less about food quality than Italians, I'd agree.

More generally, the whole idea about simplicity has been a big theme in new world and British professional cuisine for a decade now - and has jumped across to middle class at home cooks - hence lots of interest in local produce, quality meat, farmers' markets, street food and so forth.

As a counterpoint, I've had my fair share of crappy meals in France where someone's trotted out a poorly made French classic. In particular, little brasseries and cafes are serial offenders. And I've had amazing, simple meals in places like the UK, Australia and the US where the chef has adopted a very simple approach to his/her ingredients.

I'd go further - the big conversations happening at professional levels in places like Paris and Rome is precisely that they are not innovative enough - that they are too wedded to the classics, too stuck in the past, not ambitious enough to lead their customers onto different things. There are plenty of exceptions - Gagnaire made his name in the early nineties by deconstructing French food, tossing out what he didn't like and pulling in a lot of ideas from Asia. I'd bet the average Parisian or Roman would be amused to find out that Tokyo had had more Michelin stars than Paris for several years, that Joel Robuchon reckoned London was where the action was happening, or that New York had more 3 star restaurants than the whole of Italy.

In short - there is more than a grain of truth about what she says, but it's not the whole story.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:25 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Necessity is the mother of invention, but you still can't make chicken soup out of chicken shit.
posted by notyou at 7:29 AM on October 16, 2012


we have three styles of johnny cakes, three style of hot dog and five different kinds of clam chowder here in Rhode Island

A friend of mine opened a bar in Somerville, Ma (just across the river from Boston, for those of you not from New England). He had to go before the neighborhood association and give his business plan. It was going really well until it was time to read the menu, put together by his chef the night before and slapped into his hand on the way to the podium. As he listed the various dishes there were murmurs of approval all through the room until he got to the "Rhode Island clam chowder." Dead silence. An awkward pause. Angry mutters. Finally - from the back of the room - an old man, in a voice dripping with contempt, asked "RHODE ISLAND Clam Chowder???!!!" My friend cleared his voice and made an executive decision: "New England Clam Chowder." The room broke into applause.
posted by nathancaswell at 7:32 AM on October 16, 2012 [21 favorites]


Not to mention... barbecue.
Can we use this as an example to stop the whole smug and grating "Canadians know everything about Americans, but Americans don't know anything about Canada" thing?


Especially if barbecue is involved. Most Canadian barbecue is not all that good. (Where's the smoke?)
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 7:34 AM on October 16, 2012


hansbrough: "many Americans can just waltz into a large supermarket and get almost anything from almost anywhere"

The selection and quality of ingredients I can get in Washington, DC varies considerably from what I can get in New Jersey.

Often times, the differences are subtle, but the premise of this article is flawed. American food culture is not homogeneous.
posted by schmod at 7:41 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Barbecue is also a good example of something that is only available locally and for which what people are eating in different parts of the country differ. For example, I was raised on the one true barbecue (Eastern NC), but that's really hard to find outside Eastern NC.* Hell, it's hard to find in Western NC, because they're doing their own thing. Basically, if I'd been raised 80 miles away from where I was, I would have grown up eating a different style of barbecue. If I'd been raised in Texas, I would have thought I was eating barbecue, but I would be wrong. The article focuses on cooking and most people don't make their own barbecue (because of the time/expense/etc.) but what you get in restaurants is totally different.

*I live in DC now, there's one restaurant and one food truck that do decent imitations, but it's never as good as what I could could get from a volunteer fire department back home. If we had a stronger local barbecue style, I doubt I would even be able to find those.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:46 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Canadians know everything about Americans, but Americans don't know anything about Canada"

Or even (West Coast) Canadians who don't know about Canada. There are regional cuisines here too: Quebec, the Maritime provinces and Newfoundland all have distinct recipe books. Even the prairies have their own food---try to find a decent handmade perogie in Vancouver, for example.
posted by bonehead at 7:48 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think she is also overstating this concept of an accepted food canon in Italy (and elsewhere in the old world), i.e. the true recipe for Saltimbocca alla Romana. That fallacy is discussed at length in Bill Buford's book Heat. If she had emailed ten different local friends, I suspect she would have gotten ten different answers.
posted by staccato signals of constant information at 8:07 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Of course, for those wondering why I don't learn how to make Japanese food, I think that'd be a waste of time. Name any Japanese cuisine, and I'll be able to find a restaurant where someone's been making that for dozens of years. I could spend years trying to learn that, or I could just let the pros do it.

I regret not spending more time with my grandmother in the kitchen. Yes, I can find a zillion Indian restaurants in the world, but I'd still like to be able to cook like she did.
posted by Runes at 8:08 AM on October 16, 2012


Rhode Island Clam Chowder is butter-broth based, clear rather than creamy, and has been known to drive visiting Bostonians into fits of apoplectic rage.

Typical, as the savages serve calamari with tartar sauce up in Somerville, I've seen it with my own eyes.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:12 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


But I do think she has a point about typical *modern* American at-home cuisine not being as informed by traditional regional cuisine. Having one or two specialties isn't really the same as having a complete food culture built on local availability, right?

I'm not terribly displeased that my at-home cuisine is not informed by traditional local meals. Simplicity is good, but it's not the be-all and end-all, only good way to make a dish, and there's no particular reason my curry is wrong just because it's based on traditions from elsewhere; we've had lovely traditional religious family dinners with new ingredients, but apparently that makes our meals wrong, lacking tradition and/or simplicity.

