What to call foods that aren’t what they say they are… “Uh, ok Pav I’ll play…I don’t know what the heck you are talking about!” OK then let me put it another way. How about if I made a nice Philly cheesesteak with a good quality fresh hoagie roll, thinly sliced ribeye with sautéed onions, mushrooms and green bell peppers topped with sharp provolone cheese. Yes, you there from Philadelphia, you have a question? “That’s not a F#$%@!& cheesesteak!” Aaaaaaand hey!…that’s not a question…. But this is…What do you call something that is nearly something but not quite? Or what if it says it’s one thing, but not at all?

I went to a restaurant the other day that a chef friend of mine had wanted to eat at for quite some time. We met up and went inside to grab a bite and after peering at the menu for some five minutes, I was stymied. They had a Bahn Mi that was served on a bulkie roll which is indigenous to New England, pork rinds and crispy onions. This is what they call a Bahn Mi? They also had a Po Boy with pickled onion, a Cuban sandwich with chorico and a steak bomb with steak tips, white truffle oil and olive/mushroom duxelle?! Pardon me but WTF are you thinking?!

I’m not sure about where you live, but in New England a Steak bomb is grilled shaved steak with cheese and sliced pepperoni. If you want to get really crazy it can have onions mushrooms and peppers, but at the very least it has to have the first three…or does it. Can’t it just be their interpretation of a steak bomb without me foo fooing it? Can’t it be like when you go to California and see authentic “Coney Dog” on the menu and its got guacamole quinoa foam, mung bean sprouts and it just makes you smile.

 I always got pissy with the fine folks from the “city of brotherly love” going on about authentic cheesesteaks. (Anybody who has ever gone to an Eagles home game with a Cowboy’s shirt on will vouch for the amount of love they truly have)  I’d see someone review a Philly cheesesteak in another part of the country and the good folks of Philly would run the review and the reviewer into the ground as an abomination, based not on how the finished product tasted, but rather on the ingredients.

I guess when you think about this it isn’t just a regional United States thing but a global issue that I didn’t really think much about until a few weeks ago I asked my mom if she had balsamic vinegar so I could make a vinaigrette…then I thought to myself, if this were a true balsamic vinegar It sure as hell wouldn’t be used any way but by itself. Only then the balsamic would be drizzled very lightly on a few simple quality ingredients to enhance and bring out those flavors.

Instead we are awash in cider vinegar that has caramel color added and perhaps thickened or reduced to a bastardized balsamic. I can only imagine how horrified someone visiting from Modena, Italy must feel looking at this sad product we pass off as aceto di balsamico. Or maybe they’re in on the gag and started a caramel colored cider vinegar plant to pump this stuff out in retaliation for Burger King’s Italian chicken sandwich.

We use these products every day and sometimes without even thinking about it. What about Prosciutto? Do you ever stop and think if this were truly Prosciutto di Parma you were buying at the deli, it might just be slightly more than four bucks a pound? Or are you just as happy to throw it on that sandwich with the ham that isn’t actually ham…well at least not what a traditional ham is anyway. Most of your deli meats are coming as “rounds” which means pieces parts mashed up and basically glued together with soy based protein binders, the culinary equivalent of mucilage.

I guess it happens the same going back across the pond as well, but as we are a newly food centric nation trying to shake off its Spam and tuna casserole past…I didn’t take offense to the All-American salad I saw in Galway, Ireland a few years back. It had something that resembled chopped hamburger, iceberg lettuce, and chili (but not really as it was all beans and no meat), cubed Velveeta or something similar and topped with honey mustard dressing. I didn’t take offense, but I sure as hell didn’t order it either.

Now you know if there is one thing I can’t stand it is absolutes. As in, “we don’t allow our customers to put ketchup on their hot dogs because we are gods of encased meats and the customers are sometimes just too stupid.” You know those kinds of absolutes that say a food absolutely can’t be served a certain way no matter what. Does this make me one of those A-holes? Or should there at least be some basic ground rules for food trying to pass for what it is trying to represent?

I see restaurants trying to dodge this question by saying things like “Philly Style Cheesesteak” or “Better than Buffalo Hot Wings” or “Our take on NY Cheesecake.” I think this is a better idea, and I find that I don’t spend as much time picking apart the menu item as non-authentic. It’s not me sitting there thinking, they don’t have F’ing Bulkie rolls in Hanoi, and just what the hell do they think they’re doing with chipotle mayo?!

I don’t wanna be that guy. When going to cooking school I had several chef instructors that were French, Swiss or German. Anytime you would make a dish relevant to where they were from, the omission or addition of a single ingredient was equivalent to treason in their minds. I found this out when making Pommes Anna and I decided to be the next Escoffier with the addition of some thyme before serving.

