All hail Stephen Budiansky! I had a happy weekend (Italy beat England, and will play Germany next, the power went off all over the neighborhood but our generator worked, and we had a terrific dinner party with a bunch of scintillating people who ate and drank enthusiastically) and on Sunday evening I sat down to read the book reviews in the Wall Street Journal, and found Mr. Budiansky beginning his devastating and enlightening commentary on four new books on food as follows: “If you want to keep abreast of America’s evolving food obsession, there is no more reliable guide than the phrases that appear after the ominous word ‘preferably’ in the recipes printed in the New York Times.”
So I knew it was going to be good, but it just got better and better, and about halfway through I was laughing out loud, resisting the urge to give the man a standing o. Budiansky knows that political correctness has gotten its canines into our cuisine, and he loathes it, as I do.
Digression: many years ago James Schlesinger said, in my presence, “the decline of America began with the replacement of hamburgers and bourbon with quiche and chardonnay.” End digression.
His writing is a pleasure, and he is so good at chopping, dicing, frying and simmering authors who have set his teeth on edge that I want to cheer. “As a writer he has a far better eye than Ms Gustavson for quotes, color and human quirks, though he also has an irritating tendency toward business-consultant bromides…as well as what Strunk and White nailed a long time ago as ‘affecting a breezy manner.'”
It is clear from the four books under discussion that food has now been thoroughly politicized, which is a terrible thing, although on the bright side there is no doubt that the quality of food has improved a great deal since my childhood days, when fruit and veggies didn’t taste of anything (as the Italians say). Like so many others who lived abroad–or even ate abroad–the discovery of the actual flavors of basic food was a turning point, and it’s one of the reasons I wrote a book about Naples, which has truly fabulous food.
In my world, there’s lots of great food, and on a given evening you can get a fabulous dinner with a French or Oriental or Spanish accent. But for day in, day out, great cuisine, nothing matches Italian food, because the whole emphasis is on the ingredients rather than the herbs, sauces, or spices. The Italian culinary enterprise is devoted to releasing the maximum wonderfulness of the ingredients. And it works in large part because they strictly respect the seasons. No winter strawberries! No artichokes out of season! You’ve got to wait for their season. So when we’re there–happily quite a lot these days–we are often happy to act like vegetarians (which we aren’t; not at all). Our most recent trip was enlivened by porcini mushrooms, about which the trick is to make sure the little worms didn’t get there before you did.
One more thing: pasta tastes better in Italy than it does here (especially in Rome and Naples), and it has to do with the water. Most Roman water still comes through the aqueducts, and it’s the perfect water for pasta, just as Neapolitan water is perfect for pizza.
Just to be nice, I’ll give you a basic Roman spaghetti (actually freshly made tonnarelli, but that’s hard to find around Washington, anyway) recipe. With what we call “romano” cheese, olive oil from the bottle, and freshly ground black pepper. There’s a little secret, so pay attention.
Cook the pasta and grind the cheese. Put the pasta into serving bowls, you can’t do this by making a big trough of the stuff. Then put a spoonful of the foamy liquid from the pasta pot into each bowl. Then a generous handful of the cheese, followed by a reasonable amount of extravirgin olive oil, and plenty of ground pepper. Mix it, serving by serving.
It’s called “caccio e pepe.” I’m pretty sure it comes from the Roman Ghetto.
Sounds simple, but if you don’t get that foamy pasta water in the bowl, it doesn’t work.
And the best thing is that is has nothing at all to do with politics, correct or otherwise. It’s just great food.