And, yes, I love to cook, but shopping twice daily for food sounds horrible.
posted by jeather at 8:16 AM on October 16, 2012


And on noticing her edit: "oh noes! traditional foods in an immigrant-based country are based on foods the immigrants ate before they moved to the US! That is the wrong kind of tradition!" Well, okay, but then she's never eaten with a First Nations group, the only group that would be acceptable in this argument, who (in my experience, and from hearing from others), have their own traditional foods which white people don't know about for what are obvious reasons.
posted by jeather at 8:19 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


She's not wrong about the simplicity of some Italian dishes, nor the specialization and differentiation that's possible between regions or even cities. Acquacotta is not found far from Lazio, as far as I know, and the butter-based cookies of the north diverge from the olive-oil-lashed ones to the south. The tomatoes are just better, period. And it was not a chore to go a block from home and patter with the seller for a kilo of San Marzanos, with crumbles of dirt still falling from the stems and warm from even the autumn sun. Pizza bianca is better at this store in Rome, when eaten slick from the paper, sea salt sticking to the corners of your lips. Cinghiale in ragu is rich and meaty, fighting back against the pappardelle and the sauce, and you do not look for it in Sicilia. Nor can you find the mandorle of Erice in Viterbo, or in Bologna. This is all true, and such things are often sweeter for having tracked them down, and tasted them for the first time. Children know about the way sausage is sliced, and the fineness of prosciutto as it curls and melts on your tongue. (My host brother at ten knew more about white wine than I do now at twenty-five.)

But the reality for many Italian families is that they go to Al Dia or Coop and buy the pre-sliced cheese and lardo and bread in solid, similar loaves. They buy pasta sauce in jars if they do not have time to simmer the bolognese for eight hours. A mozzarella and marinated eggplant sandwich is pretty much the same from the boot to the north (pane senza sale notwithstanding.) They buy meat patties frozen from the store, and the use of the microwave is no longer aberrational. Oh, sure, there are more nights spent cooking, and weekends with platters of food that have never seen the inside of a box. In this, Italian cuisine is not different from the food consumed by many Americans, who are looking for consistency and time well-spent. And there are limits: have you ever had chicken curry made with cow's milk, instead of coconut? Do not try this at home. Do try introducing host families to freshly made chocolate chip cookies, or freshly fried chicken. Tracking down an aged cheddar with some spunk in it is difficult even in Rome, and forget about pumpkin pie, unless you have cleverly brought over vanilla extract and cans of Libby's. Four years after I left Italy for the first time, I came back to the town where I had lived. The gelato has been the same for a century, and it was the same, and it was good. But there were now kebab shops, and falafel frying. There are more chain stores, because not everyone could afford the fresh meats hanging in store windows, nor the time to talk to the tomato man.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:28 AM on October 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Tracking down an aged cheddar with some spunk in it is difficult even in Rome

lol
posted by nathancaswell at 8:31 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


shopping twice daily for food sounds horrible.

Driving into a mall, parking the car and walking up aisle after aisle at Safeways is horrible. Going for a walk in your cobblestoned, tree lined streets of your neighbourhood, picking up some veggies at the green grocers, chatting with the shopkeepers and neighbors and then going down to the butcher in the corner to pick up some sausages is very pleasant.

I come from a Southern European culture and neither my grandmother nor my mother ever repeated cooking the same dish on the same week. I do the same. Sometimes it hits me that coming up with such varied meal plans should be harder than it actually is, but I guess it's just ingrained.

Having said that, my mind is blown at good restaurants in the US because the chefs probably don't have a preconceived idea of what ingredients are supposed to go with which other and sometimes the flavor combinations are unexpected and amazing. Other times it does feel like american chefs, brewers, wine makers, coffee roasters are trying to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes hundreds of years of using a certain technique is not rigidity, it's because perfection has been achieved.
posted by Marauding Ennui at 8:31 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


As Neal Stephenson pointed out in some book, Americans eat Recombinant Glorp. Brits too apparently, I got a Nigella Lawson book as a present once, it was Recombinant Glorp. I never tried a single recipe from it because I couldn't actually get many of the "ingredients".
posted by Homemade Interossiter at 8:35 AM on October 16, 2012


Driving into a mall, parking the car and walking up aisle after aisle at Safeways is horrible. Going for a walk in your cobblestoned, tree lined streets of your neighbourhood, picking up some veggies at the green grocers, chatting with the shopkeepers and neighbors and then going down to the butcher in the corner to pick up some sausages is very pleasant.


I work right near one market. I live right near a different one. I certainly enjoy going to the market, talking to people, buying stuff from local vendors. I cannot imagine enjoying doing that twice daily, or even daily. I have other things I want to do with my day. (I don't think shopping in a grocery store is all that horrible, though.)
posted by jeather at 8:40 AM on October 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


(I don't think shopping in a grocery store is all that horrible, though.)

