Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sanctifying Leftovers

I was amused earlier this year by a restaurant menu entry for shepherd's pie that ranted about the difference between REAL shepherd's pie (with lamb) and COTTAGE pie (with beef).  It reminded me of other foodie fights I've seen over what types of fish must be included in bouillabaisse, whether duck or goose is necessary for a bean dish to qualify as cassoulet, and if the inclusion of raisins in Irish soda bread mysteriously transforms it into "tea cake."  In all cases, at least one side of the argument states categorically that members of the group which invented the food in question always cook it THEIR way.

Maybe, maybe not.  Perhaps shepherd's pie got its name because someone used lamb in it, and Irish cooks without access to raisins made their soda bread without them, but I know many people born and raised and taught to cook in Ireland who always make their shepherd's pie with ground beef and their soda bread with dried fruit.  I've also eaten several very different versions of cassoulet and bouillabaisse prepared by native French cooks who learned to make the dishes while growing up in their native terroir.

Here's my theory as to what has happened:

Back in the days when most people's access to cooking equipment and ingredients was limited and standardized recipes were not yet even a gleam in Mrs. Beeton's eye, they made do with what they had.  They learned to cook by watching others and by experimenting.  Soups and stews - including the sacred bouillabaisse - undoubtedly started when someone threw all the leftovers lying around the house into a single pot and then added some seasonings to meld the flavors together.  Over time, people grew used to certain combinations and started to believe they were the only proper versions ("That's how Mom used to make it!"), overlooking the fact that the village down the road did things a little differently.  The divergence undoubtedly grew greater as the access to ingredients expanded.  Baked goods probably underwent a similar process.  Italian bread, for instance, traditionally didn't contain salt, but that wasn't because Italian bakers didn't like the taste of salt in their bread; it's because salt was in very short supply.  I'm sure some Italian bread now does contain salt for the flavor, the longer shelf-life, and the ease with which salt can currently be obtained.  Does that make it no longer Italian bread?  Even when it's made by Italians in Italy??

I've been musing about this today because I'm making myself shepherd's pie tonight in honor of St. Patrick's Day, and although I did splurge on ground lamb for it, I normally make my shepherd's pie with extra-lean ground turkey to reduce the fat content.  Does that mean I'm going to start calling what I usually make "turkey-herd's pie?"  I think not.  And let's not even start on what vegetables should or shouldn't be included.  Any purists reading this will just have to agree that we disagree and turn the other way while I dump a few leftovers into the pot.

"When baking, follow directions.  When cooking, go by your own taste."  ~Laiko Bahrs

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