27 July 2010

Chef Boyardee and the meaning of authentic cuisine

One evening in Florence, I had some bold journalistic investigations to undertake. I needed to eat pizza.

Before we go on, please take a good look at these Life magazine ads from 1956:

"Your first taste of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Ravioli lets you know this is the true Italian dish."

"That's the way they serve pizza in Amalfi!"

In 1944, a New York Times article about a just-opened pizzeria led with this description of the exotic foodstuff: “One of the most popular dishes in southern Italy, especially in the vicinity of Naples, is pizza—a pie made from a yeast dough and filled with any number of different centers, each one containing tomatoes. Cheese, mushrooms, anchovies, capers, onions and so on may be used.” Gosh, sounds appetizing, doesn’t it?

Twenty years after that rather detached, straightforward description appeared, pizza was so commonplace that in the menu phrasebook section of Europe on Five Dollars a Day, Arthur Frommer offers not a translation but a wiseacre wink: “You know this one.”

Now, another fifty years on, I settled myself into a corner table at one of Arthur’s recommended restaurants—he claimed, “no surprises; no cover,” but surprise, Arthur, there was a two-euro cover—and ordered my own “pie made from a yeast dough” to see how it measured up. It was good enough, with the crust slightly charred from the wood-fired oven and the slight saltiness of the prosciutto perfectly balancing with the creamy mozzarella and the earthy depth of the funghi.

But here’s what struck me: it wasn’t as good—or as authentic—as the pizza I can get at either of two different restaurants in my neighborhood back home in Minneapolis. With their imported San Marzano tomatoes, artisanal toppings, mozzarella di bufala, and sea salt-dusted crusts, these are marketed as paragons of the authentic Italian cuisine. One restaurant is a member of Vera Pizza Napoletana, the official and famously strict arbiter of true Neapolitan pizza. Even the decor and menu design of those pizzerias back home are superficially more authentic, more Old World Italian than the restaurants I visited in Florence.

Today, some of Arthur’s and my mother’s comments about Italian foods seem nearly as naive and wide-eyed as that 1944 Times article. Arthur lists fettuccine and risotto in the vegetable section, for example; most Americans today would probably not just recategorize them but smirk at the accurate-but-not-entirely translations of these as “noodles” and “rice,” of gelato as merely “ice cream,” and of prosciutto as simply “ham.” Mom explained the concept of a trattoria to my father in one of her letters and waxed rhapsodic about a particularly exotic dish that I immediately recognized, having seen it on multiple restaurant menus back home, as saltimbocca.

Though Arthur and my mother undoubtedly had their own preconceptions of Europe, based on photographs, books, and previous tourists’ tales, the information available to them before their trips was paltry compared to what today’s information-overloaded travelers have at their disposal. Mom didn’t have a hundred different guidebooks and a thousand different web sites telling her what to expect. Italian food hadn’t become so commonplace as to be cliché, as evidenced by Wendy’s recent short-lived line of sandwiches marketed under the Italian-by-way-of-focus-group name Frescata or, most of all, Fancy Feast's gourmet cat foods, which include both Florentine and Tuscany lines, apparently intended for the sophisticated, citizen-of-the-world felines: “Romance your cat's taste buds with Fancy Feast Tuscany wet cat food recipes. Tuscany recipes are accented with long grain rice and garden greens.”

The fact is, in any given urban area in the United States today, you can easily find food that is more authentically Italian than that found in most cafes in tourist areas of Italy. That wasn’t at all true in 1960s America, where “Italian” basically meant cheap wine and gummy spaghetti, or the previously-mentioned Chef Boyardee. Most travelers of that era likely had not experienced even the watered-down, theme park version of Italian cuisine presented, today, by the likes of Buca di Beppo and The Olive Garden. Their expectations of Italian cuisine in Italy—of Italian culture in general—were not the same, not as high, as modern tourists'. Mom and Frommer and their peers couldn’t presume to believe they knew exactly what to expect, which was probably for the better. They didn't expect their pizza to taste a certain way; they weren't measuring the tourist cafe against the better Italian food back home.

Put another way--and this applies to more than just food--back then they were ignorant; today we’re delusional. 

One more 1956 Chef Boyardee ad for you: 

"Chef is the one spaghetti this side of the ocean that makes a special point of following old-country traditions."

1 comment:

  1. The trick is to go away from the tourist areas in places like Italy. I ate some of the best, freshest, tastiest, most authentic foods in Italy. I never ate in tourist restaurants. Same with finding good pizza in Naples, you have to leave the tourist areas. I certainly can't find anything here that beats what I ate in Italy.


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