I don't usually shop there myself, because I can't afford it, but I've actually taken visitors to the flagship Whole Foods at North and Kingsbury in Chicago. I think it's the third largest in the country, and particularly on a frosty winter day the colors, smells and variety of food are extremely inviting. I'm especially fond of their extensive cheese selection.
posted by andrewesque at 8:56 AM on October 16, 2012


True, but where's the evidence that there's any more of that going on in Italy than there is here? I don't think every single Italian woman is a happy little wife who's going to the market and haggling over the salami or anything, the way she's implying -- there are people in Italy who get tv-dinners from the supermarket or Chinese takeout as well, I'm sure.

Sure there are Italians who do not particularly like to cook and who will go the frozen food way. But let me give an example of a midday meal cooked for me by my sister-in-law during my last visit in November. She is a middle school teacher, who works from 8 to 1, six days a week. This particular day, after work, she stopped on her way home at her local grocery store (half way between school and home), bought a ball of cooked (fresh that morning) collards, some fresh mozzarella, some fresh bigoli (a type of local pasta that does not keep), and some veal scaloppine. In half an hour she had a wonderful meal: toasted triangles of mozzarella for appetizer, bigoli all burro fuso con parmigiano and sage, sautee scaloppine al marsala with boiled collards seasoned with balsamic vinegar di Modena.

All very easy, very fast, and delicious. I wish I could cook like that here in the US. Please give me a grocery store where I can buy cooked collards so I don't have to wash and boil the darn things or bigoli just made that morning! She has cooked like that, a fast simple meal for her family for all her 40+ years of teaching.

What makes a difference is the availability of fresh food, and the help the local stores give you if you want to actually cook a meal.
posted by francesca too at 9:05 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


This conversation is making me miss poutine, pizzocheri and properly dished bresaola with rocket. Also my apparently freakish supermarket in Poggibonsi which was better stocked than my one here in Sacramento. The anglosphere in N. America has become largely a monocuisine, certain hotspots notwithstanding and even then largely on the degree of a dish or two or a genre (BBQ). It's not like you will drive five hours and have a different breakfast-to-dinner experience unless you're working it in a town like New Orleans or Honolulu. The flip side is immigrants, yo. If I wanted to never even see anything slightly related foodswise I could cash in on that for a good couple of weeks solid even in this two horse town. This is not to be said that I haven't snuggled in Chinese comfort food abroad a few times but man, I miss me my pho and carnitas when I'm away.

I'm at a loss to say when "fine" home food went from pretty simple in this country to kind of crazy. The 80s? Post Julia Childs? I read Sunset recipes from the 70s and they seem downright reasonable compared to the laundry list of single-use items I am expected to dig out of Whole Foods. Nothing wrong with restraint, simplicity and nice ingredients.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 9:12 AM on October 16, 2012


I wish I could cook like that here in the US. Please give me a grocery store where I can buy cooked collards so I don't have to wash and boil the darn things or bigoli just made that morning!

Well, if you're going to a grocery store, there's your problem. You want to go to a farmstand. (I mean, your friend isn't shopping for her food at Al Dia, is she?)

But now we're getting into the kind of talk about locavorism and food deserts that get a lot of us written off as being priviledged hipster foodies, so....I dunno.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:15 AM on October 16, 2012


francesca too: toasted triangles of mozzarella for appetizer

Uh, how exactly does one toast triangles of mozzarella? Because I want to go to there.
posted by sararah at 9:15 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


burgoo is a stew from the Ozarks

I am from the Ozarks! Shame on me. :(
posted by naoko at 9:21 AM on October 16, 2012


Well, if you're going to a grocery store, there's your problem. You want to go to a farmstand. (I mean, your friend isn't shopping for her food at Al Dia, is she?)


I want to find out where there is a farmstand that BOILS the collards for you. I'd be hardpressed to find even that where I'm from, the American South. In a restaurant, sure, but readily available to use for a meal I make at home? Nuh-uh. Or at least, highly unlikely.
posted by Kitteh at 9:21 AM on October 16, 2012


Notwithstanding the fact that there clearly are distinctively American culinary traditions, I don't think we can escape the fact that our traditions are considerably less rich than those found in the various "old worlds" from whence most of us can trace our origins. This is due to a variety of reasons, not least the fact that most parts of America have been effectively frontier land until as recently as 150 years ago. The parts that have been the most heavily settled for the longest period of time are unsurprisingly those with the richest and most distinctive culinary traditions. But still, countries like Italy and France had rich and distinctive culinary traditions before the Americas were even discovered by Europeans.

There is also, I think, the issue of geography. It strikes me that most countries that consume a wide variety of foods and have a wide variety in distinctive culinary traditions are situated in areas where the conditions are congenial to, and sometimes require raising and hunting or foraging a wide variety of crops and animals in a relatively small geographical area. A great example of this would be the Italian peninsula. You can start in Fiumicino on the Mediterranean coast and drive the E80 straight across to Pescara on the Adriatic coast in a couple of hours. This drive will take you from the ocean to plains to foothills to mountains to foothills to plains to a different ocean. Each one of these areas will have have distinctive cuisines based on the fact that the food sources available there are radically different. And, of course, the food traditions evolved in these areas when trucking fresh fish from the coast to the mountains wasn't an option.

