The Importance of Culinary Authenticity
Cocktails, books, movies and more...
A Soup By Any Other Name…
“I want you to make this for me,” Ann said one morning in bed, scrolling through her Instagram feed. She showed me a picture of a soup with mushrooms and vermicelli-thin rice noodles posted by my friend Eric Ripert. It showed him eating it at his desk in the kitchen of his NYC restaurant, Le Bernardin, holding up some noodles, and he included the recipe from his last book, the excellent and gorgeous Vegetables, calling it a vegetarian pho.
The headline in Eater, dated January 6th, read World-Renowned Chef Eric Ripert Accused of Botching ‘Pho’ Recipe, Sparking Backlash.
At first I was a little annoyed because Eric is 1, a friend, and 2, the great chef of one of the country’s best restaurants. But with so much discussion of cultural appropriation, both in the art world and in the cooking world, it caught my attention. I’m of two minds here. On one hand, I worry that fear of cultural appropriation will stifle creativity and a free exchange of ideas. On the other hand, the Eater piece makes important points to consider.
The author gave no context for pho, one of Vietnam’s national (and cherished) dishes.
Pho is made with a meat broth, a fact not mentioned in the instagram post.
The noodles should be flat and wide rice noodles, not rice vermicelli.
Radishes, one of the garnishes, would never be in pho, as they’re uncommon in Vietnam.
As the cookbook author (also a friend, also writer of fabulous books, including one on pho), Andrea Nguyen, told Eater:
“Without providing any context as to how this recipe came together and why he uses the ingredients that he uses, the [Instagram] reader is kind of like, ‘what the pho?’”
On the other hand, I’m glad that Eric didn’t take the post down or even change it because it brought forth a lot of healthy discussion. Which is always good. And I made the soup, which was a pleasure.
I might have called it “pho-style” or “pho-inspired.” I have a chapter on curries in my last book, From Scratch, and for the Indian, Vietnamese, and Cambodian curries, I enlisted chefs from those countries to contribute a recipe and talk me through the history and method of the dish. How fun it was to have Neath Pal, a Cambodian chef and an instructor at Johnson & Wales, in my kitchen pounding away at galangal and lemon grass in a big mortar in my kitchen for the yellow curry paste.
But I wonder, today, could I, goyim, write The Book of Schmaltz. Of course, I had a mentor and teacher, my old neighbor Lois Baron. I couldn’t have done it otherwise. I write books about things I don’t know (e.g. Charcuterie) in order to learn about them. And I had such amazing fun with Lois, a Clevelander of Russian Jewish descent, learning how to make not only schmaltz (rendered chicken fat with onion, aka liquid gold), but also things like kreplach and knishes. And of course I learned a lot about Lois herself and her family. Watch a video I made of Lois discussing schmaltz: “I love the continuity of schmaltz,” she told me, “in our family, in the history of the Jewish people, in the food, it’s what holds everything together, or did, for a very long period of time. Now it’s become unique, exotic, which shouldn’t be. It’s very basic.” And very delicious, I might add.
(Postscript, 2/14/22: I received an email Saturday morning from my friend Ann LaGravenese, who offered some edification and an ironic comment germane to the conversation: I had to laugh at your use of “a goyim,” she wrote. Basically one would say “oh, Michael, he’s goyim”. Not a goyim. It was amusing also because you were, as a non-jew, or as goyim, we’re appropriating the Yiddish word. I am hereby corrected.)
I’m curious what people think about this issue? Is it OK for me to try my hand at a mole, for instance? I would say, of course it is, provided I don’t present myself as an expert in the famous Mexican sauce, adhere to the tenets of mole-making, do what I can to understand the background, and don’t make an “authentic” Mexican mole.
Ann makes a mole from a recipe which I’m mentioning here for the sole purpose of asking her to make it again because it’s so good.