“What ees thees?” Came the question from Chef while my dish was being reviewed. It’s Pommes Anna Chef. “Thees, ees not pommes Anna, thees I do not recognize…you have done something wrong eer.” I looked at my potatoes, the cuts were perfect, they were nicely browned and cakelike, there was not too much better…what is Chef’s problem? “What ees thees?!… he asked poking around at little flecks of herb, and this time in a louder slightly miffed tone?!” Thyme Chef.” A look of disgust flowed over his face before responding…”You think I am stupeed, you think I don’t know what thyme ees? I’m asking why ees it here?! I’m asking where you saw thyme on zee recipe?! I should fail you, but tomorrow you will do it again as it is written…understand?!”

I took this to be something inherently particular about Europeans in general at the time, but I guess we all have a little bit of this same feeling inside of us all. I feel clam chowder should always be cream based. Just as someone from Manhattan believes a good hot dog is made by Sabrett. Only a Chicagoan knows deep dish and someone from San Francisco will absolutely lose their mind if you ask them how much Rice a Roni they eat in a year. Texans as a rule don’t put beans in chili, and if you’re from the deep south they have rules about not putting sugar in cornbread.

I’m not sure there is a correct answer to the question. I like the disclaimer idea of “in the style of” or distinguishing your product as different as or better than “blankity blank” dish. I’m pretty sure there are many questions about the subject I am missing and maybe you can help me distinguish some others I’ve passed over. I think we can pass right over single stand-alone ingredients such as Balsamic vinegar, or Prosciutto de Parma ham…either it is, or it isn’t. When it comes to identifying multiple ingredients put together to form a finished product is where the line starts to get hazy for me.

What are your thoughts on this? Are there foods that drive you crazy trying to pass themselves off as this or that, and aren’t even close? Or am I just a crazy person who needs to take deep breaths and spend a little more time and energy making my way to the shrinks’ office? I’d love to hear your thoughts…especially where my thoughts are so loud…and usually in in Azerbaijani, which I don’t speak a word of!

10 thoughts on “THE FOOD IDENTITY

  1. Couldn't agree more BHS! Some of the things they are making more closely resemble tartar sauce than aioli. thanks very much for reading Shelby! I deeply appreciate it.

  2. The one that gets me, and it's everywhere, on almost every "New American" menu these days: aoli. Dear chefs: aoli is homemade mayonnaise with roasted garlic in it. Not jarraed hellmans with chipotles and lime juice, not Kewpie jazzed up with siracha and cilantro, and not any other amalgamation of jarred mayo and your flavoring du jour!

  3. You've certainly covered a lot of ground there Lisa, and I'm really super glad you did. Maybe the very best thing for all of us to do, is just agree that most everything tastes better with sriracha on it! 😉 Thanks so much for reading, and I'm glad you got a laugh or two!

  4. Loved your blog post and it provided several belly laughs including self recognition for my own menu writing style as a caterer. We often create menus that evoke and loosely follow a clients' food memory/heritage but are recreated to work in a modern catering setting. America in general is a country of fusion cuisine at its best and worst. The New England Steak bomb you described sounded like a direct riff on the Philly Cheesesteak – which to me is quite un-appealing but categorized under "you had to grown up with it". This is nothing new in the world, the etomology of food slides from one culture to a neighboring one with minor/or major changes happening along the way until perhaps they take on their own identity. Example- samosas (India), samsusas (Soviet Georgia) there was a definite line from the origin of one to the other but wow what a journey inbetween – both cultures use a beehive tandoori oven BTW. Travels and explorations, immigration and such bring old country food to the new country with changes and riffs happening . Spaghetti Bolognese becomes Sunday Gravy in New Jersey, Red Sauce in Brooklyn, while red sauce in California refers to shrimp cocktail sauce – that amalgam of ketchup (a riff on the Indonesian condiment kecap) and horseradish/chili sauce that is Ubiquitous in North America for "shrimp cocktail" while in across the pond they serve "shrimp cocktail" with Marie Rose Sauce – which adds mayo or remoulade and subtracts the bite of horseradish from the ketchup "base". So what's original anyway?

  5. Again, a great piece! My opinion, it's important to stick to the original recipe or otherwise give it a different name. Here in Europe we care maybe more for traditional recipes, from haute cuisine to fast food and everything in between. And I think that's important! In other words…famous or well known dishes are part of the inheritance, stick to that. And if you want to take a side road, go ahead but don't call it like the original one.

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