America, on the other hand, due to the fact that the vast majority of our country consists of a large flat place in the middle, is better suited to growing lots of the same plants or animals over a large geographical area. The drive from Kansas City to Wichita is about the same distance as the drive from Fiumicino to Pescara, but the geography is not particularly varied at all. This, combined with the fact that we are a young country and have largely optimized our food industry to take advantage of shipping and economies of scale, has resulted in fewer regional cuisines and less choice overall. In Italy (France, etc.) on the other hand, it's impossible to grow a zillion cows in one place in the middle of the country and to feed all those cows on ten zillion tons of corn all grown in on place in the middle of the country. This "geographically mandated diversity," as well as the much greater age of the culture, has resulted in a wider variety of regional and microregional traditions (e.g., the people in the central mountains eat guinea fowl and lentils, the people a few miles away on the coasts do not, etc.).
posted by slkinsey at 9:25 AM on October 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Naoko - I may be wrong about the Ozarks? Wikipedia points to Kentucky and Missouri and parts of southern Illinois.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:31 AM on October 16, 2012


(I mean, your friend isn't shopping for her food at Al Dia, is she?)

Al Dia actually does sometimes have prepared foods, including cooked sides of vegetables (even the tricky ones, like brussel sprouts.) Not sure about the fresh pasta though that's usually fairly easy to track down in an urban center.

To be fair, where I live in the suburbs in the US provides multiple places to pick up pre-cooked veg, cheese, and even fresh pasta within a two mile radius. It's just more expensive than it would be in Italy, and it would be far easier to do if I had a car. (Though then I'd be a walking mountain of gnocchi in butter, so, that's a plus? A carbless, sad plus.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:32 AM on October 16, 2012


Jet: if you're talking about prepared foods, then you want to go to Whole Foods or Trader Joe's.

It's just more expensive than it would be in Italy, and it would be far easier to do if I had a car.

And we're back with the "food desert" discussion. :-) Some of us who are keen on a wider choice of food options aren't speaking from a position of privilege or politics, we just want food that tastes good.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:36 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Uh, how exactly does one toast triangles of mozzarella? Because I want to go to there.

Take my hand and come with me!
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:48 AM on October 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


The parts that have been the most heavily settled for the longest period of time are unsurprisingly those with the richest and most distinctive culinary traditions. But still, countries like Italy and France had rich and distinctive culinary traditions before the Americas were even discovered by Europeans.

Please note that the tomato, that most distinctive element of Italian cuisine, was completely absent from Europe before the discovery of the New World. The name gazpacho used to refer to an Iberian dish prepared without any tomatoes. European cuisine before Columbus would be nearly unrecognizable today.

So yes, centuries of culinary history, but by no means static or without drastic developments. The US doesn't have as much catching up to do as some may think.
posted by Nomyte at 9:51 AM on October 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Not to mention, that a fair number of quintessential American dishes likely trace their roots to other dishes in the homeland of the prospective colonists/slaves or the dishes of the natives they encountered. So to a degree, the idea of an "American" dish might be new, but they could have quite far reaching pedigrees.


I am from the Ozarks! Shame on me. :(

Take no shame, Ozarker. Having dated and been married to an Ozarker for 12 years and driven/visited quite a bit of the Ozarks, I have never heard of the dish. As an aside, I watched a documentary on the "Ozarks" with her and her mother, and things that some Ozarkers in that documentary made out as being the very fabric of the region were things they had never heard of or any family history connected to (that's out of around seven to eight generations in the Ozarks).
posted by Atreides at 10:00 AM on October 16, 2012


Not to mention, that a fair number of quintessential American dishes likely trace their roots to other dishes in the homeland of the prospective colonists/slaves or the dishes of the natives they encountered. So to a degree, the idea of an "American" dish might be new, but they could have quite far reaching pedigrees.

I've kind of tentatively entered into a discussion with her at her site (she's seen what's afoot here); as I point out, that could simply be a matter of time. Go far enough back in Italy's history and you'll find the same is true (there was most likely a time when the cuisine of Milan was thought of as "cooking the way those weird guys from Lombardy do").
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:03 AM on October 16, 2012


the tomato, that most distinctive element of Italian cuisine

Nomyte, not MY Italian cuisine. We're back to the concept of regionalism, though, and I'm from the Dolomites where tomatoes don't really grow. We don't eat pasta, we eat polenta. We don't eat fish, we eat stew. We don't eat tomatoes, we eat mushrooms and sauerkraut and greens. We eat organ meat, because no sense in wasting good cow, we eat pig sausage, and stupendous amounts of hard cheese. It's all tied to place and traditional lifestyle, hop one valley over and dishes change according to climate and topography.
posted by lydhre at 10:08 AM on October 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


>>The parts that have been the most heavily settled for the longest period of time are unsurprisingly those with the richest and most distinctive culinary traditions. But still, countries like Italy and France had rich and distinctive culinary traditions before the Americas were even discovered by Europeans.

Please note that the tomato, that most distinctive element of Italian cuisine, was completely absent from Europe before the discovery of the New World. The name gazpacho used to refer to an Iberian dish prepared without any tomatoes. European cuisine before Columbus would be nearly unrecognizable today.

So yes, centuries of culinary history, but by no means static or without drastic developments. The US doesn't have as much catching up to do as some may think.


Incorporating a few new ingredients into an already-rich culinary tradition is not the same thing as coming up with entirely novel distinctive culinary traditions. Needless to say, notwithstanding the typical American idea of what Italian food is like, most Italians would very much disagree with the assertion that the tomato is the most distinctive element of their culinary tradition, but that's another discussion entirely.
posted by slkinsey at 10:13 AM on October 16, 2012


Some of us who are keen on a wider choice of food options aren't speaking from a position of privilege or politics, we just want food that tastes good.

