It may come as a surprise to a few of you that despite being a foodie on par with some of the best that there are a few regional cuisines that I much rather have at a restaurant. And along with that brave confession there are in that list of regional dishes I much rather have outside of my home are a list of food items that I much rather have the Americanized versions of rather than anything under the guise of “authentic”.
For the record, these cuisines are:
Now, a little history may help in this process. Many of these culinary monoliths became “Americanized” during the Great Immigration as immigrants flooded New York and their rich and hearty traditions mixed and mingled with more familiar fare. Shops opened, recipes changed, families adapted. That’s how foods change and how we ended up with a family dynasty based on canned raviolis. Here is my defense for most of those: many just have more flavor or more flavor that is easier to coax out (which is usually MSG, let’s just be honest.). Japanese cuisine is rich and delicious and I find miso and soy more comforting than I do parsley and butter but I draw the line at natto and I happen to love anything teriyaki. I make up for this by making those things myself often times and I do still fan my rice to help it cool evenly. I also add mirin to almost everything. Chinese food is the same. I love lo mein, stir fried noodles, candy sweet sauces and fried non-descript pieces of meat. I’m a former mall brat, as far as I was concerned if I went to Beijing, I’d find orange chicken. As I grew and studied I did find out that assessment couldn’t be further from the truth and I have had real dim sum and paid my penance for my ignorance eating chicken feet, durian and all the other trials one must go through after being so food ignorant.
When it comes to Italian food I love red sauces sweet and loaded with basil which is a small break from tradition. I also like my pizza as pizza, not a puffed up casserole that the people of Chicago have been passing off as pizza to appease tourists of poor taste. Pizza should be simple, that I do agree with when it comes to those that consider Naples and Roma home, a pizza need not hold a salad.
1I’m from Texas, so I do love TexMex, sadly. I say it’s sad because we do have a problem with enjoying real Mexican flavors despite being so close of a neighbor. I was disappointed as a child visiting Mexico and not being able to find a single chalupa anywhere. In all fairness I was 6 and a 6 year old begging her family for a chalupa in Cancun is just a sad image. I like enchiladas, I like ground beef in tacos. I love salas of all kids. Mole is something I can’t eat because of my allergies and thus a lot of more authentic Mexican cuisine eludes me. I think what matters most in this argument when it comes to Americanization is the realization that it is a product of environment. And despite many of my equally diverse friends giving me a hard time over my white-washed version of food, they didn’t exactly know what was authentic and real for their respective food cultures either. We grew up eating the same bastardized versions of great imported foods.
What I do think is important also about Americanization is interpretation. I love visiting small mom and pop shops and seeing their idea of what Americans like to see when dining and what they like to eat. Do they enjoy fanciful names they can’t pronounce? Do they like maps to show you where in theory this food should be from? Do they enjoy the prestige of seeing photos of the chefs and owners with pictures of various celebrities that have stopped by over the years? All of those things matter.Especially in an age where authentic is more and more readily available. there’s something to be said for these establishments that keep on the tradition of cross-cultural change and assimilation of varying cultures into a few key dishes.
When dining, I love touches of home, because even in the most Western of Chinese restaurants I can still order tea and my bowing is still accepted. When I respond in their native tongue be it German, Italian, French, Japanese or Chinese most welcome it and are happy that someone is genuinely trying. Many still are delighted to see me ask for chopsticks and not fumble much with them or are equally happy when I bring my own which is often the case. Those tiny gestures seen as pretentious when dining with friends are a brief reminder that food even when bastardized is a form of cultural identity. It isn’t one a family gave up, just changed to make their passion and love of food more understandable to a different set of individuals.