David Lebovitz penned perhaps the most thoughtful essay on cultural appropriation in the kitchen I’ve read called “The Dilemma of Authenticity.” (It may be behind a pay wall at this point—consider subscribing to the letter! It’s terrific.) In it he writes the following:
Cooking foods from other places is my favorite way to learn about other cultures and to connect with them. The one thing that makes each country and culture different from another is its cuisine. When I travel and go to a place, I go for the food. Romain forces me to visit museums, too. But honestly, I could spend all day roaming through outdoor markets, checking out bakeries, eating in restaurants, and walking the aisles of supermarkets, which I have a particular fondness for as they give me a feel for how everyday people cook.
As a food writer, it’s nice to share and introduce readers to foods from elsewhere, as others (named above) have done before me, cluing people into things they may not have known about, like Kig ha farz and Kouign Amann, which few had heard of back in 2005. Kig ha farz are boiled buckwheat dumplings, which probably won’t ever light the culinary world on fire, but with a name like that, how could I not share? But Kouign Amann, once a culinary oddity also from Brittany, is now made in bakeries from San Francisco to Dubai. Has globalization ruined things? Not necessarily. I think we’re all better off for appreciating and understanding foods from elsewhere.
Here is a great video where authenticity comes into clear, but also practical, focus. Italian chefs watch non-Italian chefs bungle carbonara, the classic Roman dish. Carbonara is eggs, cheese, cured pork, and pasta. Watch them comment as cooks add onion and garlic. The chefs acknowledge that you’re free to put what every you want in the pan, but if you add onion to your carbonara, you shouldn’t call it carbonara. It’s hilarious (watch them comment on Jamie Oliver making carbonara at about the 8 minute mark).
More to the point though—and this was the moment that crystalized the authenticity issue for me—at the end one of the chefs says , “Carbonara is a dish that’s sacred to us.”
Ultimately, that’s what the issue is really about: when we fail to appreciate the sacred nature of a national dish—whether Italian carbonara or Lois’s schmaltz—we’re losing something fundamental.
All this because of Eric’s vegetable noodle soup. Which is outstanding—the mushroom heavy vegetarian broth is deeply satisfying. (Here’s the Instagram post, which includes the recipe, as well as the 900 plus comments telling Eric, respectfully, that this is not pho. Kudos to Eric for leaving the post stand as is.)
What we’re drinking …
This week, I’ve been experimenting with cocktails that share the beguiling sweet-sour combination of orange liqueur and lemon or lime juice. The Margarita (tequila) and The Sidecar (brandy) for instance.
But I wanted to explore a lesser known libation and so I chanced on The Derby, not to be confused with a Brown Derby (an odd bourbon-grapefruit-juice cocktail), on David Leite’s website, written by author Ted Haigh.
Haigh traces the drink to Trader Vic’s, the tiki bar chain started by Victor Bergeron in Oakland in 1938. Bergeron, taking the lead from Donn Beach, aka Don the Beachcomber, would open twenty Trader Vic’s throughout the country and create numerous drinks, such as the Mai Tai, the Scorpion, and the Fog Cutter, the latter being the first tiki drink served in a purpose-built, ceramic tiki mug (according to David Wondrich in the astonishing new book The Oxford Companion to Cocktails and Spirits).
But Bergeron also lays claim to this lovely whiskey-Cointreau-lime concoction, which is beautifully balanced by the additional sweetness of the vermouth.
It’s a lovely cocktail. Here are my preferred proportions (feel free to disagree!):
2 ounces bourbon
1 ounce Cointreau
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1/2 ounce lime juice or more to taste
Mint as needed
If you’re muddling mint in a mixing glass, do so. Then add the remaining fluids to the glass. Add ice, stir to chill, and strain into a chilled coupe or an old-fashioned glass over ice. Garnish with a sprig of mint.