I'm not sure why you assume I'm against this position....? I was responding to your inaccurate comment about Al Dia, an Italian supermarket, which does serve cooked vegetable sides. Whole Foods and Trader Joe's do tend to serve some similar prepared items, though TJ's model is very, very different than what you find in Italy. I just happen to be lucky to live within walking distance of six grocery stores and a handful of specialty shops in an area with a history of Italian-Americans, which means I can get fresh pasta, but not pomegranate molasses or sumac or masa. (I do not actually need a car, I am just lazy about buying fresh pasta.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:14 AM on October 16, 2012


Nomyte, not MY Italian cuisine.

Cool! I come from a polenta-eating area, too (southern Ukraine). We call it mamalyga, a word which comes from Romanian. Of course, all I meant to point out is that even the supposedly ancient cooking traditions have experienced dramatic changes just in the last few centuries. Obviously, maize is a New World crop too.
posted by Nomyte at 10:15 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure why you assume I'm against this position....?

I wasn't speaking of you specifically, more of a general observation about food discussions on the blue. There have been a number of other posts discussing food availability, and the slow-food movement and such, and other people have indeed said that. I was more remarking to the general public.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:26 AM on October 16, 2012


Burgoo is not an Ozarks term. From the description on the wikipedia page, that's what we called "hash."
posted by General Tonic at 10:29 AM on October 16, 2012


Burgoo is not an Ozarks term. From the description on the wikipedia page, that's what we called "hash."

Yeah, that was my bad - I was trying to think where it was from, but could only come up with "Kentucky" and was all "wait, but it's not JUST Kentucky - what's that spot that's north of 'the South' but south of 'the Midwest' and east of 'the West' called", and "Ozarks" was the best I could come up with.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:41 AM on October 16, 2012


I'd argue that majority anglosphere NA cooking is regionally distinct, with at least a couple of hundred of years of tradition, and, in fact well documented: Cooks Illustrated, Mark Bittmann's How to Cook Everything, and, of course, The Joy of Cooking. As, for the most part, partakers of the majority culture, most of us don't see the water we swim in. NA anglosphere folk food is notably different from, say UK food, or Quebecois cooking. NA folk cuisine fuses many of its immigrant roots, UK, German and Italian, but also recognizable minority dishes from Russian, Jewish, SE Asian, Japanese and Chinese cuisines too.

The thing that makes this cusine anglo-American* is the process that CI explicitly does with their recipes, adapting to available ingredients, cooking methods and, probably most importantly, the local palate. This can change the food into something almost unrecognizable to the source culture. Pizza, orange beef, and popovers, are quintessentially NA folk cuisine dishes. There are regional variants, from Vermont to Vancouver, but the Joy sells well in both places. It's an import in Europe and Asian the rest of the world though, not the foundation for their home cuisine.

*in the broader sense.
posted by bonehead at 10:46 AM on October 16, 2012


I'd wager a very very large percentage of (at least North American) ex-pats living in Italy go through this wide-eyed stage of OMGAwesomeSimpleLocalFood, if only because pre-packaged processed brand name foods seem to be more pervasive in the North American culinary landscape.

Lord knows I must have had a similar Halleleuah Praise Jaysus period 14 some years ago, and family and friends who have visited always have similar comments. And the family recipes on the Italian side of my family taste just that much more awesome with the local ingredients and tricks I've learned here. The annual Christmas meat sauce and raviolis now made by us grandkids have gotten the Grandma stamp of approval, which was a Holy Grail moment if there ever was one...There have also been comic moments of trying to bring North American cuisine to one's Italian friends, say like your first Roman Thanksgiving when you call your mother at 5am her time to ask how to pluck the stray feathers out of your first fresh turkey...

As to the regional cuisine bit, as lydhre points out (and makes me crave pizzoccheri), there's a lot of different regional dishes crammed into a very small area, which can make said differences stand out in sharp relief to a newly arrived ex-pat. In any given NA city you can find halfway decent Mexican, BBQ, Thai, etc. In Rome, multi-culti cuisine has been gradually growing since I've been here. 14 years ago sushi was neigh on existent; nowadays it's fairly ubiquitous (Decent Mexican, I still prefer to spend all day cooking cook my bastardized versions...) I also now know where to get a halfway decent Napolitano style pizza, a couple of Abruzzese restaurants, a Pugliese restaurant and a few others I'm sure I'm forgetting off the top of my head. But I know that the arrosticini eaten while I'm in Abruzzo are way better and being a total snot, generally refuse to eat pizza when north of Rome.

If she wants to see a heated argument between her Italian friends, try pulling the "true recipe for X" bit in a large group. Then duck for cover...
posted by romakimmy at 11:05 AM on October 16, 2012


Yeah, that was my bad - I was trying to think where it was from, but could only come up with "Kentucky" and was all "wait, but it's not JUST Kentucky - what's that spot that's north of 'the South' but south of 'the Midwest' and east of 'the West' called", and "Ozarks" was the best I could come up with.

