I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in love with food; good food. I grew up in a house where my mother cooked from scratch, so I was exposed to whole foods at an early age. My knowledge and experience grew exponentially when I moved to San Francisco in the early 80’s to go to college. There I was exposed to a whole world (literally) of food options: Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Russian, Polish, Italian, French, Ethiopian, Persian, Indian and that was just in my neighborhood! I quickly discovered flavor combinations I had never had or even thought were possible. Salty fish sauce, spicy Thai basil, chiles that were so hot they made me cry, earthy cumin and coriander seed, tangy sumac and tamarind, and bitter greens such as dandelion and arugula made me realize that I could spend the rest of my life cooking different flavor combinations and never cook them all—what a wonderful challenge!
In those years since I lived in and moved away from San Francisco, I have been introduced to Turkish, Jewish, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Afghanistan, Lebanese, Moroccan, Mongolian, Tibetan and a myriad of other cuisines. I have also learned that Italian food, my heritage cuisine, is not quite what my family or the rest America thinks it is. My paternal grandfather emigrated from a small town east of Naples called Benevento. It’s known for an anise liqueur called Strega which means witch in Italian. Anyway, my grandfather came to America with recipes that he enjoyed in his hometown. However, many ingredients were not available in his new home in northeast Pennsylvania, so he had to improvise. The recipes that he gave to my mother who moved, shortly after she and my father were married, to San Bernardino, California were recreated with the ingredients my mother had available to her in her new home, which were not necessarily the same as what my grandfather used. So to make a long story short, the Italian food I grew up with is vastly different from what my grandfather ate in his homeland, what he ate in Pennsylvania and what I ate during my travels throughout Italy. It wasn’t necessarily better, it was just different.
I had the opportunity to study the food history of Italy while I was in culinary school. We had a professor, Stefano Bentley, who taught us for an hour or two, once or twice per week, about the various regions—not even a tip of the iceberg of knowledge. I found that class to be fascinating, so many factors influence a dish, besides season and availability of ingredients, such as religious beliefs, superstitions, taboos, traditions, changes in social class, etc. I learned that there really is no such thing as standardized Italian food in Italy. Here, yes, because we treat food as a product for profit instead of what it really is: nourishment for our minds, bodies and souls. A famous chef perfectly stated what American restaurants are really about: ‘you take some food, fix it up, and then sell it for a profit.’ No server here in America would take away the cheese from you if you were trying to put it on a seafood dish, where they will do that in Italy because you don’t eat cheese with fish—period—end of subject. There are some chefs here that are taking their food a bit more seriously and not allowing substitutions or a bazillion choices which we Americans love so much.
If I, as a chef, decide that white balsamic vinaigrette will perfectly compliment the fresh picked greens and ripe peach salad I am going to serve you in July, you can bet I will say no to ranch dressing on the side. I want the food I serve to my clients to taste like I meant it to taste. Now that doesn’t mean that I am a food Nazi; I am more than happy to work with my clients to create food that fits their taste preferences and any dietary requirements they have whether I like it or not, but there are limits to everything. I once made a vegan tiramisu for a client for her birthday because she’s a vegan and wanted tiramisu for dessert. Yes, it was terrible and no it really wasn’t tiramisu, but she was happy and that made me happy, but I most certainly would have said no to ranch dressing. I would say no to ranch dressing for just about anything except maybe hot wings and celery sticks; it is pretty good with those two items.
So, back to my grandfather’s recipes which became my mother’s and then mine. I decided that I really didn’t like her version of tomato sauce, so I made my own to suit my taste preferences. I didn’t like her version of lasagne, so have made several variations of my own for the same reason. I love the meatball, braciole and sausage recipes, so they are as is even today; I don’t mess with them. Where it makes sense, I do my best to stay as true to the tradition and authenticity of all recipes be they Italian or any other culture, because that is how you learn about that culture—through its food. Changing my mother’s recipes didn’t change the authenticity, because they were never authentic to begin with.
The same famous chef also stated that while there is no standardized Italian food, there is an standardized Italian expectation that the dish must be made with the best food that is available to you at the time you are making it, and I don’t think that expectation is solely Italian either. It means if you can’t afford or don’t like ricotta cheese, find a different good quality cheese that you can afford and like to make your lasagne. Make your own tomato sauce and don’t buy one in a jar, because that stuff is what’s expensive. Good tomato sauce can be inexpensively, quickly and easily made with a can of tomatoes crushed in your hands, some onion, garlic, fresh or dried herbs, salt and pepper. It will not contain anything you can’t pronounce and will taste better than anything out of a jar. Put some pride in what you are making as that is what you are ingesting into your body. Food should never be considered a product or just something to take away the huger pangs; it is life!
Food touches all of our emotions, hopes, desires, dreams and nightmares. It brings happy and unhappy memories; the smell reminds us of places we’ve been to and want to revisit. It reminds us of parents, relatives, friends, favorite servers, favorite chefs, restaurants, bars, diners, drive-in’s and dives (just checking to see if you are still with me here). Food that we love and hate makes us who we are. I had a friend once who refused to eat capers because a jar of them fell on her head once when she was a child—OK. I don’t like certain textures, like tapioca, and you can’t pay me enough to ever eat it—just don’t ask me to explain to you why I don’t like it. I’m sure everyone has their likes and dislikes of various foods and when you really stop to think about it, unless you are eating something really heinous like fermented whale blubber (sorry, but that has to be heinous), the reason you probably don’t like it is more emotional than anything else.
My grandfather came to this country in 1917 with no money and only the clothes on his back. When he died, he had a wife, a house, six children and a vegetable garden. He fed his family as well as he could every day. Despite the fact that my father grew up poor, he loved good food and could recognize it easily. He clearly passed that love along to me, and I do my best to pass it to every person I cook for and now to you. So go now and make something homemade from your pantry, garden if you are lucky enough to have one, or local coop. Do it today or tomorrow and do it for the love of food. Buon Appetito!