As the story goes, Marco Polo brought pasta, now that most stereotypically Italian of foods, from China in 1295. Nearly two hundred years later, Columbus brought tomatoes and peppers from the New World. So Italian food as most Americans understand it is a fairly recent development when measured against the nearly three thousand years since the founding of Rome. Spaghetti with tomato sauce represents the happy commingling of Asian noodles with New World nightshades, introduced to Italy centuries apart and quickly assimilated. Then of course the dish underwent further transformation last century as the largely Southern Italian immigrants to this country brought their tomatoey pastas, giving rise to the restaurant descriptor “red sauce Italian.”
I interviewed Madhur Jaffrey a few years ago, and she told me about an Indonesian island where the people do a corn dance every year. She asked them its origin, and was told “We’ve always done it.” But of course they haven’t; corn came to Europe with Columbus and traveled east from there. She mentioned Indian expats in Japan who become addicted to the nasty curry flavor ramen and bring powder packets home with them. How long does a dish need to be cooked for before it can claim to be authentic in its own right? The Boston area has its own generally gross variant of Chinese food. Though I grew up there, I was thrilled to find on a recent visit to those suburbs a real Sichuan place with a menu devoid of lobster sauce and Peking ravioli and boasting dandan noodles that induced a proper sweat. Where would South, Southeast, and East Asian cuisines be without chilies?
In these two examples, I remain firmly in the originalist camp, preferring the less Americanized versions. But those traditions were themselves the result of centuries of trade, travel, war, and cultural evolution.
There’s a painting by Giovanni di Paolo, Ecce Agnus Dei (“Behold the Lamb of God”) in the Art Institute of Chicago. Painted between 1455-60—thus predating tomato sauce by about 40 years—it depicts John the Baptist identifying Jesus as the redeemer. The figures, clustered in the foreground, are typical of Sienese painting from the era: skinny, greenish, and mostly serving as coat racks for laboriously rendered fabrics. The most interesting part of the painting, though, and taking up almost as much area as the people, is the mountains.
As the Medieval flatness of European painting—think illuminated manuscripts—gives way to deeper space, with landscape replacing gold leaf backgrounds (themselves a holdover from Byzantine icons and mosaics, and still lingering in the halos), we see di Paolo paint strange, jagged mountains rising straight up out of farmland, very unlike the seductively undulant Tuscan landscape. What these mountains do look like, however, is the dramatic karst formations that define the landscape around Guilin in Southern China.
These astonishing mountains, which shoot up from flat, fertile valley floor, make much Chinese landscape painting seem highly stylized until one sees them in person, especially on a misty day, at which point it becomes abundantly clear that those depictions are in fact pretty close to photorealism, at least as far as ink on silk or mulberry paper allowed. Compare di Paolo’s mountains to Summer Mountains, attributed to Qu Ding, painted around 1050.
Di Paolo’s use of Chinese mountains to depict the Middle East makes perfect sense; they signify an exotic land far away and would have been understood as such by viewers. By di Paolo’s time, Venice had already been a major port for spices and other Asian goods arriving in Europe for seven hundred years. Spices, textiles, and many other goods had flowed into Europe since the Silk Road/Spice Route’s inception.
Di Paolo’s The Creation and the Expulsion From Paradise (up top), painted during the same period, shows the universe as concentric spheres surrounding the Earth. This gorgeous orb bears a fascinating resemblance to Jain paintings from around the same time of the Jambudvipa, the “Island of the Rose Apple Tree,” the center of the universe in their religious cosmology: a vivid reminder that India does in fact sit between Italy and China on the globe. Mughal miniatures remain the most beautiful synthesis of Eastern and Western visual traditions.
While cloves and paintings remain unchanged by a long overland voyage, the ways in which they are used by the intervening cultures make for all sorts of rich stylistic smearing. Whether the encounters between cultures were peaceful or violent, ideas and techniques rubbed off on each other in fascinating ways. Untangling the skein of influences and cross-pollinations along the Silk Road would make for many lives’ worth of rewarding work.