I think it's more an Appalacian tradition. Spoken from St Louis by a former southeast Missourian with connections to the Ozarks. When I think of Burgoo, it's in relation to the Blue Ridge/Smoky Mountains.
posted by miss patrish at 11:08 AM on October 16, 2012


Miss Patrish, we could also be talking about something that has a lot of different names; that's also possible. (Perusing the recipes I've seen, it looks like a variant on the type of cooking an old roommate of mine once called "Everythinginapot".)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:16 AM on October 16, 2012


I think it's more an Appalacian tradition. Spoken from St Louis by a former southeast Missourian with connections to the Ozarks. When I think of Burgoo, it's in relation to the Blue Ridge/Smoky Mountains.

Which to just cause of more of a headache, Ozark culture could almost be framed as Appalachia West.
posted by Atreides at 11:30 AM on October 16, 2012


Weird, because when I think of burgoo I think of breakfast on the HMS Surprise.
posted by elizardbits at 11:30 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh and someone, who I think might be EmpressCallipygos made a good comment on that blog about Thanksgiving. I'm 28 years old. For the first 18 years of my life I did Thanksgiving with my family in the South. For the last 9 years, I've done Thanksgiving with my now in-laws who are New Englanders. (One year I did Thanksgiving in a college dining hall, the less said about that the better).

Obviously, there are similarities; both places serve turkey, both places serve mashed potatoes. The Yankees don't serve sweet potatoes...at all; whereas in the South I've eaten sweet potatoes twice in a single Thanksgiving meal (once as side, once as pie). They do serve turnips for some reason. I've never seen them serve any kind of greens. There's sometimes pecan pie, but I think they be might humoring me on that front. In the South we would occasionally serve cranberry sauce, but only because TV told us we ought to, no one really liked it and it was frequently forgotten. In the South we do dressing, not stuffing.

I think holidays are probably a high point of local food cultures (my in-laws do lamb for Easter and seem to have zero interest in serving ham for any holiday. They also plan New Years' meals with a single thought for how they'll remain prosperous in the coming year without eating greens and black eyed peas.), but I think it's telling that, when we want to celebrate family, we do have regional cuisine to fall back on.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:42 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


But still, countries like Italy and France had rich and distinctive culinary traditions before the Americas were even discovered by Europeans.

OTOH, Italy didn't even exist as a country until 1861, and before that the Italian "regional" cooking was actually different states.
posted by smackfu at 11:42 AM on October 16, 2012


"And on noticing her edit: "oh noes! traditional foods in an immigrant-based country are based on foods the immigrants ate before they moved to the US! That is the wrong kind of tradition!""

Yeah, I'm all, "Inappropriate Columbian exchanges of people and foodstuffs must be stopped! SEND BACK THE TOMATOES, ITALY. NO POTATOES FOR YOU, IRELAND. RETURN YOUR EUROPEAN PASTRY AND DESSERT TRADITIONS THAT RELY ON CHOCOLATE OR VANILLA. ALSO GIVE BACK THE QUININE AND ENJOY MALARIA."

I'm all for preserving local traditions in the face of homogenizing, bland-izing forces, but pretending like, "Oh no, immigrants are moving places and changing their food to adapt to available ingredients," is different than anything that's been happening forever is silly, and acting like modern European cuisine isn't a product of robust international trade networks is absolutely ridiculous. ALL of our cuisines are products of local and non-local foodstuffs, of terroir and trade networks.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:11 PM on October 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


>>But still, countries like Italy and France had rich and distinctive culinary traditions before the Americas were even discovered by Europeans.

OTOH, Italy didn't even exist as a country until 1861, and before that the Italian "regional" cooking was actually different states.


The many historical divisions within what we consider more or less unified countries today are even more reason why they have much deeper and more diverse culinary traditions. Texas has around the same area as France. Arizona is right around the same as Italy. France and Italy have much higher population density than Texas and Arizona, of course, but they also have greater geographical and culinary diversity (this is not to say that Texas and Arizona are monocultures by any means).
posted by slkinsey at 12:11 PM on October 16, 2012


The US seems to be a lot better than Europe at integrating a lot of different things, all over the country. Europe seems to be better at preserving distinct habits in very, very small geographical locations. Both are good. I'm not being a post-modern relativist here, just thinking that we could all learn from each other. In my view, the locavore crowd is doing something in that direction, even if I hate all types of fanatics and love my avocados, citrus fruits and canned tomatoes during our cold winter.
posted by mumimor at 12:28 PM on October 16, 2012


I've never seen them serve any kind of greens.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:42 PM on October 16


My Southern (Kentucky) in-laws serve green bean casserole (i.e. with breading of some sort on top) every year, sometimes in addition to green beans boiled with ham or bacon. The strangest thing about Thanksgiving in the South for me, moving here from Nova Scotia, was the phenomenon of being served marshmallows on sweet potatoes as a side dish.
posted by joannemerriam at 12:42 PM on October 16, 2012


I've found in my travels to Italy the last 20 years that things have absolutely started to change in the big cities, but that generally, Italians like to eat Italian food. Of course, Italian food is dozens or hundreds of highly localized, ultra-regional styles. But my Italian friends do not just order out for Chinese. They don't eat Indian or Mexican, even though there are now restaurants that serve it. They eat the regional food they grew up with (or pizza). So even though what we eat in the US isn't the same as 'real' Italian, Mexican, Japanese, etc, its still wildly more varied than what an average Italian eats.
posted by jindc at 12:45 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


My Southern (Kentucky) in-laws serve green bean casserole (i.e. with breading of some sort on top) every year, sometimes in addition to green beans boiled with ham or bacon. The strangest thing about Thanksgiving in the South for me, moving here from Nova Scotia, was the phenomenon of being served marshmallows on sweet potatoes as a side dish

Ah sweet potato souffle, called a souffle, even though it isn't, served as a side dish, even though it's more like a dessert. It was a staple of my childhood. The marshmallow kind is fine, but not the best; what you want it the kind with a crunchy topping made of pecans and brown sugar. It's delicious and also so sweet that it barely makes sense to eat three kinds of pie afterwards, but you do anyway.

