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Sacrosanct

January 22, 2015

Earlier this month, Jenny asked a great question. It was a marvelous question. And I’ve been meaning to answer it every single day since it came up. This came in response to my post about hummus, which I steadfastly insist has to be made with both chickpeas and tahini as a matter of definition. So Jenny wanted to know,

“How do you determine which culinary traditions are okay to modify (such as Pizza) and which are sacrosanct (as in this case, Hummus)?”

Let’s start at the very beginning.

After the Fussy Manifesto, my very first post on the FLB was about the difference between grilling and barbecue. It was a short post. And not entirely correct. Down the road Mr. Dave would berate me for sticking to a tired paradigm of arguing for the supremacy of slow-and-low cooking as the only true definition for barbecue. And subsequently I’ve softened my resolve.

Switching gears a bit, one of my favorite cocktails is a simple combination of whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters, stirred with ice, and served up with a brandied cherry. For years I had been calling it a Manhattan, even though I had been making it with bourbon. But recently I was reminded that a true Manhattan requires rye whiskey, and David Wondrich convinced me that I had been wrong all those years.

The short answer to Jenny’s question is research.

As strongly as I hold to my opinions on these matters, they are not always fixed in stone. The above examples show I can be moved in both directions, loosening my definition of barbecue and tightening my definition of a Manhattan.

I will also admit that my deep obsession with food takes me to places on the edges of reason. For example, you are probably familiar with those loaves sold on supermarket shelves that are sliced and made primarily out of wheat. People use them to make squishy sandwiches for children. Some adults even use these slices for their own sandwiches. Well, I’m not entirely convinced that we should be calling that “bread”.

I’ll spare you from that crazy rant for the moment.

However, there are some products that have a federal standard of identity. Ice cream is one of them. And I believe in holding the line on these things. Unilever has been up to some shenanigans on both sides of this issue. Their Breyer’s brand expertly deceives consumers that they are buying Ice Cream when instead they are being sold Frozen Dairy Dessert (a much cheaper product that replaces expensive butter fat with gums, fillers, and other dreck). But the very same company (Unilever) is suing Just Mayo for deceiving consumers into believing a vegan sandwich dressing is actually made from eggs. You see, “mayonnaise” has a standard of identity too, and it includes eggs.

Of course there are some foods that are named after a main ingredient. And in these cases, you can’t have the dish without it. For example:

Bruschetta – that’s the charred bread (not the tomatoes on top)
Banh mi – that means bread too
Muffuletta – the round sesame bread of the sandwich
Hummus – chickpeas

Still, I suppose there will be people who argue for things like a vegetarian meatball. Obviously, if it’s made out of meat, it can’t be vegetarian. Flipping that around, if it’s vegetarian, it can’t be a meatball. I like to call things what they are. Chef Ric Orlando developed a pretty popular dish he called eggplant balls. A lesser chef might have called them vegetarian meatballs, but Ric held the line.

Pizza has no standard of identity. As far as I know, it has always been a dish in the form of a pie. Thus, I’m very open to different styles of pizza, and try to appreciate each one on its own merits.

Sometimes when foreign languages are involved things get confusing. Take the English “macaroon” versus French “macaron” debacle. Thanks to Pierre Hermé and others, the fanciful egg white and almond meal sandwich cookies that surround a deeply flavorful and creamy center are widely called “macarons”. In France, they are. And if you are the kind of person who uses the French pronunciation of “croissant” when ordering the pastry in America, you can call them “macarons” too. But here we call them macaroons.

Technically, neither word is right, because the word comes from the Italian “maccarone” which The Culinarian defines as a “cake/biscuit made of ground almonds.” And those piles of coconut that we eat during Passover that are sold more widely in U.S. coffee shops? Those are simply coconut macaroons, so says the Food Lover’s Companion.

Look, I don’t know everything about food. I’m a student on the subject. And anyone who claims to know everything about food is lying. There’s simply too much for any one person to ever know.

We learn. And as we learn we grow, we change, we evolve.

My deep love for Kraft Macaroni & Cheese is now long gone. I went through a phase where I actually thought soy milk was a good idea. Wine no longer is such a central part in my enjoyment of meals. In some ways, as I get older (and hopefully wiser) I’m also getting more flexible in my beliefs. But just like you can’t make polenta without cornmeal, you can’t make hummus without chickpeas.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 22, 2015 11:21 am

    Berating? Nah, aggressive/abrasive chiding perhaps. My new year’s resolution is to stop being so acerbic…

    That being said, my new gripe is the various apple brandies being marketed as “Applejack.” Applejack = fractionally distilled hard apple cider. Period. Calling apple brandy “applejack” is an insult to a lost tradition. If you want Applejack, find someone who still makes it and pound some and come to love it (warts and all). I am loosey-goosey with other food terminology, but this one sticks in my craw for some reason… I, as well, am inconsistent in terms of what gets my goat too I guess.

    • Jack C permalink
      January 23, 2015 2:07 pm

      If you want to be super fussy (Fussier Little Blog?), applejack should really be made by applying the jacking process to cider – i.e., freeze distillation. Evaporative distillation is a different process. Laird’s is neither, as you say, so why the h-e-double-hockey-sticks do we call it applejack? Why does Budweiser call their new swill “Lime-a-Rita” when it’s made with beer and not tequila? The wide world of alcohol is full of improper nomenclature and miscreants who prey on the ignorance of the masses to shill their swill.

  2. January 22, 2015 11:50 am

    When this discussion started, I would have bet money (and lost) that the martini would have been included.

    Pizza is a tough one because there are so many styles that seem to fall under the pizza umbrella. Pasta may not the perfect comparison, but you’ve got many various types/ingredients/shapes that are all still pasta.

  3. Jenny permalink
    January 22, 2015 2:30 pm

    First, let me say “Wow”! I can’t believe my question got an entire post. And since I spent a little time after I first sent the comment wondering if I had used “sacrosanct” correctly, it was reassuring that the word was the title.

    I hear what you are saying. But I am still not going to give up my red lentil hummus. Even if you have to rename it a “spread,” you really should try the Chipotle Hummus from Vegan Creations. The ingredients are those of classic hummus — chickpeas, tahini, garlic, oil, salt and lemon juice, with the addition of the not-traditional red lentils and ground chipotle pepper. So, it meets your technical definition of needing to be made of chickpeas (first ingredient!), and it is really delicious.

    Thanks for the post!

  4. January 22, 2015 5:10 pm

    My dad was an early adopter of the health food store. I spent a good part of the ’70s with wheat germ dumped on my Total cereal.

    I was recently discussing my lunch plans with him, and he determined everything to be too sugary. In the end, since he was driving me nuts, I said I’d just get a banh mi. He thought that sounded OK, but like with every other sandwich, he helpfully added: “But get it on wheat bread!!” Classic.

    It was interesting to learn today that a banh mi is the bread. The bread is non-negotiable, just as I suspected, lol. Thanks!

  5. urgh... permalink
    January 23, 2015 6:13 am

    And, a martini glass does not make a martini any more then raw slices of beets make sushi. Those are my personal culinary pet peeves.

    • ericscheirerstott permalink
      January 26, 2015 7:52 pm

      AND a Martini Glass (or any other cocktail glass) should not hold more than 3 or 4 ounces. Cocktails should be small but potent.

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