You Say Tomato; I’ll Make Some Sauce.

Was it twirled with or without a spoon?

Was it twirled with or without a spoon?

Sauce or gravy? Oregano or basil? Spoon or no spoon?

Even for those of us from Italian families, the quest to cook “authentic” Italian food involves matters of taste (very important) and protocol (not nearly as important, but fun to argue about), and the fine points of cooking methods and terminology can set cooks to debating for hours (preferably over a glass of chianti and a bowl of olives).  Italy was a conglomeration of city-states, rather than a unified country, for centuries, and regional pride still plays a part in Italian identity; one way it displays itself is in how food is cooked and served in different parts of the nation–and by extension, how American families whose roots reside in those areas prepare and serve their traditional foods.

Recently, The Splendid Table website posted an interview with Maureen Fant, a cookbook author who has lived in Italy for the past 35 years. The interviewer succeeded in pinning Ms. Fant down on what we Americans must do in order to cook, serve, and eat Italian food the “right” way. Never, ever use a spoon to help you twirl your spaghetti, she cautioned. Never eat your salad first–it comes after the main course.

I enjoyed the interview and the perspective of a chef who lives full-time in La Bella Italia. But here’s the thing: I grew up surrounded by my father’s Sicilian family, all of whom made food a big part of their lives. The men, too: my Sicilian grandfather, who lived with us, loved to cook but made such a mess that a second kitchen had been installed in the basement to contain him. He and his daughter, my Aunt Lucy (whose given name was Elizabetta Maria), taught my French Canadian mother how to cook like an Italian. And we lived in Copiague, Long Island–at the time an Italian Catholic stronghold. Nearly everyone’s name ended in a vowel. The streets were named Marconi, Vespucci, Verrazano, Garibaldi–and Pio XI Street, after the early 20th century’s Italian Pope. Everybody’s grandmother was making meatballs on Sunday.

So yes–I was raised among the people who know their pasta and their olive oil. Even amidst this seemingly homogenous bunch who all hailed from the same boot-shaped corner of the globe, though, differences in the kitchen were many. My family called the rich tomato mixture “sauce”; my boyfriend’s family, also Sicilian, called it “gravy.” We ate our salad before the main course; my cousin’s family ate it after. Elizabetta Maria taught me to put basil and oregano in my marinara sauce; my cooking-enthusiast friend Frank called that sacrilege and declared that oregano is used only in meat sauces. My whole extended family twirled their spaghettini with the help of spoons; I stopped long ago, but they still do it.

So even among the most authentic of authentic Italians and Italian-Americans, there is often no “right” way to cook and eat. That said, here’s the recipe for the simple and delicious marinara sauce I learned to make as a young child, and which I taught my daughters to make when they were just children, too. It has oregano in it. You’ve been warned.

Pasta With Marinara Sauce Bresciano

Ingredients:

enough good quality, extra-virgin olive oil to film the bottom of a medium-sized saucepan

1 large clove garlic, minced

2 28-oz. cans crushed tomatoes*

small handful of fresh basil leaves, chopped

healthy sprinkle of dried oregano

splash of red wine, preferably Italian

salt

freshly ground black pepper

sprinkle of crushed red pepper flakes

1 lb. of pasta, your choice of shape

Fill a large pot halfway with water; salt the water and set the pot to boil on high heat. You’ll cook the pasta in this.

While the water is coming to a boil, film the bottom of a medium saucepan with the olive oil and heat it over medium heat. Saute the garlic in the oil until it barely begins to turn golden. Pour in the tomatoes (Use caution; if the pot is too small, the comparatively cold tomatoes will cause the hot oil to spatter, potentially burning you and definitely making a mess of your stove. Use the pot lid as a handy shield if necessary.)

Add the basil, oregano, wine, salt, and black pepper; add the crushed red pepper flakes, adjusting for the level of spiciness you prefer. Stir to blend. Cover and let simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes.

