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Culinary Heritage: Prison or Platform?

I’ve been pondering culinary heritage for the past week or so, ever since Rachel Laudan posed the question: “Does culinary heritage exist to advance tourism?” I’m paraphrasing the question, but this is what I’ve been thinking about as I shell another batch of peas.

After turning this over and over, and using Italian cuisine as fuel for thought, it came to me that if the indigenous people eat a certain food all the time, like prosciutto and melon, then its heritage. If a particular dish appears only on restaurant menus or is served up just for a photo shoot, then its tourism. Seems like a simple answer to a complex question.

Now that I’d resolved Rachel’s query, and had some artichokes to clean, I was free to wallow in a query of my own. Is the Italian culinary heritage a prison or a platform? Please feel free to insert any nationality in that question.

When we were busy opening the new Erba Luna restaurant here in town, all of our Italian friends assumed I would be cooking hamburgers. The ubiquitous hamburger defines the rich US culinary heritage with all of its glorious regional quirks. That’s a culinary prison.

Friday night we sat with friends and laughed about the Umbrian government-issued menu. Virtually every trattoria and most restaurants will offer the same six or seven pasta dishes. The starter menu always includes sliced salami, cheeses, and crostini, and for a main course, there is always a grilled meat selection. This is another sort of culinary prison, everything is good, and there are no surprises whatsoever. Sometimes that is comforting, sometimes it’s just plain dull.

There is a marvelous restaurant in the Emilia-Romagna region, about forty-five minutes north of Montone, called Locanda al Gambero Rosso. Open since 1951, it’s been in the family for three generations, and they are expecting the fourth generation to show up some time this summer. The debate has already begun if the baby will be in the kitchen or working the front of the house.

La Locanda al Gambero Rosso is the finest example I know of using culinary heritage as a platform. They are deeply, totally bound to all things Romagna. There is a passionate confidence that comes with knowing they are absolutely eating delicious food. The beef comes from the locally raised Romagna cow, the wild herbs are foraged from the hills in the early morning, the cheese is so local you’ll never find it in your Whole Foods, and I won’t even be able to find it in Umbria.

 The Italian word for history is ‘storia’, and at a recent lunch at Gambero Rosso, each dish was presented with its storia. Moreno, the ‘babbo’ or papa of the restaurant served us a deep green wild herb soup, studded with tiny cheese pearls. It was an herbal cornucopia, but so balanced, so nuanced ... a hint of bitter, a subtle mingling of herbaceous flavors, finishing with a mild, refreshing, persistent note of mint. Yeah, it was that good. As we are swooning over our bowls of soup, Moreno comes by with a flat of the fresh wild herbs to explain to us what they look like, since he’s the one who was up this morning doing the gathering. He let us know that he hated this soup when he was little. It was a chore to go out and forage for the greens and it made him dislike the soup. It was poor people’s soup. Now he loves the morning forages and the soup and laughs at his own childish dislike. That is culinary heritage preserved and honored.

As a final course, we had a meat dish that involved the entire barnyard; it had eight different types of meat, cooked in a delicious broth and served with pieces of hard toast for sopping up the juices. Moreno explained this was something that was usually only served at an important fiesta dinner, and then he confided that they made it a little different than the traditional recipe and that he liked his version of the dish better than the old-fashioned way. That is using culinary heritage as a platform.

There is honor and respect paid to the origins of the dish, but no one felt the need to be a slave to the recipe. I’ve never eaten at any of the Spanish culinary palaces, like iBulli, but from what I’ve read, the Spanish chefs also seem to embrace their heritage as a platform, not as a prison.

There is another aspect to the culinary heritage as a prison, that should be explored, and that is the jailbreak phenomena. Modern chefs thumb their noses at history and vie for extreme flavor combinations, extreme preparations, and presentations. It’s all a part of the mix and flights of chef fantasia can be touched with the divine or be just plain silly. And silly is in the eye of the beholder.

Here in our little corner of Umbria, I’m literally watching a culinary heritage melt away. I just came back from the COOP supermarket and the refrigerated section carried no less than five variations of Kraft pre-sliced flavored cheese products. Above that was pouring and bake sacs filled with batter for a lemon cake, or a chocolate cake, etc. These products didn’t exist two years ago. Our usual cheese offerings are mostly pecorino (sheep cheese) variations, parmigiana, maybe Gorgonzola or some mild cow cheese. All of these cheeses are delicious, but when a friend shows up with cheese from France, we melt with happiness, as we taste these wonderful cheeses. Our friend Brent has so much trouble selling his goat cheeses because the locals won’t even taste them. Culinary heritage as a prison that leads to the jailbreak: Kraft cheese slices.

Tell me, what do you think about your culinary heritage? Is it a prison or a platform? Is it evolving or devolving?