This week, I hobbled together a simple sauce for a light pasta dinner. Because I only had a handful of ingredients, it was easy to keep this 'angry sauce' authentic; arrabiata made with tomatoes, garlic, onion, and red pepper. Or was it authentic? One recipe claimed you never add onions to an arrabiata, and yet another clearly called for minced shallots. I used green onions, so that might be pushing it...Or is it?
Making this sauce got me thinking a lot about the quest for authenticity amongst the fooderati. So often, I read an article, or blog post, or comment about a particular recipe, and the idea of whether or not the combination of ingredients is 'true' always gets raised. What does authenticity offer us beyond a smug sense of knowledge? Does it help us retain a sense of purity, or does it restrict creativity?
I came across this interesting discussion about the evolution of processed spaghetti sauce by Malcolm Galdwell, author of 'The Tipping Point', 'Blink', and 'Outliers'. If you've never been to TED, I'm warning you - be prepared for a few hours of staring time. Nonethless, Gladwell shares the pop culture behind why prepared spaghetti sauce is so chunky, and you'd be surprised by his findings; it's definitely worth 18 minutes of your time: http://www.ted.com/talks/malcolm_gladwell_on_spaghetti_sauce.html
If you didn't have 18 minutes, let me share the best nugget with you: authenticity does not make peoples' palates any happier. Gladwell discovered that a consultant within the food industry, Howard Moskowitz, revolutionized the way companies marketed their products. For years, they tried to find 'the best pickle', 'best soup', and 'best spaghetti sauce'. In the seventies, the best pasta sauce was the one they thought was most authentic to the Italian recipe. Moskowitz went out and created hundreds of versions, and found that Americans liked their sauces in three main varieties: plain, spicy and extra chunky. In fact, extra chunky sauce took off like wildfire once they began to sell it.
This factoid reminds me of my first trip to Italy. I was in Rome, and a fellow traveler and I were wandering around the piazzas looking for a spot to have lunch. We stopped at a small restaurant patio, and each ordered a pasta. Mine was pomodoro. I will never forget my first view of the noodles, thinly coated in soft red, with no other identifiable ingredients beyond sauce and spaghettini. My brain was delighted to experience the dissonance of an explosion of flavour in such simplicity. Why, this must be authentic! Could all that chunky sauce I'd been eating be a second rate fraud?
Authentic is a dangerous word you see, because in the same city, I ate other bowls of pomodoro, and they were all different. Some had some chunks of tomato, some onion. Even in the motherland of tomato sauce, you'll find that the search for 'sauce truth' is futile. The food processors have figured out that one size does not fit all. Recipes evolve and are shaped by not only differences in taste, but in happy accidents, creativity, and availability. Food is fun because we cater to many flavours, not to a universal palate. There is no 'definitive' - just a starting point.
So, with my starting point being a can of crushed tomatoes, I did piece together an arrabiata that the nerds enjoyed. Simplicity does have its place, and this dinner took 20 minutes to make:
Heat 2tbsp of olive oil in a pan
Add 4-5 cloves of thinly sliced garlic, cook until soft
Add a splash of red wine vinegar
Add the can of crushed tomatoes
Stir together and add a pinch of red pepper flakes
Add 3 green onions, sliced thin, stir throughout
Cook penne rigate until al dente
Add noodles to the sauce and stir, coating all in the sauce
Yum. I doubt I'll make it the exact way twice, but no matter what goes in, it's authentic kitchen nerd.