Food historian shows how immigrant recipes have survived, and served, America

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"A significant part of the pleasure of eating is in one's accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which the food comes." -- Wendell Berry Krista Schinagl, Post-Gazette
University of Pittsburgh food historian Donna Gabaccia finds a feast of ethnic flavors in the Strip District.
Click photo for larger image.

It took a bowl of an "ineffable gazpacho" in Malaga, Spain, to sidetrack the American expatriate Alice B. Toklas from museums, cathedrals and paintings to a quest for recipes.

Her diversion was still tourism, but with deeper roots: She was on the path down the history of food. In search of a cookbook for a gazpacho recipe, she was told by a book seller in Sevilla that "gazpachos are only eaten in Spain by peasants and Americans."

It turned out his scope, and his imagination, were limited.

Toklas' friends from Poland, Greece and Turkey recognized in the gazpacho she described a cold soup of their own nations, even though none included tomatoes.

In the chapter "Beautiful Soup" of "The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook," published in 1954, the longtime partner of writer Gertrude Stein paid homage to the remarkable transplantability of food.

In a world of different peoples, food has confirmed the brotherhood of man since prehistory, sometimes in whimsical ways. But food is a relatively new genre in the discipline of historical study.

The roots of wedding soup

Donna Gabaccia was researching stories of immigrants when food became an obvious sidecar to her study in the 1980s. But there was a dearth of information from other historians then, and there isn't much more today.

Six years ago, Harvard Press published her book "We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans."

"There was this fixed story about how immigrants came here, went through crisis and change and then assimilated, abandoning what made them different," Gabaccia said. "But the story of immigration actually contradicts that. They don't abandon their food. Everybody else adapts."

A native New Yorker and Italian-American, Gabaccia is in her first year as the Mellon Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. In looking more closely at Italian immigration, she has made a discovery that might startle some Western Pennsylvanians: Italian wedding soup is not only exclusive to this area, it is not Italian.

This emblematic food probably takes its name from a linguistic misunderstanding, she said. A Neapolitan concoction of broth with greens and meatballs was called, in translation, married flavors" she said. "It probably arrived in Naples with the Spanish," but died out: "There is no such thing as wedding soup in Italy."

James Ehler, a longtime chef in Key West, Fla., who founded and works full-time for www.foodreference.com, hadn't heard of it, either, but said, "This kind of thing probably happens more than we know."

Gazpacho on the go

Spices, once considered as valuable as gold, began enhancing food in Europe during the lucrative spice trade to and from the Orient in the 15th century. It was the most purposeful transfer of food in history, but wherever men have imposed their culture, the imposed-upon have adopted and adapted something.

Alice B. Toklas concluded that wars, occupations and conquests must have moved her beloved gazpacho around the map.

With her friends' descriptions of the Greek tarata, the Polish chlodnik and the Turkish cacik, she realized, she wrote, "that each one of these frozen soups was not a separate creation. Had the Poles passed the recipe to their enemy the Turks at the siege of Vienna, or had it been brought back to Poland much earlier than that from Turkey or Greece? Or had it been brought back by a crusader from Turkey? Had it gone to Sicily from Greece and then to Spain? It is a subject to be pursued."

The Strip District's innards

In her new home, Gabaccia has been drawn regularly to the Strip District, a collaboration that many people consider crucial to their lifestyles and their palates.

Its inventory is a world of history, mostly from the old countries. But there are some morsels of Pittsburgh history, too. For example, Primanti Brothers' tradition of piling side dishes, such as french fries and coleslaw, onto a sandwich "probably was done so the men who carried their lunch to the mill" could eat a whole meal efficiently, she said.

Elsewhere, places like the Strip did not survive the supermarket era, Gabaccia said. "For some reason, Pittsburgh has not abandoned this type of marketplace, which makes it very special. And the fact it is a mix of retail and wholesale is interesting."

On any Saturday morning, the place is crawling with every type of shopper imaginable, from mix-and-match gourmands to the old-country loyal who can't find tripe anywhere else.

"If you like innards, and most Americans don't, you can find them here," Gabaccia said during a recent walking tour down Penn Avenue and Smallman Street. "Innards are important in many cuisines. You can't always count on finding pig's nose here, but often you can. And you can find trotters, maw, kidneys ... just about every part of the pig."

In the Pennsylvania Macaroni Co., Gabaccia reached into barrels and ran her fingers through fava beans, chick peas, lupini beans, cannellini beans, barlotti beans and dried chestnuts, calling out their historic station -- Old World or New World: New-world foods are those discovered in the expeditions of Christopher Columbus to the Americas. Lima beans are New World beans with a confusing history: Once considered to be natives of Brazil, they are believed to have originated in Guatemala, although their name owes to the capital of Peru.

