In Italian Food, What's Authentic and Does It Really Even Matter?

By Sara Jenkins

Italians are passionate about their food culture, but the ingredients we eat and how we eat them are constantly evolving and changing over time.

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I pride myself on having a profound understanding of what Italian food is and what makes it authentic. I know the difference between carciofi alla giudea, twice-fried artichokes in the style of the Roman ghetto, and carciofi alla romana, braised artichokes with garlic and mint in the style of Rome. I know that acqua cotta, one of the classics of Tuscan cooking, comes in at least three radically different versions depending on what part of Tuscany you are in. I know that even if an Italian would never sprinkle grated Parmigiano over his shellfish pasta, he would happily eat crostini with melted mozzarella and anchovies. I know that asparagus and tomatoes are not cooked together, because wherever you are on the boot they are not in season together. I know that long cooking of vegetables is a hallmark of Italian food wherever you are: no barely blanched green beans or asparagus for Italians, please!

I believe that my understanding of the flavor combination of fresh mozzarella, sun-ripened tomatoes, basil, and olive oil is a foundation that can steer me to many plates beyond the simple classic insalata Caprese I first ate, still sticky with salt from a morning in the water, at a beach-side restaurant in Capri. I laugh to myself at the many ridiculous combinations I come across outside of Italy, knowing that nobody with any understanding of Italian food would ever combine nettle-ricotta ravioli with puttanesca sauce.

And yet, I ask myself, what is authenticity and does it really matter? Italians are, of course, passionate about their food culture and ready at all times to chastise a foreigner for not understanding that right combinations or sequences of flavors. Salad always comes after the entrée -- never before. Pasta and soup fill the same slot in the meal, so you eat one or the other and not both. Plum tomatoes are for pasta sauce, globe tomatoes are for salad. And so it goes, a dizzying array of rules and regulations for how you eat. But still I wonder, what is the importance of authenticity?

I cringe when Americans do strange things to classic Italian food: Spaghetti and meatballs has me running out the door with an excuse about my house burning.

Italian food and flavors changed dramatically after 1492 with the influx of the New World fruits and vegetables -- tomatoes, corn, beans, peppers, potatoes -- that were gradually integrated over four centuries of gardening and cooking and are at the core of today's version of Italian food. If we wanted to be really authentic with Italian food, shouldn't we do away with all the invasive species? Doesn't that make tomato sauce and polenta inauthentic?

Food is not static. What we eat is constantly evolving and changing. New things become available. When I was a child in Rome, cilantro, limes, and yams were unknown and unavailable; today, thanks to immigration and the global produce trade, you can probably find all three at the corner vegetable stand. When I first started paying attention to my neighbors' farm in Tuscany, they were extremely self-sufficient in terms of their food. They grew, raised, and foraged probably 90 percent of what they consumed. Their food and flavors were delicious and unvarying, and the dishes Mita cooked formed the basis of my understanding of Italian food.

And yet as the times changed and they began to watch television and shop for some food at the supermarket, variances drifted in. One year we had pasta with a canned truffle and cream sauce. Another Easter my mother was surprised by violets in the salad. "I saw it on TV," Mita said. Is it inauthentic to be inspired by new ingredients? Is it inauthentic to take the combination of insalata Caprese and manipulate the ingredients until they no longer resemble mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil but the flavor combination remains the same?

I cringe when Americans do strange things to classic Italian food: Spaghetti and meatballs has me running out the door with an excuse about my house burning down. Yet while I have never seen spaghetti and meatballs on a menu in Italy, I have seen plenty of fresh-off-the-boat Italian chefs appropriate the dish and add it to their repertoire.

Much as Italian food was changed by the discovery of the Americas and recently by immigration and a global market, Italian immigrants who came to America 100 years ago were influenced by the new ingredients and the lack of availability of ingredients that were common back home. Is it inauthentic to use Vietnamese fish sauce when we are pretty sure that 2,000 years ago the ancient Romans made and consumed fish sauce themselves?

As a chef who has tied my career to cooking "authentic" Italian food, who prides herself on knowledge of what is proper Italian and what is not, I have been amazed and intrigued at what Italians make their own. Years ago in Puglia I ate in a little tiny restaurant that prided itself on everything coming from the garden out back or the farm down the road. The different cheeses we ate were described as yesterday's cheese and last month's cheese. But when I went back the next day to cook with them, I was amazed to find them happily using Kraft singles in their eggplant Parmesan. I thought I had misheard or misseen, but no, they really were using Kraft singles without any sense of destroying the authenticity of their food.

Recently, I had an Italian chef in my kitchen who requested Worcestershire and Tabasco to put in her tomato sauce. Is that inauthentic? Or is it simply adapting in the same way that people adapted new products like corn to their traditional dishes of grain gruel made with millet, barley, or farro? Do I really care if someone sprinkles mint over fried artichokes? It actually sounds good. I have found the combination of soy sauce and extra virgin olive oil to be delicious. Is that a bad thing? It's certainly inauthentic right now, but will it be considered a standard element in Italian cuisine 50 years from now?

I think that as a non-native Italian it has been tremendously important to me to define my understanding of the cuisine as an understanding of the traditions that go into the food. It becomes terrifically important to be able to say "I might not have an Italian name or been born in Italy, but my ability to know and cook what is authentic means I am just as Italian as Luciano Pavarotti." I do believe that often there is a reason behind many of the dishes we love and cherish and revere as authentic to us. And I do believe you have to really understand the classics in anything to start rearranging them. But food is not static, and our tastes are not static. And perhaps if I was Italian to the bone I would feel freer to add Worcestershire sauce to my tomato sauce. Maybe I would roast sweet potatoes with rosemary and garlic and not think twice about it.

When I taste traditional French food with its flour-thickened, rich, long-cooked sauces, I don't enjoy it. It tastes old and stale and boring. I don't agree that innovation for the sake of innovation is necessarily a good thing, and I don't enjoy molecular gastronomy necessarily any more than I do classic haute cuisine French food of the 1950s. But for me a truly confident chef is able and eager to appropriate new ingredients and techniques. Things change, our palates change and what was new today may become the tradition of tomorrow -- a tradition so ensconced that the minute you think of that cuisine you think of the dish, the way pasta with New World tomato sauce or New World polenta immediately makes you think of Italy.

Image: Petrafler/Shutterstock.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/02/in-italian-food-whats-authentic-and-does-it-really-even-matter/253346/