Like half my family has diabetes, in case that wasn't clear.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 12:46 PM on October 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yo dawg, I heard you have diabetes, so I put sugar in everything you eat.
posted by Nomyte at 1:01 PM on October 16, 2012


We actually have more than one kind of pie for dessert on Thanksgiving (no pumpkin at all last year, in fact), and a staggering array of various vegetable side dishes. No cornbread involved in stuffing (or bread). And cranberries in more than one form; kind of unavoidable, as not only am I from New England, but we also GROW the damn things.

The whole "immigrant influence" issue seems...not quite a red-herring, exactly, but more like "well, wait and give it a few decades or so." Immigrant-influenced cuisine is a cuisine in its infancy. An Irish cookbook writer years ago made a good point when I was a little bit strident about how "corned beef and cabbage isn't Irish, come on" when I was younger; she pointed out that it may not be Irish, but it was an Irish/American adaptation - which is itself a unique demographic and a group with its own unique history which itself was worthy of respect. It wasn't straight-up Irish cooking, because they couldn't do that....but it also wasn't like how anyone else in America was cooking either. It's its own thing.

And the only difference between that kind of cooking and the cuisine of Milan or Tuscany is about 500-plus years of people doing it over and over.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:08 PM on October 16, 2012


In my defense: I keep coming back to this post today because I'm kind of gearing up to start a food blog.

There's actually a couple of good books that say rather a lot about food in this country, and how it is at once both simultaneously diverse and homogeonized. Sallie Tisdale's Best Thing I Ever Tasted is more of a personal memoir interspersed with research into the "you know, I've always been curious about this, what's up with that" variety. She gets into gender politics, factory food production and identity politics as well as food, and it's thought-provoking - and actually a little poignant in places (at one point she considers her kids being served really bland and boring "pizza" and "burritos" in their school lunches, and considers that for some of her child's classmates, they're eating a bastardized version of something that would have been part of their own culture if we'd just left their great-grandparents alone years and years ago).

Then there's America Eats: On The Road With The WPA, which is half a collection of unpublished WPA food writing from the 1930's and half the editors' own efforts to retrace their steps and see how much, if any, of those food events from the 1930's are still around today. There's not as much variety as there was in 1930, but there's more than you'd think.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:28 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I dunno, I think the blogger has a point here. Yes, there's a lot of great regional cuisine in the US (I can't speak to Canada) but it shows up less and less in home cooking, particularly in the urban younger generation. Instead, a lot of 20-somethings I know cook by making a kinda-sorta-Chinese stir-fry one night, a kinda-sorta-Indian curry the next, and a kind-sorta-Italian pasta the next, none of which are that good, because all those traditions draw on pretty different techniques and ingredients and you're unlikely to know all the techniques already or have all of the ingredients at once. It all ends up getting homogenized into anonymous variations on Sauteed Vegetables with a Steamed Starch. Better to learn from one tradition first, because at least then you can get a single set of techniques mastered enough to have good judgment when you try to learn your next type of cuisine.
posted by ostro at 1:42 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you think about it, though, ostro - what cuisine doesn't have dishes that CAN'T be broken down into some variant of "Sauteed Vegetables with Steamed Starch" or "Braised Meat In A Pot With A Crapton Of Other Stuff" or "Broth With A Ton Of Vegetables And Maybe Some Meat Too"?

That's one of the things I learned when I started branching out and exploring more - that a lot of the stuff I'd made for myself that was kinda-sorta Italian or kinda-sorta Chinese was good practice for actual Italian or Chinese. Risotto was an upgrade from "frozen vegetables mixed into those rice side dishes from a packet." Beef stroganoff is just as easy as Hamburger Helper and uses better ingredients. But having had the hands-on practice made it easy to say "oh, wait, I know what they mean by this," and try it.

Because there are actually some consistent techniques a lot of different cultures use; true, some things are unique to one or another culture (you ain't gonna find a tagine or a tandoori oven in traditional Icelandic cooking, say), but....a lot of those "sauteed vegetables with steamed starch" recipes back in the mists of time are what turned into things we consider specialties today.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:56 PM on October 16, 2012


This reminds me of every acquaintance who's spent a bit to much time in the EU and comes back saying how we Americans are doing it all wrong and Europe has the monopoly on perfection. Worldview expands 2.5º and all of a sudden it the Second Coming of the Enlightenment.

I think this woman misses the point of being able to go to the store a 'get anything'. I recall in Jacques Pepin's autobiography how amazed he was on how willing Americans were will to discard 'tradition' and eat anything as long as it tasted good.

While coming from a strict regimented teaching in France, there was a 'right way' and a 'wrong way' to cook ever single dish. Italian cooking is no different.