Further back in the store, Gabaccia found fava beans still in their pods, as soft to the touch as the belly of a puppy.

At the olive section, she pointed out big green Castelvetrano olives, saying, "I haven't seen these in this country."

Around one corner, she considered a shelf of pasta and a display of soy sauce right beside it. "Look," she said, delighted. "Italian and Chinese."

Italian and Chinese were two of the earliest ethnic cuisines to take hold in the American mainstream, and Mexican was the third of what Gabaccia calls "the big three." One theory as to why is that large groups of men without women came from these three countries to do manual labor and had to be fed.

Three illustrious and magnificent cuisines have become reduced in the American mainstream mindset: Chinese food is chow mein, chop suey and fried egg rolls; Mexican food is tacos, burritos, refried beans and rice and lots of melted cheese; Italian food is pizza or pasta smothered in heavy tomato sauce, with pre-buttered garlic bread and the ubiquitous little lettuce salad on the side. Mexicans eat tripe and Italians eat eel, Gabaccia said, but those ingredients rarely show up in a Mexican or Italian restaurant in this country. As for pizza, in Italy it is sometimes as simple as flatbread brushed with olive oil and garlic.

'Legs of the Dawn Nymph'

The cuisine of the United States has always been hard to define because we are a nation of immigrants and because immigrants never did take to the food of Native Americans. This country has distinguished itself more as a processor of food, Gabaccia said. "Boxed breakfast cereal, canned soup, Heinz ketchup, Coca-Cola."

To find real American food, you have to go regional. Notable is New Orleans, distinct from the rest of the South, which itself has a distinct cuisine that owes largely to West Africa.

Ehler said tripe, brains and lungs were once eaten in this country "until we became removed from the source of our food. The thought of them makes some people nauseated. We are so far removed from our food that we don't hear the anatomical reference in 'flank steak.'

"We're missing out on flavors. I imagine if you cooked any of these dishes and made them so they weren't recognizably brains or whatnot, people would love them."

Escoffier served the Prince of Wales frog legs and called them "Legs of the Dawn Nymph." At the time, the early 20th century, frogs were considered disgusting. "But the prince did enjoy them," Ehler said. "He found out and was surprised and publicly never said anything."

Acceptance used to be slow. In these speedier times, foods integrate less subtly. Fusion restaurants are one example, and more are bad than good, Ehler said.

"It started with chefs who knew flavors well, and in the beginning it was very good. As it spread to more inexperienced chefs and people cooking who call themselves chefs who really aren't, you'd get bizarre combinations."

An example of successful fusion is mulligatawny soup in Britain, he said. Mulligatawny literally means "pepper water," but it combines meat and curry in broth. "It is a British soup, made by people who returned to Britain from India and tied to reproduce some of these foods they enjoyed."

An example of bad fusion, he said, is Jamaican jerk pasta. One restaurant he knows tried it using liquid smoke and it was only a little more interesting than edible. A Thai chef in Key West who fused local Key limes and mangoes into his native cuisine had a hit, Ehler said, because he knew what would work.

"I imagine the first person to use tomatoes in Italian cuisine was laughed at," he said. "It's what works in the long run that counts."

GAZPACHO OF SEVILLA

  • 4 crushed cloves garlic
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon powdered Span- ish pepper
  • Pulp of 2 medium-sized toma- toes, crushed
  • 1 Spanish onion, cut in tis- sue-paper-thin slices
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 sweet red or green pepper, seeds removed and cut in minute cubes
  • 1 cucumber
  • Tablespoon fresh white bread crumbs
  • 3 cups water
In

a bowl put crushed garlic, salt, Spanish pepper and tomato pulp.

Mix these ingredients thoroughly and add olive oil, drop by drop.

Add onion, pepper, cucumber and bread crumbs.

Add water and mix thoroughly. Serve ice cold.

CHLODNIK (POLISH)

  • 2 ounces lean veal, cut in small pieces and cooked in water to cover
  • 2 ounces beets, cooked until tender and crushed through a sieve (keep the water in which they were cooked)
  • 1 teaspoon chives, cut in very small lengths
  • 1 teaspoon powdered dill
  • 10 prawns (can be replaced by 16 large shrimp)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 cucumber, peeled, seeds removed and very thinly sliced
  • 2 cups sour heavy cream
  • 6 hard-boiled eggs, sliced

Add the cucumber to the beets and the water in which they were cooked, then the veal and its juice. Stir in the sour cream gradually, add the dill, salt and pepper, the chives and the prawns or shrimp. Add the eggs carefully. Serve ice cold.

CACIK (TURKISH)

  • 6 cucumbers, peeled, seeds removed and cut in slices
  • 6 cups heavy yogurt 1 tea- spoon salt
  • 6 tablespoons oil of sesame, a bland oil may be substituted

Mix thoroughly and serve ice cold.


Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.


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