By the time you’ve made the sauce, the water is probably boiling; toss in a pound of whatever kind of pasta you love and boil it, stirring occasionally to keep it from sticking. (My favorite is capellini–angel hair. My children are wild for rotini.) Follow the timing directions on the package (different pastas take different lengths of time to cook). I can tell my pasta is done just by the feel of it in the water as I stir it–if olive oil doesn’t run through your veins, though, taste a piece for doneness. It should be al dente – “to the teeth.” Not hard, but definitely not mushy.

When the pasta is done, drain it in a colander and put it back in the empty pot; drizzle in a little olive oil and mix it around, to prevent it from sticking together. Pile each serving into a shallow bowl and top with sauce. If you like, grate some good-quality pecorino romano (what my family uses) or parmegiano-reggiano cheese on top. Don’t you dare use the shaky cheese in the cardboard container.

Serve with a salad, before or after. And some olives, and some crusty Italian bread. Maybe a few slices of hard cheese and salumi. Food of the gods.

*I use Hunts brand tomatoes–though they’re not imported, they consistently come in at the top of blind taste tests, and sure enough, I like the consistency and the taste. My sister, however, swears by Tuttorosso, and her sauce is mighty good, too. A recent taste test on public radio named Muir Glen Organic as the best; I went out and bought them and bleah, I didn’t like them at all. Neither did the kids. So try a few brands till you identify your favorite.

And lest you think the regional differences among Italians and Italian-Americans are a thing of the past, consider that last December, while I was shopping at the local market for our traditional Christmas seafood feast, the older gentleman in front of me in the cashier’s line noticed the cans of scungilli** in my cart. “You’re Italian,” he declared, pointing to the telltale cans. “From where?” I knew he understood that I was born in the US–he was inquiring about my ancestors. “From Sicily,” I replied. “My grandparents were from Trapani.” He nodded. “How are you going to prepare the scungill’?” As I detailed the sauteeing and saucing of the briny morsels, his wife joined him, carrying a couple of fat eggplants. “Honey, she’s Italian. She’s making scungill’ for Christmas,” he told her. She turned to me, looked me up and down. She didn’t seem as friendly as her spouse. “Where are your people from?” she asked. “Sicily–Trapani,” I repeated. “Oh. Sicilian,” she responded, with a decided lack of enthusiasm. “And where are your people from?” I countered. “We’re Napolitan,” she answered, giving the word its Italian pronunciation. I just smiled. I’m way too American to begin to try and divine the fine, yet distinctive, lines that might separate Naples from Trapani. And I was way too eager to get home and start my sauce. Otherwise known as gravy.

**Here in Florida, scungilli is known as conch, and is something you make into fritters. Though not Italian, they’re mighty tasty.

Photo credit: By Micaela & Massimo (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Way to a Nation’s Heart is Through Its Stomach

The Obamas at a state dinner in Jakarta. Culinary Diplomacy in action.

The Obamas at a state dinner in Jakarta: Culinary Diplomacy in action.

When people from one nation gather around a dinner table with people from another nation, they create goodwill along with good eating. If you travel internationally, you know how true (and delicious) this is. Is there anything that disposes us more favorably toward a culture and a country than sharing its food with its natives? When English friends offer buttery homemade shortbread that dissolves on your tongue or you slurp along with Japanese colleagues on the rich, comforting broth of nabeyaki udon, it’s easy to feel at home in a faraway place.