Take Giotto’s Madonna and Child from 1320-1330, an archetypal example of the genre, complete with gilt ground. Finished thirty years after Marco Polo’s trip to China—Giotto may have eaten pasta—it nonetheless includes specific influences from the Middle and Far East used intentionally to evoke ancient times and distant lands: the Madonna’s robe is bordered with embroidered gold script: a nonsensical mashup of Arabic and Mongol ‘Phags-Pa letters (designed by a Tibetan for Kublai Khan).
Thus we have proto-Orientalist gibberish adorning the robe of the Virgin Mary who looks frozen halfway between a Byzantine icon (which were mostly painted by Greeks) and the impending Renaissance naturalism that Giotto did so much to inspire. Purity is a myth; even an exemplar of a given style is a combination of overlapping formal constructs and pictorial devices deployed both intentionally and unknowingly to create a beautiful image.
Despite these dense and disparate influences, the painting sings. Like a well-made stew, its own internal structure and logic are impeccable, regardless of where each component originated. Both a painting and a stew require the same talents in their maker: a sense of proportion, a deep knowledge of technique, an understanding of how materials (ingredients) behave, and above all exquisite taste (insert palate/palette pun here). It’s important to view plates food, like works of art, as pieces in a multidimensional continuum of history and influences rather than as discrete islands standing apart from each other.
The difference between pho and tagine is a question of degree rather than kind; Moroccan food tends to lean more on cumin, but make pho using lamb instead of beef bones and the resulting stock works equally well with banh pho or couscous. Though Marrakesh and Hanoi are seven thousand miles apart, their cuisines share many key components. The same bowl of pho or lamb tagine, however, would taste different if you ate it in Djemaa el Fna or by Truc Bach Lake, because your mindset would be different, and so would all of the other smells and sounds: sizzling street meat and moped exhaust, the language you ordered in, the hypnotic 12/8 pulse of sintir and qraqeb or the cheesy warble of V-pop. Set and setting are indivisible from taste; your mood and companions matter as much to your experience as the actual food in front of you.
Food represents the nexus of culture and geography, shifting with the former while remaining literally rooted in the latter. So even though cultures and cuisines change, sometimes radically, as societies evolve over time and influence (or conquer) each other, places retain their character. American Red sauce Italian isn’t authentic in Italy; Bostonian lobster sauce isn’t authentic in China. These and many other mutated examples can only claim authenticity in the countries or cities where they evolved.
Today cooks of all stripes have access to every ingredient the planet provides. Now that the molecular wave has broken and receded, many American chefs are narrowing their scope, limiting their choices, and drilling down into the essential character of their regions. Exotic spices and tropical fruit are receding—not disappearing; the austere überlocal Nordic wave has also crested—ironically serving once again as they did in Medieval Europe, as exclamation points that enhance food grown near to where it’s eaten. We seem, finally, to be settling into the revelation (very old news in most of the world) that what you eat depends on where you live.
This issue of our Quarterly approaches ideas of place from multiple angles. Will Goldfarb, pastry chef extraordinaire and Zak’s soul brother, takes us on a freely associative trip through his creative process, illuminating with the disco ball of his mind the myriad ways in which Bali, his new home, has transformed his food while not changing anything at all. We have Basilica Hudson’s origin story from its owner and founder, a photographer’s rumination on ruination in which he recounts the partial destruction of a famous landmark by a careless photographer, and a culinary historian’s look at the spring food rituals of the Chinook Indians.
Also, less place-based but still relevant to the here and now, Fish & Game’s very own Mike Rice has some suggestions for your spring drinking. Food Republic’s Richard Martin surveys the brave new world of food magazines, Jamie Saft’s New Zion Trio gives us some Lamb’s Bread, and Denise Parsons has two short poems inspired by fruit. Finally, continuing in the musical vein (and about a person, not a place), we have a remembrance of Prince by saxophonist/composer Russ Gershon, appropriately paired with a photo by saxophonist/writer Michael Jackson.