Put the word 'traditional' or 'classic' on the dish and I wince. Nothing wrong with knowing how to make a 'proper' french omelet, but we've all had that. Wouldn't it be nice to throw out the script and improvise. Also the whole 'that's not how you're supposed to make it' line always struck me a bit of the Old Guard condescension. We consume, co-opt, re-imagine, and then add Sodium Benzoate. Voilà!

My blue-cheese stuffed cornflake-crusted french toast with rum syrup isn't traditional or proper. Lance Armstrong can suck it and so can this article.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 2:01 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or what EmpressCallipygos said
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 2:03 PM on October 16, 2012


Well, yes, Sauteed Vegetables with a Steamed Starch is present (and delicious) in some form everywhere . . . but it's the specificity of the different variations that make them good. Different vegetable combinations, fats, cooking times, etc, even to kind of fiddly things like how you cut the vegetables, that actually end up making a big difference. What I don't like is what seems like a rising America home cooking culture that says you can make the same SVwaSS over and over, and if you add soy sauce it's a Chinese stir-fry, if you add Parmesan it's Italian, etc. Seems like a waste of centuries of cooking knowledge.

In essence, rather than breaking down recipes to the wider commonalities between all cultures so that everybody can cook a mediocre version of everything, it might be better if we emphasized getting good at a deep set of techniques. Learning how to cook like your grandmother, basically. Sure, you can break things down, but why? It just seems homogenizing.
posted by ostro at 2:19 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


it might be better if we emphasized getting good at a deep set of techniques. Learning how to cook like your grandmother, basically.

But for me, personally, I don't want that. I want to be reasonably good at multiple techniques, because I want to have the option of having a pretty good curry one night, a pretty good stir-fry the next, a pretty good risotto the week after, etc. (It's quite easy to do these using local, fresh foods.) Yes, if I made only food from one tradition, I am sure I could get much, much better, but at the cost of mostly only getting to eat food from that one tradition, and it's not a trade-off I think is worth it. That's a choice people can make, but I'm not clear why it's self-evidently better to specialise vs generalise in the kitchen if you are just cooking for yourself, family and friends.
posted by jeather at 2:33 PM on October 16, 2012


Since I'm thinking of making a cheap-food blog, this is all very relevant for me.
I couldn't imagine restricting myself to one cuisine, but it is true that restricting one self to one set of staples is seriously money-saving. if you need three types of rice in your parlor, and the equivalent four basic sauces (balsamic, english,soy, fish (or both of the last)), it will be more expensive.
posted by mumimor at 2:42 PM on October 16, 2012


Uh, how exactly does one toast triangles of mozzarella? Because I want to go to there.

You put the mozzarella in a carriage, of course.
posted by francesca too at 3:36 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or what EmpressCallipygos said

I actually thought you were going to link to another thread where I said that "don't forget it's all just going to be poo within 12 hours anyway so let's not go too nuts".

Which, actually, is kind of relevant in here too.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:16 PM on October 16, 2012


Food culture in British Columbia is laughably bad. I think Vancouver is starting to do it right (and you can get quite good "authentic" Chinese food in many parts of that city and its suburbs), but get out of Vancouver and it is just terrible. "But what about Re-bar? Or the new pulled-pork joints in Victoria?"

After living in Japan, and experiencing a true food culture, I can safely say that such a thing just does not exist in Canada. There is no real connection to the earth for one thing. Restaurants, even the trendy "locavore" ones rely on Sysco or other industrial kitchen suppliers. Seafood is expensive, and generally not appreciated. Why is there no squid or sardines being sold in supermarkets? Why the obsession with salmon and rockfish and cod?

Of course, for those wondering why I don't learn how to make Japanese food, I think that'd be a waste of time. Name any Japanese cuisine, and I'll be able to find a restaurant where someone's been making that for dozens of years. I could spend years trying to learn that, or I could just let the pros do it.

I have learned (just barely) to make oyako-don that meets my wife's standards. I am currently learning how to cook kabocha squash that is not too mushy.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:31 PM on October 16, 2012


There’s no strong sense of regional or national identity in North American cuisine

Somebody hasn't read Too Many Cooks, in which Nero Wolfe (in 1938) ranted against this very same idea.

The United States has 350 million people in an area larger than all of Europe

Nope and Nope. It's 314 million and 9.83 million square km for the US vs 10.2 million square km for Europe.

We don't eat fish, we eat stew. We don't eat tomatoes, we eat mushrooms and sauerkraut and greens. We eat organ meat, because no sense in wasting good cow, we eat pig sausage, and stupendous amounts of hard cheese.

Displaced German....
posted by MartinWisse at 4:42 AM on October 17, 2012


Why is there no squid or sardines being sold in supermarkets? Why the obsession with salmon and rockfish and cod?

I think an obsession with cod, salmon, and rockfish is exactly the same thing as a "real connection to the Earth." Those are Canadian fish, and I'd expect Canadians to eat them. Sardines aren't really; the bulk of the Pacific sardine population is further south. I think there are some Canadian squid fisheries, but I don't know really. It's totally backwards to complain that 1) Canada doesn't have a local food culture and 2) It doesn't eat the non-Canadian things you want to eat.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:27 AM on October 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: the non-Canadian things you want to eat.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:46 AM on October 17, 2012


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