Recently, The Splendid Table–one of Glorious Curious’ favorite public radio shows–interviewed Sam Chapple-Sokol, who writes about how food is “used as an instrument to create cross-cultural understanding in the hopes of improving interactions in cooperation.” (Read the interview here.) The name for this practice is Culinary Diplomacy. Chapple-Sokol notes that while we all understand the importance of food in carrying off a successful state dinner between world leaders, we may not know that this brand of diplomacy is also employed by governments to proactively create a positive impression of their country in other nations. He explains that about ten years ago, Thailand created a program called “Thai Kitchen to the World,” through which they sent Thai chefs around the globe to start Thai restaurants and raise awareness of–and appreciation for–Thai cuisine. South Korea did the same sort of thing with its so-called “kimchi diplomacy.” These governments understand that food, with all its good associations, is an effective way of making your culture familiar to and sought out by people in other countries. Food has the tasty power to break down barriers and provide a welcome to the world.

Food is “used as an instrument to create cross-cultural understanding in the hopes of improving interactions in cooperation.” -Sam Chapple-Sokol

I’ve enjoyed many meals in other countries, but one of the most memorable was provided by friends of friends one summer night in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. The islands, about 200 miles off the coast of the Western Sahara, are volcanic and gorgeous and owned by Spain. The cuisine is heavily informed by Spanish cooking but is replete with the seafood and goat cheeses and tiny potatoes (used to make the salty and addictive papas arrugadas–“wrinkled potatoes”) that are indigenous to their geographic location.

That particular night, we all met up at a tiny, dingy bar/restaurant in seaside Bajamar, on a minor road overlooking the Atlantic. (Though to be fair, on small, mountainous Tenerife, most places overlook the Atlantic. That’s part of its beauty.) As darkness fell, about a dozen of us sat at long wooden tables pushed together under a covering made of bamboo in a dirt lot outside the bar’s front entrance. The new friends–a doctor, two sculptors, and some musicians among them–had ordered island specialties to impress–and just maybe to alarm–the American visitors. Plate after plate came out the door of this somewhat questionable-looking establishment and was deposited in a row down the center of the tables, ready to be washed down with local tinto–red wine. There was pulpo (octopus), grilled and waiting to be dipped in olive oil or mojo verdegofio, a wholemeal flour mixture combined with fish stock and mojo; breads, for dipping in the green and red mojos; fried local fish; the aforementioned papas arrugadas; and the most “exotic’ dish of the evening, morena–fried moray eels, with their jawbones and tiny ferocious teeth still intact. The Spaniards seemed particularly gleeful at serving us the pulpo, imagining perhaps that its bright pink sucker-studded tentacles might send us Americans running for a hamburger. I’m half Sicilian, though, and what we call purpu is my favorite Christmas Eve treat–it’s hard to find in restaurants here in the States, but when I travel to countries that love their seafood, I enjoy it wherever I can get it.

And that night was no different–I made short work of my plate of tentacles, I dipped my bread, I drank my wine, and I picked tiny bones out of the morena. I spoke my limited Spanish, they spoke their limited English, and my bilingual best friend Maria-Jesus filled in our gaps with her expert translation. For a while, I spoke French with one of the party who had lived in France for a number of years (my French is far better than my Spanish). My artist daughter was at the other end of the table with Maria-Jesus’s daughter, creating tiny watercolor images of the food and the people. There was a great deal of laughter and conversation and goodwill between nations.

After we had stuffed ourselves with all those local delicacies, we picked up and moved to a nearby nautical club that claimed our new friends as members. More wine was presented and we staked out a large table on the deserted pool deck. Out came a guitar, and a cajón–a flamenco box-drum–and then the music started. The musicians played, the ocean roared, and our little party sat at that table and sang and drank and laughed and danced until three in the morning. The Spaniards sang old Spanish songs that they all knew. Then they sang old American rock-and-roll so we could sing along. As the night wore on, we all became drummers, beating time by banging crushed soda cans on the table as our wineglasses shuddered and danced precariously close to the edges.

At several points during the night, I was close to tears, so moved was I by the beauty and camaraderie of the celebration of which these lovely people had so graciously made me a part. The hospitality, the music, and the food reached across borders, took my hands, and drew me into the culture of Spain and the Canaries. On a real and personal level, Culinary Diplomacy was in action, doing its very effective and tasty job.