Speaking of cocktails, join us for a special live Cocktail Hour…
A special Friday Cocktail Hour is planned for this Monday, Valentine’s Day, 6 pm eastern, with Ann and me, honorary chairs of Reading Across Rhode Island with the Rhode Island Center For the Book. The program, led by Kate Lentz, began as a response to the 9/11 attacks in an effort to encourage community with a state-wide shared reading, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year with the theme “the book that matters most” and Ann’s novel The Book That Matters Most (which is both a great literary journey and a compelling detective story).
The celebratory cocktail hour will be live on my Instagram feed on Valentines Day. All questions and comments welcome; Ann will be moderating. Please join us for a libation featured in the book that matters most to us (served by the brutish Tom Buchanan—can you name it?).
What books matters most to you? Which single book? If you’re in Rhode Island, click on the anniversary link. All are welcome to the special Valentines Day edition of the Friday Cocktail Hour.
(This just in! Postscript 2/14/22: I will announce this in the cocktail hour, but Read Across Road Island will be offering a giveaway of Ann’s book to three people. Just go down to the bottom of this email and leave a comment naming the book that matters most to you and you will be entered!)
What we’re watching…
I’d have to say that between both Ann and me, our joint choice for best movie of the past couple weeks was Nightmare Alley, a classic noir starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett as the femme fatal, David Strathairn, Willem Dafoe and others in this Depression-era carny story of murder and greed.
I loved the Card Counter (Ann not so much), starring Oscar Isaacs, about a former Abu Ghraib prison guard trying to escape the guilt of his past after mastering card counting while in prison for what he’d done at the Iraqi prison. A brilliant subdued performance by Isaacs (not to mention is outstanding co-stars, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sharidan, and, again, the fabulous Willem Dafoe.
Ann found Quiz, available on Amazon Prime, starring Matthew Macfadyen (excellent here—if you watch Succession, you’ll be a little off kilter watching Tom speaking with his native accent. Three episodes covering an actual story of cheating on a Who Wants To Be a Millionaire style game show.
Watch the trailer for Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn to see the zany premise (a private sex tape made by a husband and his school teacher wife, gets posted to the internet and goes viral in Bucharest, Romania. An unusual and strangely compelling political comedy.
What am I watching? After Life, After Life, After Life. All three seasons in two days. Brilliant. Devastating.
And I highly recommend rewatching the 1960 classic movie, The Apartment, with Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray as I did on a red eye flight recently. It’s even better than I remembered and I rewatched scenes that especially wowed me.
I can’t underscore enough her endorsement of After Life. Having never really been a fan of Ricky Gervais, I am now; he is absolutely brilliant in this eccentric and funny 3 season Netflix series about a man grieving the loss of his wife as he works for a small-town community newspaper.
What we’re reading…
I just finished the YA novel, The Truth About Forever, about a teenager (and her family) grieving the loss of her father and finds salvation in a catering company, whose employees are enduring their own losses.
And I’m happy to share Ann’s reading endorsements:
All I want to do is keep reading Free Love, the brilliant Tessa Hadley’s new novel. A staid wife and mother discovers herself in 1960s London. Sigh. Perfect.
And the novel Bright Burning Things by Irish writer Lisa Harding is an unflinching look at addiction and motherhood.
I’m happily listening to Camera Man, written and read by Slate’s film critic Dana Stevens. As a huge Slate Culture Gabfest fan, this is an especially interesting and fun read about Buster Keaton.
Links we’re loving…
Photographer Daniel Arnold is “eerily in sync” with New Yorkers and their city.
A beautiful photo essay of polar bears who have moved into an abandoned weather station in the arctic.
If you’re in NYC, I highly recommend the one man show, Just For Us, by Alex Edelman at the lovely little Cherry Lane Theater. Read the NYTimes review.
We also saw a fabulous production of Sondheim’s Company, featuring the Broadway actor Claybourne Elder. When he was 23 a stranger helped direct his career.
I don’t know why, but these videos of cakes that don’t look like cakes freaks me out a little.
The amazing Buster Keaton…
(Remember, mention the book that matters most to you in your comment to be entered in the book giveaway.)
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